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The crusaders

They descend on neighborhoods after dark, scribbling slogans on sidewalks and shouting taunts through a bullhorn. Their aim: to irritate drug dealers right out of business.

By LANE DeGREGORY
Published October 16, 2005


photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Antidrug volunteers Jeanne Shearer, left, and her daughter, Christina, right, walk with Andy Garr, the organizer of Turn Around St. Petersburg, on an antidrug march down Fifth Avenue near 49th Street S in St. Petersburg. Their chant: “Up with hope, down with dope!”


  photo
[Shearer family photo]
Christina, then 9, poses with her mom and Gov. Jeb Bush. State officials have honored the Shearers for their decade of antidrug work, which began when Christina was 7.

ST. PETERSBURG - Oh sure, she says, smiling. Sometimes they throw bricks at you. Other times it's rocks or shingles. Whatever they can do to try to make you go away.

You get a sticker when someone calls you a b - - - -. Another when someone flips you the finger.

"I must have 100 stickers by now," Christina Shearer, 16, says proudly. "And I'm sure we'll get more tonight."

On this Thursday in September, just before 6 p.m., Christina is in her living room, putting on her shoes. Her mom, Jeanne, is trying to find the flashlights.

They're wearing black jeans and matching T-shirts, canary yellow: the color of drug fighters.

* * *

Christina is petite, pale and loud like her mom. She winds her long brown hair into a scrunchy, loops gold chains around her neck and wrists. She's a sophomore at Gibbs High, a member of ROTC. Her bedroom door is blanketed with a life-size poster of Eminem.

"I'm really into him," she says. "Except for the drug stuff."

She loves bowling and aliens and her boyfriend, Sundance.

Her favorite hobby? Harassing drug dealers. "That's the best," she says.

The wall behind her is filled with framed photos and awards. There's one of her with Gov. Jeb Bush, taken when she was 9. In another, snapped a couple years later, she's posing with Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. A picture from 2003 shows her standing beside St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who gave Christina and her mom a Hero Award. A few weeks ago, Christina's mom hung their newest honor: a resolution from the Florida House of Representatives praising Turn Around St. Petersburg.

"We got to go to Tallahassee to get that," Christina says. "It's because we've been doing this for so long."

* * *

Christina was 7 the first time she heard the bullhorn. She and her mom had just moved to Florida after her parents got divorced.

Her mom was putting her to bed when shouting started outside the window: "Save the babies! Save the children! Up with hope! Down with dope!"

A dozen people dressed in yellow shirts wielded flashlights and carried chalk. They were marching up the street chanting and cheering. Two police officers flanked the group, and a cruiser followed, flashing its blue lights.

What's going on? Jeanne asked an officer. We're on an antidrug march, taking back the neighborhood, he said. We do this every week, in streets all over the city.

Jeanne ran back inside and got Christina out of bed. Get dressed, she told her daughter. We're going with them.

That night, Christina and her mom marched until midnight. They've been trying to flush out drug dealers every week since, sometimes two or three nights a week. For 10 years.

* * *

It's raining when they leave home, a steady drizzle, just enough to wet the chalk.

"See you later," Christina says, scratching her dog, Cocoa, behind his pointy ears. The year-old chihuahua is too tiny to keep up with the marchers.

The Sherarers' green Ford is covered with bumper stickers: It's drug-fighting time! Turn around America! Death to drug dealers! Nothing undercover about this ride.

Last month, when Christina and her mom pulled into a neighborhood to march, six men surrounded their car. "They were pretty big and all that, blocking us in so we couldn't get out," Christina says. "I got a little freaked."

A police officer approached the car and the men walked away. "It was sooo cool," Christina says. "We made them back down."

She has seen cops tear-gas a house; kids being handcuffed; rocks of crack confiscated from a car. She taunted a grandmom who got busted for running a drug house. She watched prostitutes stalk their customers, then pointed them out to police.

"I live for that," she says, laughing. "It's so much fun."

Some kids at school make fun of Christina for being so straight. One girl pushed her down the stairs. At parties, classmates try to talk her into smoking pot, rambling on and on about what she's missing.

Christina says she never scolds or lectures. It doesn't do any good to try to talk to them, she says. She just gets up and walks away.

Even her boyfriend doesn't understand. She keeps asking him to march with her. But he's embarrassed.

So why are Christina and her mom so vigilant in their crusade? Why would a mother keep taking her daughter out to march through darkened neighborhoods, to be spit at, cussed at, flashed and mooned by suspected drug dealers? Why would a teenage girl enjoy that?

* * *

Just before 7, Christina's mom parks in front of Westshore Pizza off 34th Street N. Four other people in yellow shirts are inside, waiting.

By the time Christina finishes her first slice, the group has grown to 10. There's a neighborhood association president, his wife and grown son, a landlord who owns property along U.S. 19, a pair of police officers and two elderly women - the only African-Americans in the group.

Everyone greets each other like old friends, which they are. Some of these folks have known Christina since she was in second grade.

"What time is it?" a big man booms, striding into the pizza shop. All the yellow shirts stand up and turn toward the door.

"Drug-fighting time!" they shout.

