Within four hours: Three shootings, two fatal, drug-related as usual. It was a particularly deadly stretch, even for Baltimore, one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, where more than 6 percent of the population is hooked on drugs and the narcotics trade flourishes in slums that are sometimes called "the other Baltimore." Meanwhile, the FBI had just reported that violent crime in the city had increased for the first time since 1999. For Dan Rodricks, a veteran columnist for the Baltimore Sun, covering homicides, drugs, and turf wars was nothing new, though the shootings, combined with the knowledge that the city seemed only to be slipping deeper into a morass of violence, left him unsettled and angry. "You feel like grabbing somebody and shaking them," he said recently. "Can you stop this please?"
As he sat down to write his column for the following day's paper on a Wednesday in early June, he had a thought that, even at the time, seemed absurd. Perhaps he could appeal directly to the dealers to curb the violence. Maybe some would listen. "Dear Baltimore drug dealers," he began, "I promise this will be the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard. Here goes: How about taking the summer off to see what it might be like around here without all the shooting and killing? Serious. How about a cease-fire? A little break could save lives, maybe even your own." He included his phone number in the column and offered to set dealers up with part-time work if they were looking to ease out of "the life." The column drew its fair share of critics, among them a local talk-radio host. Rodricks was practicing kumbaya journalism, some said. Dealers don't want a nine-to-five; besides, they don't even read the paper.
The first call arrived at 4:30 a.m. on the day the column was published, and Rodricks would receive many more in the days, weeks, and months that followed. Indeed, his phone has not stopped ringing since. Most of the callers are men in their late twenties to mid-forties. They are dealers and addicts, some are both. Most have done time. All want out of the game, but don't know where to turn. So they turn to Dan Rodricks.
To date, Rodricks has received more than 600 calls, not to mention those from worried mothers and grandmothers seeking help for their children and grandchildren. On an average day, he gets between ten and fifteen calls, though he has received as many as fifty. "I'm calling about your jobs program," one recent caller told Rodricks. Recalling this conversation, Rodricks chuckled, because, after all, he's a columnist, not an outreach worker. And he's not running a "program" per se. Or is he? Lately, it's certainly been getting harder to find the time to write his column, he acknowledged.
Rodricks, who's fifty-one and has been a Sun columnist for the past twenty-six years, has no experience to speak of when it comes to job placement or drug treatment, the primary needs of his callers. As his original plea snowballed into a local phenomenon, the columnist initially thought to himself, "What do I do now?" As it turned out, he and his callers would help each other. They tell Rodricks their stories, which often become fodder for his columns, and he, in turn, links them to job and treatment programs. One of these programs, Supporting Ex-Offenders in Employment Training and Transitional Services, run by Goodwill Industries, has received nearly a hundred referrals from Rodricks. Of those, twenty-five are now employed and thirty others have enrolled in the program.
If anything, this exercise in public-service journalism has awakened Rodricks to a problem that is far more complicated than he realized. Exiting the drug life, after all, is more difficult than anyone might think. For one, employers are reluctant to hire ex-offenders, and since many firms now run background checks, there's no outrunning the past. He has also found the infrastructure that's in place to help addicts insufficient. The wait for an open slot in a treatment program, for instance, can last days or weeks, during which time some addicts backslide or simply change their minds.
For Sun readers, Rodricks's work may dislodge some misconceptions about the people who live and deal on the streets of "the other Baltimore." "The stereotype is that a lot of the people that live in these neighborhoods are lazy and don't want to work," said Mike Adams, the Sun's assistant city editor. Rodricks has also cut to the heart of an epidemic of drug-related violence that the paper has covered episodically -- "a murder here, an act of violence there, a court case here," Adams said. "He's put a face on a deep problem in this city and other cities as well."
Friends have asked Rodricks when he'll drop the crusade and focus on other things. Perhaps he'll continue through the end of the year, perhaps longer, he said. "I don't know when to stop because the phone keeps ringing, and I've heard so many interesting stories. It's kind of irresistible because you don't know where the next phone call's going to lead."
© 2005 Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism
June 9, 2005 - Baltimore Sun (MD)
Dealers, Deal If You Must -- But Please, Stop The Killing
By Dan Rodricks
DEAR Baltimore Drug Dealers:
I promise this will be the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard. Here goes: How about taking the summer off to see what it might be like around here without all the shooting and killing? Serious. How about a cease-fire? A little break could save lives, maybe even your own.
I know this is crazy, the idea of drug dealers just shutting down the factory for a few months - too much money to be made, and too many customers to serve. And if you back off, even for a little while, some other guy in a long white T-shirt will take your place, and you'll have to find new work.
But I'm not talking about your quitting the life. I'm asking for one step at a time.
You can keep selling drugs. Just stop the shooting and the killing that goes with it.
I'm asking you for a break - for your families and friends, the little kids who live in your neighborhoods, everybody in this city, even those who live in places relatively safe from the violence you guys create.
I know what you're thinking: White boy in the newspaper got some screws loose. Drug dealers aren't going to suddenly lay down arms. Unless everybody goes along with this, there's still going to be killing. Some dealers will use the opportunity to wipe out the competition forever, and instead of giving Baltimore a period of relative peace, this "cease-fire" could result in more assassinations than we've ever seen before.
But I dare you to take the chance, show some testicular fortitude - you can look that up - and make history. I promise excellent media for the drug dealers who honor this truce. If each of you, especially the ones who've been at this a while, takes the lead, the rest will follow. Brothers, we are so tired of this. We've had 30 years of this. Aren't you tired of it too?
You can't tell me all the T-shirts out there want to die young. You can't tell me they want to live in constant fear that someone is going to walk up with a .357 Magnum and shoot them in the back of the head. Would you agree that most drug dealers would prefer just to sell their poison and go home?
So give it a try. Starting now. Let's get some do-the-right-thing among you. Let's get some honor among you. First, no assassinations. Second, everybody pulls back a bit, and you serve your longtime customers on established territories, no matter how small they might be. No encroaching on others' turf. No ambitious expansions. You got it? Everything stops where it is as of today. If you're not making enough money, call me at 410-332-6166 and I'll find some way to set you up with a part-time job. I know a lot of people in this town who would pay to have you come off the killing streets.
Serious. Another thing: I can almost guarantee that, if the shooting and killing stops, cops are going to leave you alone. They might not say that, or ever agree to such a thing, but I'll bet cash money that if you guys lay off each other, they'll lay off you. And you can just chill. You can use this time to reassess what you're doing with your lives. Do you want to spend your remaining years selling dope, risking death or imprisonment? Wouldn't you rather convert your cash to, say, good housing stock?
I was on Tivoly Avenue near Clifton Park yesterday morning. Two men were shot in the 2700 block the night before -- yet another street attack in the city of Baltimore, one of the nicest and deadliest cities in the country. All you guys who are warring over drug territory really ought to get together, pool your funds, and buy and renovate houses off Harford Road, across from the park. Have you missed this? The two-story homes with the nice front porches are very appealing and, if y'all had any sense, you'd be scooping them up at bargain rates and putting them on the market.
So, how about it?
How about a break? My brothers, it's time -- way past due -- to lay down your guns, respect each other's territory and stop fighting and killing.
If the cops won't broker a truce, then you all should take it up on your own. That would be an incredible thing. And you'd do it out of civic responsibility -- to make your city a better place and to make amends for the drug dealing you do. If you're going to continue to make money selling heroin and coke, you can at least drop the violence.
You might save your own butts in the process.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.