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D.C. Churches And Civic Groups Joined The Fight Against Crack

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Brighter Day Ministry, once known as AP Shaw, in Congress Heights.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Brighter Day Ministry, once known as AP Shaw, in Congress Heights.

As the crack epidemic reached its height in D.C., neighborhoods were plagued by violence and killings.

"There were constant shootings, drive-by shootings, lots of murdering going on," remembers Joyce Harris, who at the time was the church secretary at A.P. Shaw in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast D.C. The church, now known as Brighter Day Ministry, was just across the street from Stanton Dwellings, a large public housing project, and had a front row seat to drug-related violence.

One Sunday morning, she was sitting in services when a friend tapped her on the shoulder. "He beckoned to me, and said 'There’s a young man that’s collapsed out front. He’s been shot,'" she says.

Harris left the service, called an ambulance and went outside to try to help. "And I remember the paramedics; they were just pointing to the bullet holes, you know, how many were in the back and so… it was too close to home," she says.

The church’s pastor contacted other clergy nearby and coordinated a schedule of marches to block drug dealers from coming in to the area. The goal was to keep these dealers from dropping off drugs, and recruiting new dealers.

"If you wanted to block access… all you had to do was have 50-60 people right here on this corner and then you’d have to go somewhere else. If you did that enough, then you have messed with the flow of that man’s business, you know what I’m saying? We were just that determined that someone is going to be saved out of this," she recalls.

AP Shaw also advocated for more rehab facilities at a time when thousands of people were on waiting lists for treatment. And for the kids of addicts, the church provided a safe, positive environment after school.

"They’d get a hot meal, you know, soup, spaghetti, whatever. Tuesday night: that would be like, football, basketball. We had Bible study classes on Wednesday afternoons, Friday night we would do things like movie night, game night, you know, just to let them see that you didn’t have to get on the corner and deal drugs for these people. They didn’t care about their lives," she says.

Nearby, Reverend Anthony Motley addressed the drug abuse and the violence with bi-weekly Bible study.

"Valley Green was a notorious place for crack cocaine, that was a public housing complex. I went over and did Bible study. Trying to teach people. A lot of times these people didn’t know anything else," he says.

Though the Bible studies were almost always packed, to reach those who didn’t attend them, Rev. Motley would head out to the streets. The middle of the night, he says, was when he did his most effective ministering.

"Going out to the drug dealers at night, and praying with them. We would show up and they would tell the customers that would drive up, they’d say ‘The shop is closed right now’ cause we were there, praying. Asking God’s intervention," he says.

When it came down to it, Motley says, many of these guys wanted someone to guide them. Some were the sole breadwinners for their families. Occasionally, a young man would approach Motley and ask how to stop selling drugs.

"My first question is, ‘Do you owe anybody any money?' And they’d say no, and I'd say then flush it down the toilet. If we’re serious about it. I'd stand there with them and watch the drugs go down the toilet," he says.

A Turnaround

Between 1986 and 1993, more than 3,000 people were killed in the District. The deaths weren’t all drug-related, but police say many of them can be directly linked to the turf wars of that era.

But by 1993, city officials began reporting a glimmer of hope: the percentage of arrestees who tested positive for cocaine was leveling off, dropping to 50 percent from 67 percent in 1988. By the middle of 1994, local teenagers told The Washington Post that crack was passé. And by 1997, the city homicide rate began a downward slide that has mostly continued to today.

Still, no one has a precise date of when, exactly, the crack-cocaine epidemic ended — or why. Some people point to a federal initiative called Hope Six, which funded the demolition and redevelopment of low-income housing projects nationwide, including several here in the District.

"The city has changed. Demographics have changed. Construction. I always say jokingly, a good cop and a bulldozer solves all problems," says former Metropolitan Police Department Chief Isaac Fullwood, whose brother was a crack addict and homicide victim.

While Hope Six remains controversial, law enforcement officials say it did cut back the city’s drug activity.

A Legacy

Others say that because crack was so destructive, it had burned through the lives of everyone it was going to attract. Yet Commander Melvin Scott, head of MPD’s Narcotics Unit, says the legacy of crack continues to haunt many District residents.

"A lot of people went to jail for life over what they created and the havoc that happened in D.C. in the 80s and 90s. People are paying the price for that," he says.

The sentencing laws of the time meant people caught dealing a small amount of crack spent as much time in prison as someone dealing 100-times as much powdered cocaine — and African Americans are affected by that disparity more than anyone else. Of the 30,000 people in federal prison on crack-related charges, 80 percent are black.

For those who didn’t go to jail for life, the crack era still lingers. An estimated 60,000 Washingtonians have criminal records. And among that group, the unemployment rate may be as high as 46 percent, according to a study by the Council for Court Excellence.

This challenge is all too real for Lamont Carey, who dealt crack for five years before he was arrested on an attempted murder charge. He was in prison from 16 years old until he was 27.

"So if I can’t get a job because of my felony convictions, then you telling me the only place I’m allowed to work is the streets, right?", he says. "And some of us don’t have like, the patience… and so they succumb to that. But because what we did when we were 16, 15, 20 years old, even though we paid our debts to society, society is rejecting us."

Many of these ex-offenders — thousands every year — return home to neighborhoods most affected by the crack epidemic. In wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, hovering around 20 percent. And more than 40 percent of children there are living in poverty.

"The motto then became it takes a village, and it did. You couldn’t leave law enforcement agency to try to figure this thing out all on its own. It’s everybody in the community having a stake in, and doing what they can," says Scott from MPD's Narcotics Unit.

Because while those days may seem like they’re long gone, Scott and others who witnessed the crack era say it’s not impossible for our increasingly wealthy city to relapse. Maybe with crack, maybe with some other drug. And if that happens, he says, it’ll be up to everyone — neighbors, police, politicians, health officials, school and religious leaders, to step up together.


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