On September 5, 1989, President George H. W. Bush took to the airwaves from the Oval Office to address the nation about what he said was a grave domestic threat.
“This is the first time since taking the oath of office that I felt an issue was so important, so threatening that it warranted talking directly with you, the American people," he said.
Gazing into the camera, he turned and pulled out a small plastic bag from under his desk.
“This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago by drug enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House," he said, as the camera zoomed in to show the hard white crystals. “It’s as innocent-looking as candy. But it’s turning our cities into battle zones."
One of those battle zones was Washington, D.C., where the country's highest homicide rate earned the city the designation as the "nation's murder capital." The troubled city also became a punching bag in Congress, with Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas going as far as to question the city’s ability to govern itself.
“This is the capital of the United States of America, we have to have standards here that are reflective of the country as a whole, that this is not some third-world country,” he said at a hearing in 1989. The majority-black city had only won the right to elect local leaders a little over a decade earlier, and now there were rumblings of a federal take-over.
President Bush announced he was renewing the war on drugs, and the opening salvo would be against Washington, D.C.’s crack addiction. Bush’s lieutenant would be recently-appointed drug czar Bill Bennett.
“To all Americans it is a shame, and it is a cruelty for hundreds of thousands of D.C. citizens — law-abiding citizens — who must live with this nightmare every day of their lives,” said Bennett, during a speech announcing his plan to tackle the drugs and violence in the nation’s capital.
Cocaine had been around since the 19th century, and even earlier, dating back to the ancient Inca in South America. But crack, the smokable form of cocaine, gave the drug mass appeal.
“It is the equivalent of McDonald’s,” said Karst Besteman, addiction expert, testifying before Congress in 1989. “It made it convenient, cheap, and available on the corner. And we just weren’t equipped to handle this.”
Before “crack cocaine” had entered the nation’s lexicon, D.C. was already struggling with drugs.
For three decades, since the 1950s, white and middle class residents had been fleeing Washington, leaving behind pockets of deep poverty. But now, those suburbanites were coming back — to buy powder cocaine.
“This place was the epicenter,” says Tony Lewis, Jr., standing outside his house on Hanover Place NW, a narrow, dead-end street on the edge of what’s now D.C.’s booming NoMa neighborhood.
“The way the block is set up, you can see the cops coming, you know what I mean, you can’t sneak in here. I think that’s what made the block so successful, the way it’s positioned," he says.
When Lewis was a toddler, Hanover Place was the spot to buy cocaine — newspapers called it the city’s cocaine supermarket. “When I was little, I can’t remember being able to see to the corner, it was just that many people, all the time," he says.
The cars would line up, sometimes backing up traffic on nearby North Capitol Street, with drug buyers honking, like commuters stuck in rush-hour traffic.
In just two years, cocaine-related emergency room visits doubled, and arrests increased tenfold. But cocaine was still seen as an elite drug, favored by yuppies: the smallest half-gram bag cost about $50.
“Cocaine was still an adult’s world. You didn’t really get too many younger guys. But when crack came, it changed things," Lewis says.
When crack hit the streets of D.C. in 1986, suddenly users could get high for just $5 or $10. Demand surged, and for street entrepreneurs, business was booming.
“[It] even start[ed] out with people selling fake crack, the demand was so high. You could use drywall or soap or even make stuff up that looked like crack, and you could sell it, just to make enough money to buy real crack,” he says.
Buyers and Sellers
Lamont Carey: In his own words
Carey discusses how he learned to sell drugs as a kid in the streets of D.C.
Lamont Carey, who grew up in Southeast D.C., was one of those who started dealing young.
By age 11 he was selling weed, by seventh grade he was selling crack and by age 13 he was buying luxury cars with the profits. Carey says he learned the trade as a youngster, just playing outside in his neighborhood, where drugs and cash were constantly changing hands.
“Sooner or later, the drug dealers that are familiar with you will say, ‘Hold this for me.’ Or they’ll say, ‘If you see the police coming, say ‘ooh-ooh,’ make some kind of sound, or say ‘5-0’ or something.’ And so I was being groomed as a drug dealer without knowing that I was being groomed as a drug dealer,” he recalls.
It was a world where he didn’t see a lot of options. Everyone seemed to be either using drugs or selling them. Carey saw two paths.
“Either my future’s going to be the alcoholic or the junkie that hangs around the liquor store, lays up in the hallway, or my future’s going to be this drug dealer, with the fancy cars, the nice clothes, and doesn’t live in my community," he says.
Smoking crack produces an intense, euphoric high, but it’s gone in just five or ten minutes, leaving users desperate for more. This is part of what made crack so profitable for dealers: there was a steady stream of return customers.
“The drive behind crack was so strong you didn’t care about anything else,” says former addict Najiy Shabazz, who is now an addiction counselor. “I cut off my family, I cut off my job. Nothing was important to me, except for getting more crack.”
This kind of desperation made dealers wealthy, but Carey began to despise his customers.
“This little white, hard drug, ain’t even big as the middle of my palm, right? You would have sex with me. You would sell me whatever — your guns, your microwaves, your TV, the clothes off your back — for this little crack. So why should I respect you?”
It was a dangerous combination: young men with nothing to lose, a lucrative black market, and thousands of illegal guns flowing into the city from nearby Maryland and Virginia.
A Police Crackdown
As violence mounted, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department responded with campaigns of mass arrests. Isaac Fulwood, who was police chief in the late eighties and early nineties, orchestrated many of those operations.