"That's weak!" the big man bellows. "What time is it?"

This time, the yellow shirts dig deep.

"Drug-fighting time!" Their cheer reverberates through the restaurant.

* * *

Andy Garr is a monolith of a man, almost as broad as he is tall. He has the face and voice of a Southern Baptist preacher. Even more zeal. He's a neighborhood planner for the city of St. Petersburg. He helped found hundreds of antidrug groups across the country.

For years, back in the '80s, Andy worked in Philadelphia with his best friend, Herman Wrice. They watched the crack epidemic crumble their neighborhoods, saw dozens of kids die. The marches started, he says, because people got sick of seeing their streets taken over by dealers.

"Even in the worst neighborhoods, 90 percent of the people are good," Andy says. "Most folks just want to be able to sit on their porch and not have to worry about gunfire or some dope dealer approaching their kids on the corner."

The idea is to let the bad guys know you're watching, he says. Police usually pick which neighborhood to patrol, some place where they've gotten a lot of complaints about drug use, or where they have a warrant to arrest someone. Sometimes the yellow shirts march around the block. Other times they target a single house, bombarding the occupants with angry chants broadcast through the bullhorn: "Eight ball, eight ball, in this block - cocaine sales have got to stop!"

"After two or three hours, they just can't take it," Andy says. "It's like flushing out roaches with a flashlight."

Sure, he admits, sometimes the good folks get annoyed at a crowd shouting outside their windows while they're trying to put their kids to bed. But the world won't stop spinning just because a couple of kids lose sleep, he says.

Isn't keeping them clean more important?

And sure, Andy acknowledges, the suspected dealers might come back as soon as the yellow shirts leave. "But they didn't sell anything that night, did they?" he asks. "And they don't know when we'll be back."

There are 350 Turn Around America sites, spread across 20 states. In some cities, police sponsor the marches; in others, Crime Stoppers or housing authorities or business associations organize the groups. "Over the years, we've probably had 200 people march in St. Pete," Andy says.

Christina and her mom were among the first. Even after a decade, Christina still is one of the youngest and most dedicated drug fighters. "Her enthusiasm inspires us all," Andy says. "That girl has a steel rod for a backbone."

He pays for the pizza, then calls the group around him. It's dark outside the restaurant, almost 8. "Okay, we're going down 49th Street tonight, to Fifth Avenue S," Andy announces. "There've been a lot of complaints about open dealing in that area." He walks toward the door, then spins to face his army. "Now, what time is it?"

* * *

When she started marching, Christina didn't know what drugs were. To her, everyone was just hiking in the dark, making a lot of noise, following the police officers. Her mom had to bribe her with Taco Bell to get her to go.

But as the years went by, and she went through the DARE program in school, Christina learned about the dangers of drugs. She got scared for herself and her friends. She started wanting to help wage war.

She also learned about her parents. And her big brother.

"Her dad was a big druggie. I was too," says her mom, who is 48. "Coke, pot, I was into white crosses (speed) big-time. Her dad wasn't going to clean up his act. So I knew I had to do something." One morning, just before Christina started kindergarten, Jeanne says she quit cold turkey - just flushed all her drugs down the toilet. At least the illegal ones.

She divorced her husband, moved Christina across the country, landed a job counseling boys in a group foster home. Jeanne's two sons, who are grown, stayed in Arizona. It was too late to look out for them.

Christina's older brother, who's 28, has been in and out of jail because of drugs for years. Jeanne vowed not to let that happen to her only daughter.

That's why, that night she first heard the bullhorn, she knew what she had to do. "It gets you all pumped up," Jeanne says. "Christina and me, we feed off confrontation."

* * *

They park in a vacant lot off 49th Street, across from a BP station. Christina bends over the back seat to grab a police radio and box of sidewalk chalk. Her mom carries the flashlights and a pack of Virginia Slims.

"Okay, circle up. Everyone, over here!" Garr calls. Standing in the center of Fifth Avenue S, he gets the drug fighters to put their arms around each other. Then he raises the bullhorn to his lips and starts chanting.

"Up with hope! Down with dope! Up with hope! Down with dope!" The yellow shirts echo his call a dozen times, each time a little louder. They start marching up the street, a pack of mostly white people traipsing through the predominantly black neighborhood, following a creeping cop car, shouting warnings. "Drug dealers, drug dealers, you can't hide! We accuse you of genocide!"

At the next corner, Christina drops to her knees. She slides a piece of chalk from the box - yellow, of course - and starts writing on the asphalt. Up with hope, down with dope! The boxy letters are at least a foot high.

"Standing tall and looking good!" Andy calls.

Everyone answers, "Cleaning up the neighborhood!"

On the next street, a teenage boy with his boxers hanging above his jeans saunters down his driveway. He watches the marchers for a minute, then starts hurling obscenities.

"We're fired up!" Andy shouts through the bullhorn.

"We ain't taking no more!" the yellow shirts respond. Christina's voice is the loudest of all.

A few blocks later, a van pulls up and parks by a mailbox. Four college-age kids tumble out and thread their way into the house. A porch light beams above the doorway, but Andy chants anyway, "If you support the fight, turn on your porch light!"

