Adrian Ford, executive director of 3 Pyramids Inc., in Fitchburg, acknowledges many of the people arrested for selling drugs are minorities. "You can't dispel the fact that that exists. It's well known that we look into the paper at two things, the death page and the arrest and court log to see if there is someone we know," Ford said.
But the majority of drug users are white, according to Gardner Lt. Gerald Poirier. Poirier is one of the leading officers on the North Central Worcester County Drug Task Force.
"The average narcotics user is a white, average middle-class male," Poirier said. "There are people in the work force getting money and blowing it." The amount of young drug addicts are also mainly white, said Gregg Nadeau, a member of the state police's gang unit.
Roughly 66 percent of heroin addicts were white, 8.4 percent were black, 21.2 percent were Latino, and 3.8 percent were of other races, according to Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Public health officials studied adults who received treatment for their substance abuse in 2003. Hurting their own community Former gang member Juan Rivera, who is Puerto Rican, stopped dealing drugs and hanging out with gang members in 2003 when he realized he was hurting fellow Latinos. "(Gangs are) hurting their own community; we're killing our own kind. If you're angry, go be angry and do something useful. How many of our people are involved in politics?" Juan Rivera said.
"Right now I only have $15 in my pocket, but I feel a lot better than when I had $500 from heroin," Juan Rivera said. "People get involved with drugs in terms of the money they can make. ... The thing is we need to give these kids the opportunity to make money, to give them something to do so they don't have to go to drugs. I'm trying to be that person, to get out of that mold so kids don't have to be high risk."
Time On Their Hands
Miggie Velez, the coordinator of youth programs for the Spanish American Center in Leominster, runs after-school programs to try and prevent kids from getting involved with gangs and drugs.
"Young people who have a single parent who works a double shift have too much time on their hands. They can either hit the streets or go to programs," Velez said. "After 2:35 p.m., kids can come here."
Velez said she is proud of the program and the kids who attend it. "In the past 10 years, I have never had a child in my program become pregnant. That's significant," Velez said. "If you talk to my kids, 100 percent of them don't do drugs, but they can tell you what the drug of choice is in school, and they can all tell you they know someone who sells or uses. If you have that many kids telling you they all know someone who sells or uses, you have a problem." Poverty and isolation Ford said the connection between minorities and drugs is based on a lack of opportunities.
"The root causes of a lot of these things are poverty and isolation within the community," Ford said. "It's hard to talk about crime in the community without talking about joblessness, particularly in a minority community." Ford said the minority community in the region is growing, but the community programs for minority youths aren't.
"Almost half of our population is very young, and the teenage unemployment rate in urban areas is double or triple that of white teenage unemployment," Ford said. "Kids want money. There is a high dropout rate and no jobs, so the underground drug trade has become like a dual economy. It puts people to work." Ford said he feels just as many white people are involved in the drug trade, but they are not selling on street corners and, therefore, not arrested as often. "If I'm out there selling drugs, and I'm visible, of course I'm going to get arrested and show up disproportionately in the paper," Ford said. Javier Rivera, who is not related to Juan Rivera, is a 19-year-old Fitchburg resident who works at Juice Cuts Barber Shop in Fitchburg. Javier Rivera believes many white people are involved in selling drugs. "A lot of times you get the drugs from the white guy up in the hills, but he's a little bit smarter so he doesn't get arrested," Javier Rivera said. "I don't think drug dealing breaks down to race, I think it breaks down to money and opportunity or no money and no opportunity."
Because the majority of the people buying drugs are white, Ford said everyone shares the blame of the drug trade.
"Why do we just look at the distributors? We should also look at who's buying it. Sure there's a disproportionate amount of minorities doing the selling, but it takes two," Ford said.
Velez said racism is still strong in the area.
She said a man spat at her in the Mall at Whitney Field when she was with her children only two years ago.
"It was devastating. The lowest form to degrade a human is to get spit in the face, and I went through it," Velez said.
Velez said she does think police use racial profiling when trying to arrest drug dealers and gang members.
"My kids will come in here with the baggy jeans, the hoods, the colors, and they're honors students. Hey, if they are Puerto Rican they fit the whole ensemble. They're there," Velez said. "They get stopped on the street on their way over here. Based on how they look and the color of their skin, they stand out." Ford said he feels many people believe minorities are connected to gangs and drugs because that's what they see on television.
