Telling the dealers to take off

May 27, 1992

Powerlessness is a common complaint when the drug hustlers take over a neighborhood. "What can I do?" many residents ask, as they watch once-stable communities fall apart. Now a church in East Baltimore has come up with an answer: plenty. But you need to bring some friends.

"The Winnable War," a booklet put out by the Washington-based American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, notes that drug dealers must maintain an image of impunity to succeed in intimidating a neighborhood. Puncture that image, and people who dislike drug dealing feel less afraid to tell the police what they are seeing on the streets.

One of the key tools for puncturing that image is visible demonstrations that the law-abiding won't tolerate chaos. Ultimately, as Eastern District Commander Alvin Winkler acknowledged, it is the people, not the police, who have the last word on what kind of community they will live in.

The members of Israel Baptist Church, working over a two-year period, have begun to show success in the area outside their sanctuary in the 1200 block of North Chester Street. Pastor H. Walden Wilson II, alarmed after drug gangs started hassling church members, loitering outside worship services and even using members' cars' tailpipes to stash drugs, led parishioners in a spiritual declaration of war on the illicit trade.

It was a kind of warfare street thugs find difficult to counter. First, church members began holding prayer meetings in the streets, singing hymns and preaching the Gospel in areas the hustlers had reserved for their illicit activities. Marching through the neighborhood, the church members made a dramatic statement about who "owned" the streets, and it was not lost on the residents.

Israel Baptist's parishioners brought the joyful noise of worship to those quiet corners, showing up on random days 100 strong to challenge the would-be terrorists, and it made the dealers move on. Such success is only a beginning, but it shows what can be done. People in the community don't have to accept the flood of undesirables that accompanies street drug dealing. Banding together and sticking to their campaigns, they can make the dealers yield the streets. When more churches and more community groups join hands to take such action, the dealers will know the game's up.

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