"If you support the fight," all the drug fighters echo, "turn on your porch light!"

After the third time, the light goes off.

Andy and the yellow shirts keep marching. But the cops can't let that go. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem, right?

The two officers walk behind the van, shine their lights on the license plate, and write down the number.

"That's just wrong," a girl on the sidewalk tells her friend. Her name is Sharell Allen. She's 16, same age as Christina. She lives in this neighborhood and came to see who was making all the noise. "They're so loud!" Sharell complains to her friend. "And all those bright lights flashing through your house. That's just wrong."

"They need to go home," her friend agrees. "They ain't gonna make no difference around here."

* * *

By 9:30, the drug fighters have circled back to the BP. Three pickups and a Jeep are parked near the gas pumps. A dozen teenagers are propped against the hoods.

Christina and the other yellow shirts plant themselves across the parking lot, under the street lamps. Andy raises his horn. "See these lights?" he shouts, pointing above his head. "These are the ones I was telling you about," he yells, loud enough for the loitering teens to hear. "They all have cameras on them with 360-degree rotation. The cops can keep an eye on this whole place."

Christina holds her hand across her mouth, trying not to giggle. She's heard this tale so many times, but it still makes her laugh. To think someone might believe him.

The teenagers pretend not to be paying attention. But they don't leave. They just stand there, staring. No one draws. No one retreats.

While the drug fighters stand their ground, the police officers scour the parking lot for evidence. They find three tiny, empty plastic bags and a handful of plastic cigar tips. "If someone really smoked this, they'd leave some cigar at the end," one cop tells Christina. "See, they take the tobacco out of the cigars, reroll them with marijuana. There's been an awful lot of partying in this parking lot."

After a few minutes, one of the teenagers across the lot sidles toward the streetlight and looks up. He's wearing high-top sneakers, baggy jean shorts, a white undershirt. His neck is draped with gold chains.

Sure, he looks like a poster boy for drug dealers. So does Eminem.

"Wow!" Christina whispers to her mom. "Mmm, mmm. That boy is fine!"

Her mom looks over, then bends across the driveway with her chalk: Drug dealers got to go!

"Where's my cigarettes?" Christina's mom asks, straightening. "I need me a smoke."

* * *

The standoff stretches past 10 p.m. Everyone is hot and tired and ready to go home. Just when the yellow shirts are about to turn back, a man walks over from the restaurant next door carrying a tray filled with cups of water.

"Hi, I'm Don Leak. I own this place," he says, pointing to the Mid-Peninsula Seafood Market. "I just want to thank you all for what you're doing."

He passes out the ice water, shakes a dozen hands. "Not a day goes by that I don't see them out here dealing or doing drugs," he says. "Mostly dealing. I've seen the difference you all made in the neighborhood across the street. But then they moved up here, in the alley. I'm glad to see you guys on this side of the street tonight."

While everyone thanks him for the water, Christina grabs another stick of chalk. The drug store is closed, she writes on the driveway.

She's not sure, really, how much she is really helping. She doesn't believe she is making a difference. "But a difference is being made," she says. Her mom keeps a record of every arrest they've witnessed. Already, it's more than 100. About equal to the number of stickers Christina has earned: one for every time someone threw a brick at her, or spat at her, or pulled down their pants.

"All right, let's head across the street here," Andy finally calls. The police cruiser turns sideways, blocking traffic on 49th Street. The dozen drug fighters file toward their cars. Andy keeps his bullhorn up, keeps chanting in time, "Here we go again, antidrug march again."

"Marching down the avenue," Christina answers with the other yellow shirts. "No more drugs and we'll be through."

When they get back to their cars, one of the drug fighters opens her tailgate. She unfolds a long table and starts arranging trays of cheese cubes and pearl onions and pickles. The spread is enough to feed 40 people.

Andy hands out stickers: moons for the night march; boot prints: they walked a long way. Then everyone helps themselves to crackers and olives and bottled water. Each week, someone else caters the post-march party. They're all in this to combat drugs, but the camaraderie is important, too.

"So last weekend, we started drinking early," Christina's mom tells a cop, talking about another group of friends. "It was so funny. A bunch of us ended up at the Pier downtown, and I brought the dog.

"We were drinking Coronas, carrying on until way after midnight. Then we decided to get the dog drunk," says Christina's mom. "You should've seen him, it was so funny, his little eyes all glassy, staggering around."

The cop doesn't smile. He looks at Christina, then her mom. "Jeanne," he says, clapping her on the back. "Isn't that dog a juvenile?"

- Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com

THE WAR ON DRUGS

- Turn Around St. Petersburg is a group of volunteer drug fighters. Every week, sometimes two or three times a week, members march in the streets or hold vigils outside the houses of suspected drug dealers. Police usually pick the neighborhoods or homes to target.

- More than 200 drug fighters have marched in at least 50 neighborhoods throughout St. Petersburg since the group started 10 years ago.

- For information, call Andy Garr at 727 893-4110 or e-mail him at andy.garr@stpete.org

[Last modified October 13, 2005, 09:14:03]


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