Ruben Castaneda landed a job as the overnight police reporter for The Washington Post in September, 1989. He was a middle-class kid from Los Angeles, and no one — not his friends, not his new boss, not even his family — knew he was a serious drug addict.
"I arrived on a Tuesday, and by Saturday I had found my way here to S Street, and very quickly figured out this was a good place to buy crack cocaine," he says.
It was right there, at the corner of S and 7th Street Northwest, that Castaneda made his first buy.
"I drove up on a sunny afternoon with somebody who agreed to buy crack for me. Her street name was Champagne, she said she knew where to go and I knew she was telling the truth. And I was immediately struck by what was on the block. There were at least 10 drug dealers hanging out in front of abandoned bakery," he recalls.
No one, he says, looked concerned about getting caught.
"The drug dealers here on S Street did not seem to care at all about anybody watching them. Whereas, in Los Angeles, the drug markets where I made purchases were controlled by Central American gangsters, and they at least bothered to look over their shoulders to see if there were any LAPD black and whites nearby."
WAMU 88.5 host Kojo Nnamdi moved to Shaw in the early 1970s, and says that by the mid-80s, gangs — or crews, as they were known — formed on each block, including his own, on Eighth Street.
"You woke up one morning and then there they were. All of these people that you’d never seen in your life before, very few of them actually lived in the neighborhood," he recalls.
Kids who grew up together suddenly had guns, he says, and were fighting in the street.
"And we’d be walking down the street and they’d say, 'Stop, stop, stop fighting. Here comes Mr. Kojo.' They would almost literally part, and we would walk past them and say, 'Hello Mr. Kojo, how are you doing?' And we’d walk past. And then they’d start fighting again just as we got past."
At the time, Commander Melvin Scott, who now runs the Metropolitan Police Department’s Narcotics Unit, was a beat officer in Shaw. He remembers how the lucrative crack trade set dealers, many of them young, many of them neighborhood kids, against each other.
"You’re talking about kids with a lot of money, no conflict resolution, and everybody’s telling you you’re the biggest, baddest man because you have a pocket full of money," he says. "Longtime friends would kill each other over who knows what. The body count started. It just… it blew up."
Nnamdi and his neighbors in Shaw did all the things you’d think to do — call the police, reach out to their member of the D.C. Council — but none of it was working. Then, in 1988, a young civic activist named Leroy Thorpe, Jr. decided to take matters into his own hands by forming a neighborhood patrol.
"We go out in the daytime to get people off the block. Anytime we see them loitering there, we see them suspecting that they’re using drugs, we want them out of here. I was telling them I'd go get a bat, bust them upside the head, we were going to blow their house up. I was raw! Wasn’t even thinking of the legalities of whatever the situation may be," he says.
Thorpe organized more than 100 anti-drug rallies, and keeps a handwritten spreadsheet of each of the dozens of crack-house he helped raid.
"The people inside that are actually, that have a connection to the house — are they selling drugs? Turn info over to the Vice Unit… Vice Unit goes in there, boom. They bust them," he remembers.
Shaw’s Red Hat Patrol inspired similar group all over the city, although Thorpe admits that dealers and addicts pushed out of one neighborhood often moved a few blocks over. It didn’t truly solve the problem, but it solved his problem for the time being.
In His Own Words: Ruben Castaneda
Ruben Castaneda covered crime for The Washington Post — and was addicted to crack. Listen to him tell his story.
By the early 1990s, the number of murders in Washington, D.C. was at an all-time high. Washington Post reporter Ruben Castaneda recalls that some nights he would be out covering one crime scene, when another shooting would come through over the police scanner.
"The most dramatic example occurred in early-1990, February, a call came over the scanner for a shooting at the corner of 7th and S. Right away I thought, 'Oh... I know that block!' It turned out that it was a quadruple murder that had started inside the night club. Six men had been shot, and it was my first front page story for the paper. It happened almost at the same block, almost the same location where I was making my drug buys," he says.
Nnamdi’s twin sons were teenagers during this era, and keeping them away from the neighborhood’s violence was a source of near-constant anxiety.
"Another young man, maybe he was a teenager just a couple of years older than my sons — Pooky — who was talking to my sons outside the house one day. Pooky seemed to have been making a decent living doing a number of illegal things. And I said, 'Who was Pooky talking to you about?' And they said, 'He was telling us how, you know, things are gonna look pretty good for us.' And he said, 'You know, by the time y’all are my age, y’all probably be getting ready to go to college. And by then, I’ll probably be dead.' I said, 'Is that what he said?' And they said yes. And he was right," he recalls.
The homicide rate ticked higher and higher. From 194 in 1986 to 434 in 1989 and 482 in 1991. There were shootings in broad daylight at swimming pools, school yards and funeral homes. D.C.'s murder rate far exceeded that of other cities, and the city gained an infamous title — the "nation's murder capital."
"We had cases where guys would shoot somebody; ambulance would come pick them up. They’d follow the ambulance, and if they guy was still alive, they run up on the ambulance and start shooting the guy on the stretcher," remembers Lou Hennessey, who ran the Metropolitan Police Department's Homicide Unit from 1993 to 1995.
The shootings were mainly in the eastern half of the city, which was predominantly African American and poor. Because the violence was so concentrated, Hennessey changed the structure of the unit — he let cops stay in one neighborhood and develop sources, rather than chasing whatever case came up next. He also invited detectives from all neighboring counties to his weekly meetings.
"Ten o’clock in the morning every Wednesday… and we would talk about who our suspects were, who was killed, what type of weapon was used. I can remember telling Chief Thomas, ‘That’s my goal, we’re going to get it under 400. And he was joking with me, saying, ‘If you get it under 400 in this city, you’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize,'" he says.
"It wasn’t the crack, but it was the violence associated with the crack that became so obvious. It wasn’t an unusual weekend to have 10 murders over a weekend, and this is not a big city. People compare it to 'Chicago and New York had 12 over the weekend.' New York is 16 times as big as D.C. It was unbelievable," he remembers.
"The thing that really irked you about it, is we had this terrible problem. But as long as it was poor young black people being killed, nobody really cared."
But within individual neighborhoods people did care, and local churches began to intervene.
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