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February 5, 2007 - Florida Times-Union (FL)

Column: More Effort Is Needed To Lift Up Poor Communities

By Tonyaa Weathersbee

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Last month, Isaac Singletary became the Kathryn Johnson of Jacksonville.

Like Johnson, Singletary was in his 80s. Like Johnson, he had armed himself to keep drug dealers and other assorted bad guys away.

And like Johnson, he wound up being killed by the good guys.

Johnson's slaying at the hands of Atlanta undercover police last November happened when three officers, who were acting on what turned out to be a bad tip from an informant who told them drugs were being sold out of the 88-year-old woman's home, kicked in the door without announcing themselves. Frightened out of her wits, Johnson fired at them -- and they shot back and killed her.

Drugs got Singletary killed by the police, too.

Witnesses say the 80-year-old man was trying to scare drug dealers off his property when he began shooting his .38-caliber handgun. Except it turned out that the guys he thought were drug dealers were police pretending to be drug dealers so that they could arrest real drug dealers.

Welcome to the wacky world that is the War on Drugs.

It's a war that now has octogenarians wielding guns to protect themselves from criminals, only to find that the police may mistake them as such.

It's a war that has done little to cut down on drug use, but more to destroy poor and black communities by applying disproportionate doses of law enforcement, rather than economic and rehabilitative solutions.

It's a war that builds up the prison industrial complex instead of rebuilding communities.

And people like Johnson and Singletary wind up as casualties of all the craziness.

I expect there's more to come.

With the pressure coming at Sheriff John Rutherford from the public and from State Attorney Harry Shorstein to tamp down the county's record murder rate, there will be more desperate attempts to prune potential killers from communities.

The police will probably make a lot of arrests -- considering the fact that drug users and sellers in poor communities tend to do more stranger-to-stranger transactions than affluent drug users who buy from their friends.

Maybe they'll catch some killers. But what they'll probably do is wind up filling the already overcrowded Duval County jail with more non-violent offenders -- and ultimately letting more of the dangerous people out to make room for them.

Like the circumstances surrounding Singletary's slaying, that also doesn't make sense.

Of course, Rutherford is faced with a difficult task. He is, after all, a sheriff in a place where too many people persist on seeing the murder rate strictly as a law enforcement problem -- which means he has to use whatever tools are at his disposal to at least create a sense of safety.

No matter that the undercover drug operations will, in the long run, do little to lessen the users' appetite for drugs or to loosen the drug suppliers' grip -- and nothing to restore the social capital that someone like Singletary needed so that he didn't have to go up against the dealers alone.

And while more arrests and more patrols in crime-plagued areas can create a sense of safety, it carries with it a Faustian bargain.

That is, more money for surveillance of people who might kill someone leaves less money to deal with what is spawning many of the killers: hopelessness fed by economic and social isolation.

But people like Singletary and Johnson wind up dying when heavy-handed law enforcement, and a failed drug war, is embraced as the solution to what is really a societal ill.

Such deaths will happen as long as poor and black communities -- and the leaders who represent them -- allow them to be defined by a society that is bent on using its resources to control them rather than uplift them.

Such deaths will also happen as long as the drug war continues to put poor and black communities in the ironic position of having to accept this trade-off: Some of them may mistakenly be killed by the good guys in order for the good guys to protect them from the bad guys who might kill them. And that makes no sense.

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