Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Come hell or high water, we are going to get every one of them"

By: John Brown's Bones
Northside is an inner city neighborhood in Cincinnati Ohio. Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia.
Northside is an inner city neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia.
The War on Drugs is waged in every city in America. The part of this war that affects us as Americans happens among our country's downtowns and suburbs. It not an invisible war in a third world country.

If you don't believe me, perhaps you live outside the interstate beltway of your own town where drug trafficking is less apparent but still happens. Maybe you live in a better area where wading or punching through through crack addicts and police tape to get into your building isn't part of your life.

But for a moment imagine living there, balanced between credibility, diversity and crime - risking your life to walk two blocks to buy baby formula or get a newspaper, to cash your pension check at the local bank, or to sit down and enjoy a beer with your neighbors at the local tavern. Imagine navigating through gangs of drug addled thugs, who stand like lost kindergardeners in the middle of a busy street as you try to get to work on time. Or, ignoring VD ridden prostitutes so you can rent a video or to grab some grub from a local restaurant.

Imagine being glared at by a long, long line of skeletal men, who look like they just crawled out their coffins, begging for whatever loose change you can spare to piece together a hit, a fix, or a drink. Imagine dealing with fearful law-abiding residents who've lived so long among the debris of civilization that they can no longer identify friend from foe. Their eyes dart away when they meet yours like they've been stung. Or worse, they stare at you like their eyes are miles underwater - but shifting slightly in their sockets trying get a grip on what dry land used to look like.

With all these factors in place, in spite of a long tradition of community activism groups, volunteer centers, and faith based initiatives - you have my neighborhood, the old Northside. The bad Northside. An inner city neighborhood that became for three long years a playground for low-level crack dealers who weren't much more than children.

Jamel Sechrest sentenced to two yearsOliver McLean sentenced to one and a half years
Jamel Sechrest, left, and Oliver McLean, right, are two of 50 Alleged Gang Members Arrested and Facing Drug and Violent Crime Charges.

The new Northside, it's been 30 years in the making, it’s a neighborhood where counter-culture went to settle down and live together in a kind of uneasy truce. Punkers, gay folks, educators, artists and working-class saints all live and work together within a less than 2 mile radius. It’s a small area that reaches from north to south from Rockford and Hamilton Avenue to the William P Dooley Bypass.

In this chunk of the old Northside, I lived across the street from a crack house for nearly three years. I faced waves of young, unemployed and uneducated kids, who on a daily basis, made a clear choice to be petty criminals instead of citizens. Over the three years that this gang was active they made it clear that they wanted to take over the entire neighborhood. They called themselves the Northside Taliband.

Most people, including my family, dozens of police officers, paramedics and firefighters who regularly rushed to my block advised me to move and move fast. I was repeatedly told that this was a "bad area".

Hamilton Avenue Photo from Tango Cincinnati and Cincinnati Magazine.
Hamilton Avenue Photo courtesy of Tango Cincinnati and Cincinnati Magazine.
In this "bad area" there's a 1880's era church housing a children's daycare and school across the street from this crack house. On the corner, a non-profit called Happen Inc. that teaches art to kids and adults. This sits next to a 100 year old Carnegie public library. Across the street is the headquarters for a multi-faith community organization called CAIN that distributes food and clothing to the poor. All these vital organizations are located within 500 feet of this crack house and my building. This was not a "bad area". This was a clearly troubled area that's fighting for a chance to continue to make a positive impact.

Late in 2008, the City of Cincinnati, in conjunction with federal law enforcement, chose to clean up a horde of petty thugs and crack dealers called the "Taliband". The misspelled name itself became a big part the group's complete undoing.

The fact that 30 firearms were stolen in a 2007 during a burglary in Northside, combined with the common knowledge that a low level street gang named itself after a international terrorist organization, got serious local and national law enforcement attention *1. If they chose a name they thought people would fear - it backfired into rage.

I, like many others, have a brave brother in the military. He has spent the last six years of his life fighting in the desert against evil men who called themselves the Taliban. Not only did I hate these crack dealers for what they were but I hated them more for what they wanted to be: mindless wannabe terrorists.

Assumed terrorist affiliation plus a lot of guns equaled massive law enforcement attention. On top of every other bonehead attempt to instill fear into the citizens of Northside, this low-life group of nickel and dimers referred to themselves as an "army"*2.

This "army" had it's own web site meticulously listing it's members, friends, activities, locations and photographs of the members. This web site was an invaluable evidence gathering tool for local law enforcement to track dozens of crack dealers down.

Waves of arrests followed. It was a longtime in the making - a six-month investigation into this 90+ member gang. The news of the indictments and raids were all over the local news:

Above, teenage gang members are arrested for drug trafficking and armed robbery.

It was officially citywide news. And the embattled reputation of the Cincinnati Police Department needed it. The night the arrests started I sat quietly at the crowded November Northside Community Council meeting. I listened as the long list of indictments and arrests were read by a police captain who had been busy raiding suspected crack houses all day with local cops and ATFE personnel. As he spoke about the operation, between waves of applause, there was a definite feeling of relief among everyone there. Among the most optimistic of us, there was a recognition that the neighborhood could be changing for the better.

The old Northside got a little fuzzier and distant as I pictured the waves of thugs begin to disappear. In the old Northside, over the course of the three years there, I'd filed 3 Assault complaints, 2 Trespassing complaints and 1 attempted Robbery complaint. I was very aware of the dangers in my neighborhood. Like myself, my friends and neighbors were regularly victimized: "jumped" and robbed at gunpoint by groups of these thugs. Could these old realities really be coming to an end? And how long would Northside get a break from desperate drug addicts and thieves?

For a few minutes, I really let myself picture the ideal Northside, the WIP Northside, right before I left the meeting. A neighborhood where dark alleys and shadowy streets didn't loom as large on the long walk home. A neighborhood that wasn't the dumping ground for the homeless, a destination for yuppies looking for drugs or a place to ditch shot up stolen cars.

I pictured young working-class families and elderly folks walking the streets they lived in with less reason to fear what might meet them there. Whether that was day or night. A place where community organizations are more respected than a handfull of petty thugs are feared. And that's the Northside that I want to live in. The new Northside.

*1 = From the City of Cincinnati's own city wide Crime Statistics for 2007.
*2 = ATFE and Federal Atty's Office.
*3 = According to Cincinnati's FOX 19 News report the gang's motto was "We aren't a gang we're an army."
4 = It should be noted that the title of this blog is a quote from often maligned Cincinnati Chief of Police Tom Streicher about capturing the entire gang.

Additional References:
CPD Operational Information
Channel 9 Arrest Reports
Northside is Neighborhood Enhancement Plan (NEP) 2008 Neighborhood of the Year.