MAXWELL:  A double standard on drugs

8/25/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



This is a tale of the two ways the Gainesville Police Department enforces narcotics violations. Or, at the very least, it is a tale about the perception of dual enforcement _ one for the city’s black residents, the other for whites. Unfortunately, what is happening here in Florida’s leading college town happens throughout the nation.

During last week’s Police Community Committee meeting, angry black residents told members that they are sick and tired of cops’ harassment and physical abuse. In attempting to stamp out drug sales, GPD officers have become overzealous, blacks argue. Several young men described being stopped, searched and detained for no legitimate reasons _ other than “standing still while black” or “walking while black” or, as one told me last Sunday, “existing while black.”

Many African-Americans said they do not want drugs in their neighborhood, but neither do they want to see young men mistreated simply because their skin is black. “I worry about my son, not because he uses drugs or sells them but because these cops are going to get themselves a black male no matter what,” a woman said outside a gas station. “My boy’s been harassed three times this year simply because he’s black and lives on Fifth Avenue. Why don’t they go after some of those rich white kids over on University Avenue doing all those fancy drugs all night at those “rave’ parties?”

Indeed, why not case the rave clubs? This is the same question most other blacks and increasing numbers of whites are asking. Throughout Florida and other Southeastern states, Gainesville is known as the “rave capital,” where exotic drugs materialize like manna.

“What has astonished officers in Gainesville and elsewhere is the wide-open nature of rave drug use and sales,” Florida drug czar James McDonough wrote in the Gainesville Sun. “Patrons make no efforts to conceal drug activity, as if this was normal and accepted behavior. Comparing a night on the street to a night in a rave club, one Jacksonville narcotics officer reported he observed far more illegal and dangerous activity in the club.”

Am I reading McDonough correctly? If cops know that designer and traditional drugs _ Ecstasy, ketamine or Special K, gamma-hydroxybutyric acid or GHB, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, LSD _ are pandemic at rave joints, why are they not hauling away wiped-out white kids?

A recent Sun editorial goes to the heart of the matter: “As the controversy over raves has slowly unfolded in Gainesville . . . perhaps the most “unfathomable’ thing of all has been the absence of outrage on the part of the city commissioners themselves to the reports of drug abuse, drug-induced sexual activity, the presence of 14- and 15-year-olds at raves, people throwing up on public streets and sidewalks and the litter of drug paraphernalia.

“At one meeting, Commissioner John Barrow seemed to shrug it off with the observation that drugs have always been part of the Gainesville scene. At another meeting, he otherwise indicated that the whole flap was no big deal.”

These same commissioners believe, however, that drugs _ mostly old-fashioned cocaine and pot _ are a big deal in the black part of town and that the cops should continue their abusive crackdown, as it were.

Local hospital emergency rooms are not reporting excessive treatment of overdoses among young African-Americans. But ERs are treating huge numbers of white rave-goers, most of them young University of Florida students and high schoolers, who have overdosed. Speaking of UF students, many white kids come to Gainesville for the exotic drugs.

They do not do XTC at Mom’s Kitchen, a popular soul food eatery in the black community. No, they do it downtown, often in full view of the police and rave club owners and, apparently, a few elected officials.

This double standard in the shadow of Florida’s flagship university should shame everyone in the state. And everyone _ especially parents who send their Cindys and Brendans off to study _ should be outraged.

Meanwhile, the black community continues to be demonized as an open-air drug market when, ironically, the real drug mecca is in the city’s white business district. But busting well-connected white university students poses more problems than body slamming some black kid.

African-Americans are not excusing drugs in their neighborhoods by criticizing law enforcement and the attitude of the commission. They are simply asking for one citywide standard for narcotic violations.