"It's Still Edgy Here"

The feds are helping with the Faheem Thomas-Childs case, but fear still rules Philadelphia.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 18, 2004

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In the past, the feds focused on issues like organized crime and offenses that crossed state lines. Today they often target specific drug dealers and stick-up boys who rarely leave the neighborhoods where they work. The idea is to connect with the same people the Street administration professed to help with Operation Safe Streets, the law-abiding citizens of the city's poorest neighborhoods who've been forced to live in fear for too long.

"This is the ghetto," says John. "I been here 32 years, and I done seen it."

John, who insisted we use only his first name, lives off 53rd and Market in a row home at the edge of one of the city's most desolate and hopeless stretches.

Along Market Street, the end of Drexel's campus marks the beginning of another world: Commercial strips along 40th and 52nd streets offer only bargain clothing stores, check-cashing businesses and the ubiquitous Crown Fried Chicken.

John lives just a block off the latter thoroughfare but says he leaves the neighborhood any time he needs to purchase anything other than a slice of pizza. "Come night time," he says, "these streets change."

John describes the way the hustlers move in and out of homes and businesses to make sales, the way gunshots often mark the passage of time, and shakes his head. "I'm supposed to be the block captain," he says, rolling his eyes. "There are a lot of senior citizens around here. I ask them to show up at a meeting with the police and file a complaint or something, and they tell me they're afraid their house will be firebombed."

The reluctance of his neighbors has made him reluctant too. And police initiatives leave him unimpressed. "Safe Streets is over," he says of the mayor's effort to force drug dealers off the streets. "These streets ain't safe."

Most tellingly, John, like his neighbors, was unaware of perhaps the most ambitious drug sting Philadelphia's seen in the last few years, a sweep that cleared away a drug gang operating on his block.

The February 2002 arrests of roughly three dozen members of a Philadelphia drug ring dubbed the CCO is the kind of old-school arrest-'em-all initiative for which the feds are famous. The gang, led by a dealer named Courtney Carter, sold both crack and powder cocaine on about 18 blocks in West and Southwest Philadelphia.

PW visited each of those corners and spoke to residents where the CCO once operated.

There were positive reports from 54th and Osage and 54th and Addison. There was similarly good news from 56th and Arch, where residents reported a big reduction in drug sales over the last few years. But overall, few knew the arrests had been made, and the vast majority of people reported no change in the amount of drug dealing in their neighborhoods.

The CCO's old corners along Market Street, in the 5600 and 5900 blocks of Catharine Street, at Ithan and Locust and 61st and Arch, merely fell into new hands. Either that, or new dealers turned up a block or two away. Drug dealing is now part of our nature, and nature abhors a vacuum.

"I think I remember something about those arrests," says John, the block captain. "Maybe. But arrests don't mean shit. All that happens is someone else takes their place."

The feds expended massive resources in pursuing the case, which in strictly legal terms resulted in a runaway victory. Only one of about three dozen suspects received an acquittal. Most defendants copped guilty pleas. Federal sentencing guidelines also ensured that each of the defendants, as members of a violent drug trafficking organization, received lengthy prison terms.

On the streets, though, the effort seems wasted.

"I don't know about that [bust]," says Josephine, who lives near one of the other drug corners once owned by the CCO. "I know there's a lot going on here right now."

Josephine, who also asked we use only her first name, is pretty typical of the people PW interviewed. She's unaware of the CCO federal drug sting and wants to focus on the problems she faces today.

Dealers sell product from a nearby Laundromat, she says. Young girls prostitute themselves from her corner to earn money to buy crack. "I don't say nothin' to them young boys," she says, "and I don't say nothin' to them old heads, neither. They'll kill you."

Others merely shrug when asked about the CCO.

In the neighborhoods, dealers come and go.

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