Candidates blind to destruction of drugs

March 07, 2000|By Michael Olesker

IN A MOVE NOTICED by absolutely no one running for president of the United States, the federal government last week sent Melvin D. Williams, formerly known as "Little Melvin," formerly one of the biggest drug traffickers in Baltimore, back to a life in prison.

The charge this time involved illegal possession of a handgun. The government said Melvin used it to pistol-whip a guy in West Baltimore during a dispute over a $500 debt on a bail bond policy.

This shows how out of touch Melvin had gotten during his previous 12-year stay in prison. The old Melvin would have known, you don't pistol-whip a guy over money. You hire somebody to do it for you.

The irony is this: The artist formerly known as Little Melvin was, by all accounts, trying to go more or less straight. And, in a better world, Melvin Williams could have been anything, including a leader in this community. He is smart, he is charismatic and, as he sits in his miserable cell at the Super Max prison, he must wonder about the paths his life might have taken had he and the heroin trade not found each other.

And, while we're at it, some of those running for president -- in today's Maryland primary and elsewhere -- might wonder about it, too.

While we continue to live in a time of urban devastation, most of it fueled by drugs, and entire neighborhoods fall, where is the discussion among the great White House contenders?

They talk of campaign finance reform as their big issue -- as though this somehow connects with life as it is lived in America. They exchange charges of religious slander, which demeans the democratic process, and they find great connection to everyday community problems in today's debate over which rich guy put up the money to finance which campaign commercials.

Big deal. We have millions sitting in prison cells across the country, most of them having done great damage to their communities through the narcotics business -- and, somehow, this fails to reach the public debate.

And we now have last week's ruling on Melvin Williams, who was there when so much of this trouble was starting, back more than three decades ago, back when we still had a chance to get a handle on some of this.

In federal court last week, he was described as a "career criminal." He is 58 years old. I recall a day, 32 years ago, at Pennsylvania Avenue and Mosher Street in West Baltimore, where thousands of people filled the corner in the dying embers of the 1968 riots.

On a makeshift platform stood Williams with a microphone in his hand. "It's all over," he told the crowd in a voice resonant with authority. He was 26 years old. "Go home," he said. "There will be no more rioting."

In that instant, the whole world seemed to quiet down. The streets emptied, the riots were over, and I turned to a guy next to me.

"Who was that?" I asked.

"That's Little Melvin," he said, eyeing me as if I'd just arrived from some other planet.

"Who's Little Melvin?"

"Oh," the guy said, "just call him 'a popular figure on The Avenue.' "

A few years after that, I saw him inside the Maryland Penitentiary. He was pushing a trash can around. This was considered a good job because it got him out of his cell. This, for a man who once opened his mouth and thousands listened to him.

Paroled from prison, he got back into the drug trade -- and went back to prison in 1984. Paroled in 1997, he seemed to be getting his life in healthy order. We met in an East Baltimore restaurant about a year ago, and Melvin handed over his business card. He was working as a bail bondsman.

He was smart, he understood the psychological nuances leading to criminal acts -- and he was determined to spend the rest of his life as a free man.

But the feds say it was the bail bond business that led to his current trouble. In October, a jury convicted him of beating a man over a policy Williams had written. Under federal guidelines, his three previous drug-related convictions qualified him as a career criminal. U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis sentenced him to nearly 22 years in prison.

At such a moment, it's easy to say: Good riddance. But it gets us nowhere. This is a man who could have done big, important things with his life. And this is a country fighting an alleged war against drugs since the earliest days of Williams' involvement, with the result that cities have been devastated and legions of the hardened and the embittered now linger in prison cells.

Are we now so bankrupt of ideas that the presidential candidates have nothing to say about this? Yesterday, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's commissioner of health, declared that 75 percent to 90 percent of all crimes committed in the city are drug-related.

Put another $40 million into drug treatment, Beilenson said, and crime would be cut in half within three years. Instead, he said, this city has about 55,000 addicts -- and the crime they commit costs the city more than $2 billion a year. That's a mirror of hundreds of American cities.

Is this not an important issue? In an hour when we see the final futility of a wasted life like Melvin Williams', and the city's police attempt to clean up the drug corners while the health commissioner begs for treatment money, could those running for president not slip a word or two about drugs into their great debates of the day?

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