What else could Dangerfield have achieved with his gifts?

June 20, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON GEORGE A. Dangerfield's final morning of freedom, he paced a fifth-floor hallway of the federal courthouse, forthrightly declaring himself the victim of some grand conspiracy, and thus tripping on logic and the English language.

But he made enough sense that he should remind everybody of A. Robert Kaufman, candidate for mayor of Baltimore and perennial noodge.

Forget this phony narcotics business, Dangerfield said, walking the courthouse hallway, ignoring the large bag of cocaine that he knew prosecutors were about to place on the witness stand. This case was about his real estate holdings, he said, ignoring the telephone conversations about this cocaine which had already been related to this same jury.

He said this case was about all the slum properties, 125 East Baltimore apartments at last count, that Dangerfield had amassed with drug money and now, he insisted, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the federal government were conspiring to take away from him as part of this phony drug trial.

"So you're saying," Dangerfield was asked, "that they're after you just because you're a successful entrepreneur?"

"It's like you just said," he replied, snapping his fingers. "I'm a young, black entrepreneur."

"No, nobody said anything about `black,' " he was told. "You did."

But, since he brought it up, the subject is worth talking about. This Dangerfield is a pretty smart fellow. He comes from religious people and brought his own minister with him to court. He dresses like someone who studies fashion magazines and talks, when the mood strikes him, like some smooth businessman on the make.

When the mood doesn't strike him, though, he's made himself into a pox on this city. His slum properties are awful, and some who live in them and complain have been bullied dreadfully. He's got a drug record now that stretches over the decade, the profits from which went into building this real estate conglomerate.

And it makes many thoughtful people wonder: What else might Dangerfield have done with so much intelligence, and such drive, had he not imagined the drug trade as his ticket to breakout success?

Understand something: Those who run the narcotics, which have fueled the monstrous crime of the past quarter-century and the collapse of entire vulnerable neighborhoods, are nobody's dummies. Many are bright guys who saw nowhere else to go; historically, race played a role in this, with many legitimate doors closed on the simple, unforgivable basis of skin color.

But those who chose to deal drugs, particularly in the modern era, also made a more sinister choice: It did not matter to them that their success would come at the expense of all those around them.

"A no-win situation," A. Robert Kaufman was saying the other day. Kaufman runs for mayor these days, but he's been around forever, mainly irritating the hell out of people by talking about political matters that make us uncomfortable. This makes him politically important, since he speaks truth as he figures it, and not truth watered down for popular consumption.

This mayoral campaign of his lately gains notice for new contentiousness -- he wants to legalize prostitution, and he's disparaged the police, and now he wants to sue WEAA, Morgan State University's radio station, for not giving him what he believes is a fair chance to articulate his views.

Sometimes, Kaufman gets in his own way. Sometimes, though, he talks uncomfortable truth, this time related to those such as George A. Dangerfield.

"The drug crisis," Kaufman said, "can be addressed three ways. You can pretend the War on Drugs works and do more of the same. Forget that. Or you can legalize it, like cigarettes, in which case we'd have Liggett & Myers dealing crack.

"Or you can treat it as a public health issue and take the profits out of it. And that means acknowledging two things: No society can stop addicts from getting what they need and want. And it's not healthy for them to get this stuff."

Kaufman wants "affordable" clinics where addicts could get "whatever they're going to get, but also get the option of less-damaging drugs. Where does the money come from? From all the money now being wasted on the War on Drugs.

"If you're an addict, you're spending all your time getting money for a fix. If you know you've got available stuff, you can get a job and pay taxes. The day after we set it up, the dealers will have nobody to shoot at, and addicts will have no reason to steal or whore or spread HIV. And the drug cartels will have to have a going-out-of-business sale."

Some of this echoes Kurt L. Schmoke's thoughts of 12 years ago, which were quickly shouted down. But Kaufman imagines further steps.

"It's hardly ever mentioned, except negatively," he says, "but a lot of suburban money comes into the city every day for drugs. The fact is, it helps guys pay their mothers' rent. It buys kids' shoes. If that money disappeared, the misery level would go higher.

"What takes its place? Federal jobs programs, run by trade unions, where people learn not only jobs, but self-respect, and we take all these young people off of street corners."

Maybe it works, maybe not. But the alternative is the waste of such young people as a George A. Dangerfield, who might have done something with his life but chose the quickest buck. He now faces the next decade behind bars. No one should take pleasure in the remains of his life.

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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