I Confess - Isthmus Cover Story, July 21, 2000
Whose fault is it that a crack dealer ended up dead? In part, it's all of ours.
By DANIEL GREENE SMITH
I remember saying, more than once, "Someone is going to get killed unless something is done." And then, one day, someone was. On March 2, 1998, Nathan P. Turner, known on the street as "P," was shot to death. The trigger man was never found, but I know who killed him: The town of Madison, the city of Madison, and even me. I helped. This is my confession.
I met P two nights before, when he was standing in the parking lot of the town of Madison apartment complex I managed, at the corner of Castille and Granada. The property was called Sundance, and P was dealing rock cocaine.
This is how it works: The dealer stands on private property in a high-traffic location. A car stops, the dealer gets in and does the deal. No money or drugs are seen changing hands, and you can't get arrested for getting in and out of a car. Just about the only way police can get you is if you sell to an undercover.
In this instance, as in others, I didn't call police. Instead, I put on my coat, went outside and asked P to please deal somewhere else. Two days later his body showed up dumped on the side of the road in Cottage Grove.
The word on the street was that P sold $1,500 of fake rock cocaine to the wrong person. If you break up certain vitamins, it looks like rock, but of course you can't get buzzed by smoking vitamins. Whoever bought the fake rock evidently loaded him in the car, shot him, and dumped his body.
In the next six months, two more people were killed 100 yards from my front door. And, despite evidence of improvement, the problem persists: Last week in Madison there were two shootings, both possibly tied to drug activity. Why do such things happen? And what responsibility do each of us bear?
A NEIGHBORHOOD IN CRISIS
The story of P's death begins many years before with Charles Dykstra, the former owner of numerous housing units in the Castille area, including Sundance. Dykstra financed and refinanced the property until he owed money to 11 banks. He kept asking for money and the banks kept giving it to him.
The problem was that all of this borrowing created a cash void. The properties owned by Dykstra needed cash so badly just to stay afloat that they were taking any and all applicants. While Sundance was taking anybody, Sommerset and Allied were kicking out their problem residents. The word got out you could get a place at Sundance without a background check. Soon problem residents began to showing up at 101 Castille.
I started as the property manager of Sundance in June 1997. The 104 units I was in charge of had gone bankrupt and were less than 60% rented. The company I worked for had been called in to turn it around and get it rented. That was a lot easier said than done.
Shortly after I started, I called the other owners of the 546 apartment units in the area, some of which were also on the verge of going bankrupt. They were all having trouble finding tenants, and the problem that everybody pointed to was crime.
In September, I went to the town of Madison Police Department and looked at the crime statistics for our neighborhood. That month alone, there were more than 300 police contacts for a neighborhood of 546 apartments, only 340 of which were occupied. That's about one police contact per occupied apartment.
In shock I talked to another area landlord about it. She read to me a letter that was left from a vacated apartment. The letter bragged about "slinging rock" in the neighborhood and referred to the town of Madison as the "Land of the Free."
"What does that mean?" I asked her.
"There's only two police officers on duty at any one time in the town of Madison," she told me. "The crack dealers don't think they can ever get caught."
"What!? Two police officers for the whole town of Madison, to cover here and the Beltline and up on the North Side?"
Our neighborhood alone could have kept two neighborhood officers busy full time.
Within a month of moving on site in September 1997, I knew that I had between 10 and 15 apartments where crack was being used or sold. I approached town administrators and asked for more law enforcement. This is what they told me.
Mike Thiesen, the chairman of the town board, said to me, "If you wouldn't rent to these people we wouldn't have to worry about arresting them." Of course I hadn't rented to "these people"; I came in the game at fourth down and twenty, after "these people" were already there. And besides, a lot of "these people" were good people.
I showed Thiesen and chief of Police, Kevin Lindsey, the crime statistics I'd gathered. The crime rate for our little neighborhood was around 20 times higher per capita than the city. I finally asked, "What‚s the problem here?" The problem was the town couldn‚t afford to hire more police. A cop costs between 50 and 60 k a year, and the town‚s tax base couldn‚t support it. One town official told me, off the record, that the best thing that could happen to the town would be if it were annexed by the city.
Because there weren't enough cops, I tried another approach: convincing crack dealers that they really ought to do something else. Instead, it was they who set me straight.
The dealers I met were all men, and mostly black men. There were some Hispanic and white men in the business, but for the most part the dealers I met were black men, between 13 and 30 years old.
