Just Say, Um, OK to Drugs
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.
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."
Chunn, a 51-year-old black man with hepatitis C who bought and sold drugs in the park for years, also sees the racism charge as misdirected. "I'm black, and that's a ploy, that's bullshit. I seen the same things going on when I was 23 -- selling drugs on the corner. This is about money and drugs, it's not about black or white."
So why hasn't Grace or Kennedy tried to enlist police help or talk to parents of drug dealers who might hobble the robust drug trade, Mikes wonders. He answers his own question: money. Public records show that a Grace campaign for the city commission was financed partly by a convicted drug dealer. And public records also show that Kennedy was fired from another organization, Friends of Children, for mishandling grant money.
"Bobbie Grace sat on the commission for eight years, and her front door is right there facing the worst drug area. She'll take on almost any problem except the drug problem," Mikes says.
Grace insists that she has tried to stop the drug problem in Modello Park by making telephone calls to the Broward Sheriff's Office, turning in the names or addresses of more than 30 drug dealers. "The reason we still have drugs there is they aren't doing their jobs," she claims of the cops.
And she wasn't aware that she was taking campaign money from a powerful drug kingpin when she got into politics, she says.
In 1988 Grace leaped into city hall on a tide of good will and support not only from members of the black community but from whites as well, many of whom voted for her. Among her biggest financial supporters was Ivory McCutcheon, a black landlord and wealthy business owner. McCutcheon inspired loyalty and admiration in the black neighborhood, where rumors that he was a drug kingpin were prevalent. McCutcheon and his businesses contributed more than $1000 to Grace's campaign.
The rumors about drug sales later proved true. McCutcheon didn't just rent housing to Section 8 welfare recipients, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from the federal government. And he didn't just own A Touch of Class, the bar near Modello Park. McCutcheon bought and sold drugs in huge quantities, running one of the largest family-owned drug businesses in the area, investigators later proved. Sometimes he did it out of A Touch of Class, which became Bobbie Grace's campaign headquarters and the site of her victory party, according to campaign records.
When Ivory McCutcheon tried to buy 218 pounds of cocaine himself, federal investigators arrested him, winning his conviction in 1992. Now McCutcheon is serving a 25-year sentence in a federal prison in Georgia.
Kennedy never took money from drug dealers, but in 1999 he was forced to resign a $34,000-per-year job at Friends of Children amid allegations that he lied about his fundraising. He asked for $8500 from the Hollywood police department to support Friends and MAD-DADS without telling his boss, a violation of rules, according to a letter by Friends president Willie Myles. When confronted Kennedy admitted he had sought the money, but denied ever laying eyes on it. He told his boss that a check for the amount was in the mail to the Sunrise headquarters of Friends of Children.
"He denied personally receiving the funds," wrote Myles, but "[Hollywood Police] Chief Lamberti verified that he actually placed the $8500 check in Mr. Kennedy's hand 10 to 15 days prior." In the end Friends of Children never received the money, and Kennedy returned the check to the Hollywood police department himself, Myles says.
Meanwhile drug sales continue on the southeast corner of the park, in plain sight of those who have witnessed similar commerce there for 30 years. Boys and young men afoot or mounted on bicycles or motor scooters move slowly along the street, waiting for patrons.
"There's about 30 of them out there selling at any one time," says Guilda Fuller, a 40-year-old mother of four whose life has evolved solely within the ten square blocks surrounding the park.
"Everybody knows the kids who is selling," Fuller says. But people don't try to stop them. Her explanation describes the economic roots of the drug problem in neighborhood families. "When your son is bringing in $600 or $700 every two or three nights, you [ignore the problem]."
Fuller's sister was one of those hurt by what happens in Modello Park. Now 47 years old and in jail, the girl at age 15 had begun to indulge, moving "from reefer to cocaine, from snorting to shooting and then to crack," Fuller recalls. Her sister's first child, a girl, died of AIDS eight years ago at the age of 23. Another child, an addict baby who required drugs for the first six years of his life, is now 26. He sold drugs in the park and spends his time in and out of jail, she says. Another of her sister's children, a nine-year-old girl, has been raised almost from birth by Fuller.
Fuller's oldest son, the first ever in the family to go to college, used to see his father buying crack in Modello Park, Fuller admits. The family connections have made her reluctant in the past to come forward.
"If I go out there and march and start talking, they going to say, 'What she doing? She got kids selling them drugs.' And they right. I got a nephew over there now. But we got to do something."
Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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