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A clean sweep of east Tampa crime? Or a dusting of its surface?

By MARY JO MELONE
Published May 13, 2003

The mayor was so full of hope. The police chief was so determined.

But the mood in one corner grocery in east Tampa was subdued and wary of the two-week crackdown Mayor Pam Iorio announced Monday on the neighborhood's drug trade.

"It might look good, statistics-wise," said Jimmie Jackson Jr., 43, who runs the store at 34th and Osborne with his father. "But it's nickels and dimes. You've got to work both ends."

No doubt about it. The police will be going after the street dealers, not the kingpins. And that bothered Jackson deeply. "These kids aren't bringing the drugs into the neighborhood."

That's true. But day in, day out, Jackson sees them dealing. Nobody was around when I pulled up, but Jackson said there have been plenty of occasions when he chased pushers from his corner.

His store sells everything and then some. Shoe polish and collard greens. Cheeseburgers made to order and several varieties of Phillies Blunts - cigars that, Jackson pointed out, are typically split lengthwise, stuffed with marijuana and then smoked. Selling the cigars to anybody over 18 is perfectly legal. About a half dozen of the cigars were sold while Jackson and I talked.

The police figure that two-thirds of the people they will arrest in Operation Commitment over the next two weeks will be people they already know, dealers with long records. This is the kind of number that fuels the frustration of people like Jimmy Jackson. You arrest them, and they're back out again in days. They stay clean for a little bit but then they just have to score some more and get arrested again.

I asked Jackson how many people he knew like this, people whose lives had been wrecked by drugs. He let out a small whoop. He couldn't guess - there were so many.

Jimmie Jackson Jr. has a gentle, thoughtful-looking face that belies his feelings. When I asked him how his own children escaped the lure of drugs, he said, "(They) knew that if I caught them on any corner selling drugs, I'd beat the hell out of them!"

Still, he had sympathy for the drug dealers, a sympathy that an outsider found a little strange. There comes a point, after all, when you have to be responsible for yourself, no matter how lousy the hand you've been dealt.

But Jimmie Jackson was concentrating on that hand. He knew the dealers as kids. He had watched them grow up, such as it was. Often they had no families, no genuine love. They turned to what glittered.

The police are planning 24-hour patrols in 18 known drug holes in east Tampa. I spent a couple of hours Monday afternoon trying to talk to people in the largely black neighborhood about it. The results were discouraging enough to make me wonder just much success the city will have.

I came across three teenagers who said the neighborhood was being unfairly targeted, that the police ought to be going after the dealers in other parts of the city.

I talked to two shop owners who were too fearful of the dealers to let their names be used, although one did show me the gun he keeps within reach at all times.

Reality is what you see through your eyes, from where you stand.

Even though Jimmie Jackson wasn't thrilled to the bones with the mayor's project, I asked him what he would ask Mayor Iorio to do, if he could. He said he did not want more busts, more police presence at 34th and Osborne. He thought about the dealers, again.

He wanted Iorio to find a way to reach them, to teach them values, to look beyond the glitter, and to learn finally "that you could still make it in life without that."

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

[Last modified May 13, 2003, 02:01:16]


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