They told me they could buy cocaine in Chicago or Milwaukee for $5 to $10 per rock, and sell it in the town of Madison for $10 to $20. "I can turn $200 into $400," one man told me. "What do you want me to do? Work at Wendy's for $8 an hour? You want me to get a GED and sling burgers for the man? Come off it."
Whenever I explained job options besides crack dealing, the dealers would show me a few things. Like a tightly wrapped roll of tax free twenty dollar bills. Or a gun, a symbol of status within their community. Or they'd gesture to their car, and say something like, "I got what you got and then some."
It's strange. In all our discussions about drug dealing and drug-related violence, seldom do we acknowledge the simple truth: Many people get into crack dealing because at the time it seems like their best career choice.
I talked to the dealers about getting shot, going to jail or prison, and poisoning your body. None of it made a dent. Half the guys thought they were going to get shot or go to jail no matter what they did as black men, so what the hell. The way they saw it, they might as well go into business for themselves, be entrepreneurs. That way if they did get shot or go to jail, at least they'd have more fun while they were around.
One dealer who lived across the street from me put it like this: "All that community action bullshit is just to make it so I can work for the man for the next 40 years and die poor anyway. I'd rather do it my way. I don't want any white guy to make a dime off my ass. Fuck them."
Crack dealing wasn't just a business, it was a rebellion against the Man. It was the invention of another economy. In their minds, there were two America's, two economies, two countries. Living and dying in their America was far better than living and dying in ours. In our America, they were convinced, they‚d play by the rules and get nowhere.
But as I dug deeper into problem, I discovered it wasn't just the dealers who divided our country into two Americas. It was also us, that "us" had created the "them" of crack dealing. We had invented the two Americas.
How come there are poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods? Are people voluntarily segregating themselves by race and class? Not at all. It's policy, and it's not the poor who are making it.
BECOMING A 'HOOD'
Section 8 is a program for the poorest people in the United States. If you qualify for Section 8, you live below the poverty level, and Uncle Sam will pay your rent with certain stipulations. If you're on Section 8 and you have no income, the government pays all your rent. If you make anything more than $0, the government pays less of your rent.
We live in a capitalist society, where more money is better. Therefore, if I'm in Uncle Sam's Section 8 program, the smartest thing I can do is not get an official job so the government will pay all my rent, and then find an off-the-books source of income. Crack dealing and the crack economy are the perfect solution.
In Madison, Section 8 residents are localized to specific properties. Some people in the city have been trying to mandate that everyone has some Section 8 units, but so far those attempts have been unsuccessful. So here in Madison the poorest people live in the same places. That place was my neighborhood.
The town and the city could mandate that for every 100 apartments owned or managed, you have to have four apartments that are Section 8. In that way, the poor people would be spread out, and the drug culture and economy˜the cancer of the second America˜wouldn‚t be so focused.
But it's town and city policy to allow landlords/owners to either take section 8 or leave it to someone else. What happens as a result is Castille Village, which was right down the street from my property. Castille had and still has 54 Section 8 apartments in the same area.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you localize/isolate 54 Section 8 apartments, you're creating an environment that will breed crime and become a 'hood.
With these policies of putting all the poorest people in our city in the same place, the city and the town and the federal government are knowingly creating a crime district. But it's not just the city and the town. It's us that don't want to live or deal with them.
One night I was getting hammered at a local bar complaining about the situation. Some guy who said he lived in the Shorewood put it all very simply: "Who cares if crack dealers are shooting each other ten or twenty miles from my garage? As long as they don't live near me, let them kill each other."
KICKING THE BALL
I believe in our rights to not be searched without reasonable cause or suspicion. I believe more in our right not live in fear, and I was living in fear. There were gunshots every other night. My residents told me stories about how when they heard gunshots they hit the floor to avoid stray bullets and of not inviting their grandchildren over to their homes because of the neighborhood violence.
All of my residents and most of the people in my neighborhood were working poor. Black, Hispanic, white and Native American people, with jobs and integrity and families, but not a lot of money. They didn't want to live in fear but they didn't have the means to leave the neighborhood.
When the city of Madison proposed its controversial loitering ordinance, I went to the meeting in support. Even though the measure would not apply within the town of Madison, I thought it made sense, and would help other areas address problems of the sort that I had seen.
The meeting I walked into was a rude awakening. The people who attended, mostly in opposition, didn't live in my neighborhood, and they kicked the intellectual ball about rights and freedom to each other like kids standing in a circle with a soccer ball. Get the ball, play with the ball, pass it to your friend. They talked about the constitution and due process, not about fear and death.
