To Retake the Streets


July 27, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

Children are dying in the streets, but that is not new. Youngpeople have fallen victim to horse tramplings, railway accidents, auto crashes, floodings, fires and pollution since the dawn of the industrial revolution. It is the wide availability of handguns and the advent of hard drugs that have boosted the tempo to a ragged beat.

According to a special report in the May-June Public Health Reports, journal of the U.S. Public Health Service, firearms take more than 30,000 lives each year in America, more than 20,000 in acts of ''interpersonal violence.'' Among blacks aged 15-34, homicide is the leading cause of death. The killing of 6-year-old Tiffany Smith, a random victim of a West Baltimore street shootout, on the same July 9 day a young Washington mother took a bullet intended for someone else, might be seen as two more deaths in a long, tragic string.

But there is no such thing as an unremarkable death to violence. The very random nature of Tiffany's death inflames public opinion, just as Washington was shocked by the young mother's killing. If the point had not been made with Tiffany, the wounding of 9-year-old Lakiya S. Bradford while walking with her 11-year-old sister to a church-run snowball stand in East Baltimore made it all over again. So long as drugs, weapons and hopelessness run amok in the streets, no one is safe.

A report by the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, ''The Winnable War: A Community Guide to Eradicating Street Drug Markets,'' lays out some things people can band together and do to drive drug hooligans out of their areas. Sometimes it takes a horrible act like the killing of Tiffany Smith to get the honest, fearful people who live amid the siege of street-thug lawlessness outraged enough to move against the thugs.

Fear keeps people quiet in the hardest-hit drug neighborhoods. A look at the June 23 ''Murder Docket,'' a Sunday Sun summary of outcomes of trials of the city's most violent offenders, shows why:

* John Fields, 18, killed a 15-year-old over drug debt. Pleaded guilty, 25-year sentence.

* Stanley Gwynn, 18, killed wrong man in drug ambush. Pleaded guilty, 25-year sentence.

* Andre Hawkins, 17, murdered taxi driver. Pleaded guilty, life sentence.

* Anthony Cunningham, 25, shot man in robbery. Guilty at trial, sentenced to life-plus.

Some neighborhoods witness almost nightly shootings. Maurice Ready, 9, was caught in a cross-fire a year ago when gunmen blazed away on Wilcox Street. Others, still harder hit, see the violence spill into the day. That's how Tiffany died. What has to happen, awful as it may seem, is that the violence must grow so unbearable that people, no longer in any way safe, become outraged. Community outrage powers the crime-watch groups and citizen patrols that, over time, can drive out the cocaine cowboys.

In Washington, some of the worst-hit areas have been reclaimed by the Metro Orange Hat Coalition, citizen groups that confront drug dealers on the streets. Orange Hats use radios to keep in touch, carry cameras and notepads and wear special jackets. The Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities quoted one citizen-patrol volunteer as saying, ''It's amazing; you come around the corner and the dealers freeze in their tracks like jack-lighted deer. Cars start backing down the street so you can't read their license-plate numbers. Within minutes of pulling out a video camera, there isn't a dealer within a block-and-a-half radius, where before there were a dozen dealers blocking the sidewalk.''

The report does not say such results are easy to obtain. Marchers from East Baltimore churches, which have banded together in the Oliver community to fight the violence that made them fearful of even going to services, have been taking to the streets for several years. Their principal success has come in clearing the streets immediately around their churches, but much more needs to be done.

''The Winnable War'' outlines what actually can be done to strip away the image of impunity with which drug dealers terrorize neighborhods. It tells of successful efforts to cut down the space available to drug dealers and their customers, broadcast the community's outrage and intolerance of drug dealing, fight the ''enablers'' who help make street drug-selling possible and boost law-enforcement efforts.

Public Health Reports shows statistically why people need to rise up against the plague of violence and drugs sweeping the inner city. The Lakiyas, Tiffanys and Maurices make it clear down into your bones that it's long past time to act.

Garland Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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