By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Call it Dania Beachhead.
For the first time in 30 years, residents of the county's oldest town say they've established a solid position in the battle to halt a drug problem that dominates west-side black neighborhoods. Money from drug sales permeates everything in the ten-square-block area west of Federal Highway and the railroad tracks, including politics and social services, according to both black and white activists.
But the beachhead has come at a cost. The white city commissioners who see themselves as part of an emerging solution are now being tagged as racists.
The geographic heart of drug commerce and official concern is a five-acre grassy rectangle known to most Dania Beach residents as Modello Park but recently renamed Charlie Will Thomas Park. Until two weeks ago, the park was managed on a $45,000 city contract by Arlon Kennedy. Operating a small computer learning center for children, Kennedy appeared regularly in the south end of the park at a trailer housing the computers. Sporting his characteristic shaved head, wire-rimmed glasses, and goatee, he exhorted children to learn, earning the respect of some parents. He also appeared in city hall, where he exhorted Dania Beach commissioners to award him an additional $54,000. The state money had been granted to the city to use as the commission saw fit. It would have doubled the program's income, allowing him to expand the learning center and organize other community groups.
Kennedy told commissioners his program would dissuade neighborhood children from using drugs by giving them job skills. And he announced in one paragraph of the 13-page proposal that he would also help organize a drug-fighting group of local citizens known as Turn Around Dania.
Led by Herman Wrice, a 60-year-old professional drug fighter who holds a $35,000 city contract, members of Turn Around Dania have been marching on the homes and hotbed markets of drug dealers for a year, bullhorns in hand. The group has achieved some success. At Greater Trinity Baptist Church a block from the park, for example, Turn Around members chanted through long hours on several occasions, driving away the dealers and prostitutes who used a deserted parking lot behind the church, says the Rev. Louis Sanders. Wrice has organized similar efforts in at least ten other Florida cities, and elsewhere in the United States, gaining national prominence.
But Wrice had never heard of Kennedy's plan to enlist his group and organize it until the night Kennedy presented his grant proposal to the commission. Kennedy had not talked to Wrice. "He was trading on my good name to get that money," Wrice says.
More than 92 percent of a $105,000 Kennedy package that included the grant would have flowed into salaries, according to a budget worksheet Kennedy presented to the Dania Beach commission. If commissioners had accepted his plan, $97,000 in total grant money would have reached the pockets of Kennedy staffers, and only $8000 would have found its way to the learning center and its children. Wrice's judgment of both Kennedy and his plan is harsh. "That's nothing but a poverty pimp," he says. "He uses poverty to get grants and money for himself."
Kennedy calls Wrice's criticism "A bald-faced lie. That budget for salaries was a minimum, in our opinions, to implement the program, because these programs are labor intensive." Wrice's bullhorn-shouts-and-intimidation tactics also haven't worked well, Kennedy adds, noting that in most cases he sees drug dealers return to the streets from which they retreated in the face of protests.
But commissioners grew wary of Kennedy, says Bob Mikes, an 11-year city commission veteran. Mikes also listened to neighborhood residents such as Robert Chunn, who told him that drug sales thrive within sight of Kennedy's learning center in the park. Chunn claims Kennedy bragged about knowing dealers and getting along with them and that Kennedy did nothing actively to try to stop the drug trade.
Those charges aren't true either, Kennedy insists. "We've pleaded with them; at one time we had as many as 40 or 50 mostly drug dealers sitting down to talk. You have to give them an alternative, so it's not as glamorous as what Wrice does, but it works better."
Commissioners ignored Kennedy's claims. Instead of giving him the grant, the commissioners fired him in a 3-2 vote two weeks ago. They announced they would find another manager for the learning center, known as ICE Cube. On the night they made the decision, they faced a crowd of protestors led by Bobbie Grace, a former mayor and commissioner who held offices in city hall until she lost an election last year.
Grace told the all-white commission it had wounded the community. Grace and Kennedy also leveled charges of racism at commissioners. All of this was prominently reported in the daily newspapers.
The verbal assault offended Mikes, who expresses pride that Dania Beach was among the first towns in Broward County to elect black officials.
Like Herman Wrice, he insists that drugs, not race, lie at the heart of the issue. "Drug dealing occurs throughout the city, but in this low-income community, it's the addition of money to families. It's the most lucrative business. You can claim racism, and some people call it racism when you try to get the police to help, but that's nonsense."