At the meeting, I made two simple statements: "I'd rather be unconstitutionally searched than unconstitutionally shot," and "We keep trying to get the crack dealers in our neighborhood to wear blaze orange vests that say CRACK DEALER on them, but for some reason they don't want to cooperate."
The response from the group was shaming silence, as if I had just dropped a plate in an expensive restaurant. The debate went on without me.
In their world, the anti-loitering ordinance violated the great intentions of our written creed. In my world, the ordinance was a tool that could help make it so my tenants and I didn't have to worry about stray bullets.
Back at Sundance, I tried another angle. The town or city can seize a property that's being mismanaged and has clear drug trafficking in it, in what's known as "Drug Abatement."
There were several owners who hadn't evicted drug-dealing tenants, or whose parking lots continued to be places for crack deals. I'd confronted the owner and manager of the worst property, and he didn't really care so long as the rent was paid. So I gathered statistics on the property in question. It was a 16-unit, and every month for six months it had the highest number of police calls per unit in the entire neighborhood.
I forwarded this information to the town, asking that it pursue drug abatement. The town responded that drug abatement was "hard to do." I called the Dane County Narcotics Task Force. They couldn't help right away, but maybe later on. I called the chief of police in Madison and he wouldn't take the call, so I called the mayor's office and got an appointment.
Thiesen, the town chairman, asked me not to go to the mayor. He referred to the town of Madison's crime problem as an "in-house" problem. He promised he'd try to help--if I cancelled the meeting. So I cancelled the meeting.
The chairman came to my office at the corner of Castille and Granada. We stood at the picture window and watched some crack deals. He turned to me and said, "You're right. You do need some help down here." He said he would talk to the sheriff to try to get some extra coverage. No help came.
Frustrated, I talked to some police officers in the city about annexing the town. They didn't think it was a good idea. "Why would the city want to deal with this?" one officer told me. "You'd have to hire more police and it would cost money. How would the city pay for it?"
Another Madison police officer told me, "You know, you'll never change this neighborhood." I responded: "Either you have the wrong job, or I do."
'IT'S ALL GOOD'
On Feb. 28, 1998, a Saturday, I came home to my apartment and surveyed the parking lot. One crack dealer. I put on my coat and went outside.
"You need anything?" he asked.
"No, I'm the landlord," I said. "I'm pretty sure you don't want to hit with trespassing or searched." We smiled at each other knowingly.
"You got that right," he said.
I asked him his name: "People call me P," he said. We shook hands.
"Well P, you can go across the street, but not in my lot, OK? and be careful."
"Cool, it's all good. Thanks for the heads up."
I'd sent him over to the parking lot where most of the dealers hung out. Two days later, at 8:57 am Monday, March 2, 1998, they found P's body dumped on the side of the road in Cottage Grove.
For the next three weeks, we had sheriffs and task force officers, wall-to-wall law enforcement. That month, there were probably close to 60 arrests in my neighborhood. But it wasn't over. There were two more drug-related murders, one stabbing and one shooting. (It was a security guard, not the police, who arrested the shooter.) Somehow, while the murders were news, the magnitude of the problem was never really discussed.
I remember P's face, his smile. I remember him telling me, "It's all good." I've thought about him a lot over the last two years.
Looking back on it now, I think just about everybody--the banks, the town, the city, me--bear some responsibility. No one seemed to step up to the plate and get it done. Someone had to get killed to put things in motion.
And even then, the owners and managers didn't solve the problem in the Castille. We moved it. I evicted about 50 units, and a few of my colleagues did the same. Over eight months, the crime rate dropped sharply. But I doubt we really did anything to address the real problem.
Today, the neighborhood at Castille and Granada has come a long way. There is a small community center run by Joining Forces for Families. The crime rate statistics are way down: There were 69 police calls in the area in June 2000, down from 300 in September 1997. I no longer am the building manager, but people tell me that some of the same owners who were a problem two years ago are still a problem today, and the town is still not holding them accountable.
When will we learn? When will Madison insist that we distribute Section 8 units through out the city? When will the town either seize the properties that are the source of violence or let itself be annexed? More importantly, when will we as Americans start dealing with the problem and stop evicting it, arresting it and moving it? When will this country become one America, truly indivisible. I hope my confession is a small motion in that direction.
Daniel Greene Smith, a native of Michigan, has lived in the Madison area for ten years. In 1995, he won the Felix Pollak Award for poetry from the UW-Madison. He currently works as a writer and photographer.