“Go into the neighborhoods, do buy-busts, and make all kinds of arrests,” Fulwood says. “I mean, we were arresting, literally on the weekends, sometimes, 800 or 900 people.”
In 1986, police took over Hanover Place, where Tony Lewis lived. It was a year-long, 24-hour-a-day occupation: there was a command-center in a trailer, and a daily rotation of 60 officers patrolling the immediate area.
The city boarded up 47 vacant buildings. The Department of Public Works hauled away 300 tons of trash — old couches and mattresses that had been used to barricade alleys and stymie police. Not just furniture, but abandoned cars too: police recovered 41 stolen vehicles in the area.
“It was pretty massive in terms of the expense,” says Fulwood.
In overtime hours alone, it cost MPD more than $2 million. But the results of operations like this were mixed, at best.
“You would walk away from there and say, ‘Gosh, we’ve done all these things and yet we’re still having some of the same problems.’ Because now the problem has moved from Hanover Place, to P Street, which is a block away.”
Close One, Another Pops Up
A 1989 Washington Post headline.
Even though Hanover Place was closed for business after 1986, the same dealers found new locations. Tony Lewis’s dad, Tony Lewis, Sr., was one of them.
Lewis, along with his partner Rayful Edmond, developed the city’s biggest crack-dealing organization. At its height the two controlled as much as 50 or 60 percent of the local market, and could move more than 400 pounds of cocaine a week, generating as much as $8 million a month.
This massive wealth flooded poor neighborhoods like Shaw and Trinidad. For Tony Lewis, Jr., it financed an education in Catholic schools, as well as some insulation from where exactly the money came from.
“I remember being in class, and people saying what their parents did,” recalls Lewis. “It’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ But my dad picked me up in a Porsche or a Mercedes or a BMW every day. I can remember my teachers not even encouraging me to answer the question, because I think they knew. I think they understood — I didn’t understand — but they understood.”
Lewis was nine years old, when one Saturday, no one could find his dad. “We were paging — this is back when people had pagers — and we were paging him, and he didn’t call back," he remembers.
It was April 15, 1989. Police and federal agents had arrested Lewis, Edmond, and 16 associates. Lewis was found in Arlington, Va. in an apartment filled with lavish clothes: more than 100 pairs of designer men’s shoes, a cashmere jacket, with the $3,500 price stag still on it, and, scattered about the apartment, $12,000 in cash.
Tony Lewis, Jr., finally found out when the evening news came on. “We saw him in handcuffs, that was it, and it was everywhere: ‘Rayful Edmond and Tony Lewis, leaders of the biggest drug network in D.C. history, arrested tonight.’ And yeah, that was it, he never came back home.”
Lewis was sentenced to life in prison, and is serving out his sentence at a federal facility in Cumberland, Md.
That same year, Lamont Carey went to jail too, charged with attempted murder. “I was 16, when I caught the charge, so I ended up doing like... 11 years,” says Carey.
'A Band-Aid On Cancer'
But arresting kingpins like Lewis and street soldiers like Carey didn’t seem to make a difference. New dealers stepped in to take their places, and the killings continued.
“Our response is like putting a Band-Aid on a cancer,” says former Police Chief Isaac Fulwood, who had been on the police force for nearly three decades. But as chief, both the city and his own family were coming apart.
“When I was chief, my brother got arrested for crack cocaine," he recalls.
After his brother Theodore got out of jail, Fulwood sat him down and told him he needed treatment. After a year of treatment, he got a job, and stayed clean for a while.
“He did pretty well for about three years. I used to see him every week, and we’d talk and everything. Then one day he didn’t call. And I said, ‘I wonder what the hell is going on.’”
Fulwood went looking for his brother, and found him, near Potomac Gardens, then a notorious open-air drug market in Southeast. “He ran when he saw me. And I never caught back up with him," he says.
On November, 19, 1992, Fulwood’s brother became the District’s latest homicide victim. That fall, Fulwood resigned as police chief. “I got tired. When you do 30 years and you see the carnage of young people dying, you become overwhelmed by it," he says.
Drugs and Disagreements
Bush, speaking about drugs in D.C. in a 1989 speech.
As police and federal officials struggled to get control of the city, their efforts were undermined by political turf battles.
“The city and federal government were at loggerheads,” says Sterling Tucker, who was D.C.’s anti-drug czar at the time. “I think the center of it was lack of trust on both sides, and lack of confidence and I think therefore, lack of cooperation.”
When President Bush’s drug czar, Bill Bennett, announced his plan for tackling drugs and violence in D.C., he did not invite Tucker’s boss, Mayor Marion Barry, or anyone from the local government.
At the press conference, a reporter asked Bennett whether he had even informed the mayor. “Yes, I briefed Mayor Barry today,” responded Bennett, who said he had phoned the mayor and they had “chatted for a few minutes.”
Much of the drug war in D.C. seemed to be staged. When President Bush addressed the nation, holding up that little plastic evidence bag, the drugs were a prop. The drug sting — “in a park just across the street from the White House,” had been engineered to match the president’s rousing words.
A few weeks after the speech, The Washington Post reported that federal drug agents had lured the dealer from a different neighborhood to the park — he even needed directions, asking the undercover agents, “Where the [expletive] is the White House?”
Three blocks from the White House, at D.C.’s city hall, Barry was fighting his own drug wars — against crack dealers who were taking over city streets, but also against rumors that the mayor himself was one of their customers.
FBI data suggest there was a slight uptick in violent crime in the first half of last year, but overall violent crime rates in the U.S. have dropped dramatically over the last twenty years. What led to the long-term decline, and why do some say it’s likely to continue?
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