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Protecting innocence isn't child's play

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[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Andy Garr, a neighborhood planner for the city of St. Petersburg, leads the Feb. 26 march against drugs through the streets around the Enoch Davis Center on 18th Avenue S.

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 5, 2002


On the same day last week that a dozen or so police officers escorted roughly a hundred deputized vigilantes into a St. Petersburg neighborhood to yell slogans at a bunch of children and accuse them of selling drugs, the media were up in arms because sheriff's deputies had handcuffed a 15-year-old girl who was babysitting in a house where the burglar alarm went off.

By comparison, the girl got off easy. She was exonerated.

For a few minutes, she was the innocent victim of officers doing their job, verifying she was not a burglar. (Her age and gender, no matter how sweet and innocent her appearance, are not sufficient proof). Then they let her go, her innocence reaffirmed, her academic success and other elements of her goodness published and televised.

The St. Petersburg children, on the other hand, some of them not yet in their teens, were subjected to about two hours of taunting by a group of -- presumably -- otherwise responsible people escorted by the police and sponsored by an arm of city government. Uniformed in yellow T-shirts and white hard hats, these adults faced off with the children at several corners police identified as drug hot spots.

The children, many of them relishing what was likely their only opportunity to be on television, clowned for the cameras, some of them with bicycle stunts, some by dancing to the rhythm of the chants. Some mouthed defiant-sounding immaturities for the microphones pushed into their faces and for the reporters' notebooks.

A police officer who had driven through the area before the march doubted that any of the children were drug dealers. He said the corner had been empty, that most of the kids were drawn to it by the chanting marchers.

When the marchers moved on from that corner, 12th Street and 15th Avenue S, they didn't reaffirm the innocence of the children they had erroneously declared guilty. They left instead with an ominous farewell:

"If you keep selling crack," the leader shouted through a megaphone, "We will be back!" the chorus warned.

Then they marched north on 12th Street, past the boarded up Spanish Mission style house on the corner and the two darkened, boarded up houses next to it, chanting "Up with hope, down with dope."

Addicted to the rare moment in the spotlight, many of the children who had been shouted at followed the marchers and cameras to the next drug hot spot, and the next, where the cameras and reporters and chanting marchers again provided a few more minutes on center stage.

This chanting mob is the brainchild of Herman Wrice, who introduced it to St. Petersburg in the mid-'90s. In theory, the Wrice Process empowers communities and takes away the drug dealer's aura of invincibility, eventually causing him to move somewhere else.

Some contend that the process works and point to some St. Petersburg neighborhoods as proof. Detractors say the process, at best, may merely cause a drug dealer to relocate, and that pushing the drug trade a couple of blocks away is no solution.

It is not pretty, this Wrice Process. It is ugly. It is offensive and, if not carefully targeted, may even be destructive.

The march last week in St. Petersburg was not carefully targeted.

As the marchers stood in the intersection of 12th Street and 15th Avenue S and chanted antidrug slogans at the children gathered there, I asked an officer if that was a drug hot spot. He pointed to a house two doors away. Why, then, I wondered, are these hard-hatted people yelling at these kids?

The answer was not pretty: Many in that crowd, probably most, thought they were confronting drug dealers. Why? The answer got uglier. They had been told they would confront drug dealers, and these little kids look the way they expect a drug dealer to look; their defiant clowning for the cameras was probably seen as further evidence.

What is worse, the realization that they spent a couple of hours castigating a bunch of innocent children will probably not cause them any remorse. There will be no outrage as there was for the babysitter handcuffed by deputies. There will be no threat to sue.

There usually isn't. Black kids learn early that no matter how much America professes otherwise, it applies different rules to them. They're taken to jail when white kids are sent home with their parents. They're vandals and car thieves, when white kids are pranksters and joy riders.

Last week was just another lesson for them, delivered by their police, City Council and some residents, people they should normally look to for positive guidance. It was a negative lesson that bluntly said: Because of where you live and the way you look, you are a drug dealer. Not a suspected drug dealer. The Wrice Process does not waffle; it points the finger of accusation.

So what do you do if you're 10 years old and being wrongly accused, and no one will come to your aid except others who are in the same outgunned boat? What do you do when people who should have your interest at heart instead show disdain for you? What do you do when the people who should guide you into adulthood behave more like children than you?

Clowning for TV cameras and reporters is as good a response as any, I suppose. Talking tough into a microphone to impress your friends is as good as any, I suppose.

The possibilities in the crowd of chanters, which included city officials and prominent leaders in business and the community, clashed starkly with the reality of the night's mission. Were they to have directed their collective and individual resources more positively, every child in the neighborhood could learn what it's like to see a baseball game or a movie, or to talk to someone whose life shows what can be done rather than what can't. If they were to focus that same energy and time on the boarded up eyesores, they could make them pleasant. They could show those same children they chanted at that math really isn't that hard.

In the process, they might even learn that rooting out drug dealers isn't as simple as standing on a street corner chanting accusations at the first black child they see.

Bumped against the possibilities, the reality unfolding was too much to watch. I walked away as they chanted at the same group of kids at 12th Street and 12th Avenue S.

As I passed 15th Avenue, the first hot spot the marchers chanted to, a woman passenger in a newer model car was talking to a young man standing at her window. He had not been among the children who faced the marchers earlier.

"I can't sell anything right now," he said, following those words with something inaudible.

"All right, baby," the woman answered understandingly, and the car pulled away.

Maybe her inaudible words were "If you keep selling crack, we will be back."

No, probably not. That's what they were saying to the innocent kids three blocks away, where the media weren't outraged and no one was threatening to sue.

* * *

In my Feb. 26 column about the negligible difference in drug arrests in various parts of the city, I incorrectly identified St. Petersburg policing District 3 as the southern district. District 3 is the western part of the city. District 1 is the south, which had slightly fewer arrests than the west district over the four years reported.

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