"There's this profile in people's minds," Ford said. "When we talk about solving the problem, it's like, 'How can you help me when your image of me is mainly in handcuffs?' The idea that we like living like this and gang banging for our children is ridiculous."
But Nadeau said he doesn't look at race. "We target criminal activity; we don't look at race," Nadeau said. "We don't get into why people do what they do."
Fitchburg Police Chief Edward Cronin said he knows most members of the Latino community are hard working.
"There are tons of hard-working people that are Latinos or black," Cronin said. "I think the situation is if a person who is dealing drugs is a minority, naturally the people they are going to network with will be from their own nationality."
Us Against The World
Juan Rivera, the former drug dealer, said he felt like it was him and his gang brothers against society.
"I call it a disease, a virus that lives in my head," Juan Rivera said. "When talking about crime, I'm programmed not to tell on my people. I think, 'I don't want to turn on my people. But really, what am I doing for my people?'" Juan Rivera said many minorities in the area turn to selling drugs and other criminal activities because they feel they don't have support to do something else with their lives.
"I looked at the playground (a rundown playground in the neighborhood where he grew up) and realized the city doesn't care about me, why should I care about them? It was us against them," Juan Rivera said. "The music, the whole culture around gangster stuff, that's us. We're rebelling against society." But Juan Rivera also admits he started dealing drugs because it was an easier and more lucrative job than delivering newspapers or shoveling driveways. "It was me being lazy. I didn't want to get up and go to work, I wanted to stay up until 2 a.m. and sleep late," Juan Rivera said. Juan Rivera said he had no role models as a child and felt abandoned by the largely white population around him.
"When I was in school, the guidance counselor would talk to me about what I wanted to do. I looked at him and thought, 'How can you relate? You don't deal with the next-door neighbor always stealing your stuff to get high or the drug dealing I see on the street,'" Juan Rivera said.
Latinos in the local community don't speak up about violence and crime because they feel police aren't on their side, Juan Rivera said. "At one time we couldn't go to the cops because the cops didn't care, so we just stayed silent," Juan Rivera said. "It's a culture of 'If it doesn't bother me, then I don't care.'"
But Juan Rivera admits some Latinos don't want to take responsibility for their own actions and lives.
"Everybody needs to take responsibility for their own part. I believe I get stereotyped, but instead of doing the right thing, I let that happen," Juan Rivera said. "I was a gang member; I was a drug dealer. It was the fad, the money." But the 25-year-old encourages others to break the stereotypes. "If you feel like someone is being racist toward you, get involved. You already know if you just hit the cop or the mayor, you'll go to jail," he said. Javier Rivera is starting a program with the owner of Juice Cuts Barber Shop on Day Street in Fitchburg to give kids some thing to do after school gets out, an option he never had.
The program is to let kids DJ in the barber shop while people get their hair cut, Javier Rivera said.
"They don't come to the barbershop just to cut their hair. They talk about everything here. They can talk and argue, but there's not fighting," Javier Rivera said.
Bud Tackett, a community liaison for LUK Inc., said he tries to reach out to kids who might be heading toward a life of drugs and crime. "We try to give kids access to different services. We'll do a lot of street one-on-ones where we'll see kids and just go up and start talking to them," Tackett said.
LUK, a multicultural, prevention, intervention, advocacy and treatment service leader for at-risk youths and their families, has a street outreach program where members walk around Fitchburg and Leominster and talk to kids. Tyrone Dudley, who grew up in Fitchburg and went to Fitchburg High School, is the street outreach supervisor and works with kids ages 10 to 17. "I'll do one-on-one counseling. Everybody said Fitchburg has different gangs, but the most I see are groups, groups of kids," Dudley said. "Right now the worst area is Elm Street. Anybody can walk down there and see drug deals on the street and see kids drinking."
Tackett said the group offers a three-pronged approach to help kids. They combine the street outreach with the basic center services and the transitional living program.
Dudley is starting a flag-football program in May for kids who might not have the money to play high school sports.
"And don't think I'm not going to be on them every day talking about drugs," Dudley said.
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