Civil rights group to target drugs

Newly installed Action Network seeks funding for treatment

May 18, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

West Baltimore's Mark Diggs wishes he weren't among the city's estimated 60,000 drug addicts.

He hopes the city's newest civil rights group persuades officials to spend more on drug treatment and help more addicts rid themselves -- and their communities -- of the scourge.

The 34-year-old father of two attended last week's installation of officers and committee members of the Baltimore chapter of the National Action Network to let it be known that he expects more than "lip service" from the 10-year-old civil rights group, launched by the Rev. Al Sharpton and led locally by former state Sen. Larry Young.

The turnout for the induction -- an estimated 500 crowded a room at New Shiloh Baptist Church -- suggests there's significant interest in another civil rights group in the city. While questions linger about the group's usefulness, advocates say there are enough issues to keep them occupied.

One of their first targets is drug treatment.

"There's not enough money for drug treatment in Baltimore," said Diggs, who lives in a recovery house. "The housing, they have like 14 or 15 guys in one house. There are a lot more people who need help."

At the installation, Young said if the city can spend $350 million on its west-side redevelopment, and if new businesses can move to the Inner Harbor, then officials should be able to find more money for drug treatment.

Last month, state legislators left intact the governor's $22 million increase in state spending on drug treatment for addicts, a third of which would go to Baltimore. But a study released late last year pegged the cost of Baltimore's drug problem -- including addicts' shoplifting, crowded prisons, treatment of needle-transmitted AIDS and foster care for abandoned children -- at $2.5 billion a year, more than the city's $1.8 billion budget.

Young, a talk show host on WOLB-AM radio, said the network also will tackle such issues as economic empowerment, housing, unfair treatment of black police officers and the need to hold elected officials accountable. Young called a town meeting in East Baltimore last night on last week's dismissal of four top police commanders, but it was not clear if it was under the auspices of the network.

Founded in 1991 in New York City, the network is described on its Web site as a civil rights organization "geared toward economic justice, political empowerment of the disenfranchised citizens, a fair criminal justice system and a moral agenda of fairness and equity for the 21st Century."

Baltimore became the organization's 12th chapter in January, joining cities such as Detroit, St. Louis and Dallas. Young, who in December lost a bid to lead the city's NAACP chapter, was chosen president last month. Eric Easton, a West Baltimore activist, was elected vice president, and a 13-member executive committee -- including Baltimore police Officer Louis Hopson, Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the city elections board, and Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks -- was chosen.

While some question Baltimore's need for another civil rights organization, particularly when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has its national headquarters and a local branch here, Young said the network is viable and will "agitate, agitate, agitate."

Network members, Young said, will attend City Council and other meetings and issue "assessments" of elected and appointed city, state and federal officials.

Young -- who was ousted from the state Senate amid ethics allegations -- said more than 450 people, many of them network members, demonstrated at the city's Health Department in February to call attention to the need for drug treatment.

The group plans to hold a walkathon June 2 at Frederick Douglass High School to raise money for athletic programs at the city's public high schools. And, later this year, Young plans to invite City Council members and business leaders to an "economic empowerment summit."

"It is shameful that here we are in a city 67 percent African-American, and if you look at the major features of our city, it's embarrassing," Young said. "Downtown, we own no hotels. We have no significant restaurant establishment. It's an embarrassment."

G. I. Johnson, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, suggested "the energy that's being spent on trying to organize another organization should be put to better use in trying to help this organization."

Johnson said he wasn't threatened by the Young-led group, though he has gotten several calls from members who want to know "what can they do that we aren't already doing."

City Council President Sheila Dixon and Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh welcomed another civil rights group to town.

"Senator Young is a proven leader in our community," said Pugh, who attended the installation. "I think he's committed to leading the organization to focus on economic, political and social issues that affect the community. That's not something new for him."

Diggs said Young's speech last week "sounded good. ... He touched a lot of people with the issues he was talking about, but it really doesn't do nothing until you see something get done."

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