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From New Jack City to Liberty Square

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Flickr: alancleaver_2000
Flickr: alancleaver_2000

In the film New Jack City a drug dealer named Nino Brown takes over an apartment complex called "The Carter."

Nino uses the building to manufacture and market crack cocaine: "One place to make the product, and one place to sell it." As armed thugs patrol the hallways, tenants become prisoners in their own homes. In Liberty Square Apartments, a 750-unit development in Miami, something similar is taking place. The building has been literally taken over by drug gangs, with murderous results.

Thirteen shootings took place in the apartment complex in a two-month period. Recently, a man in a wheelchair was killed, presumably by "stray rounds." Children, who live there, could be next.

In the New Jack City film the police respond by dedicating a special police unit to focus on "The Carter." The Miami police announced they have dedicated a nine-man police squad to focus on a single Liberty City apartment complex. Is this life imitating film? I don't know, but, tragically, the formula of more police will likely not win "the war."

After 30 years of sweeps, stings and massive arrests, what is still taking place in Liberty Square proves the drug gangs are undeterred. A $270,000 surveillance system was supposed to stop the violence, but the cameras often don't work. Perhaps, as in the opening scene of the TV show The Wire they were hit by someone throwing rocks.

Forgive me for asking but are drugs even the "cause" of the violence?

Most drugs lack the pharmacological properties to cause violence themselves. Al Capone didn't shoot people because he was drunk, and Nino Brown didn't kill people because he was high on crack.

The violence occurs, according to Harvard Professor Jeffrey Miron, largely because of prohibition. "We don't see violence being used to resolve disputes in legal industries, with rare, rare, rare exceptions" says Miron. He estimates that 50 percent of the violence we are seeing -- like that in Liberty square -- is an effort to resolve disputes in underground markets. And getting rid of one murderous drug dealer, like a Nino Brown, is only a temporary fix. He is quickly replaced.

The war on drugs has only succeeded in creating a lucrative black market. The price of an ounce of cocaine is three times higher than an ounce of gold. A rational consumer would not buy a toxic substance at such a price. But addicts are not rational; the high price will not stop the demand.

The very idea of a "war on drugs" is part of the problem. As Professor Kenneth Nunn pointed out wars are not fought against inanimate objects. They are fought against people. Intentionally or not by targeting low-income communities -- like Liberty City -- it has become in effect a war against the black underclass. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has written that in many large cities black youths on the streets of inner cities are subject to sweeps in which groups are rounded up -- those who fit the profile -- locked down and told if they plead guilty they will get probation. Most plead.

Years ago in the 1990s, I was called into Channel 7 as an expert to watch a video about a sweep taking place at an inner city apartment building. Police dressed in SWAT gear formed a ring around the building. They ordered everyone coming in or out to lie down and turn their pockets inside out. I still remember a little girl and her mother being searched at gunpoint. The little girl was crying. I hope that tactics like these are not being used in Miami. But the problem with the military mindset is that the end tends to justify the means.

Closing Down the Carter

When the show The Wire comes on -- an HBO drama about drugs and crime -- it shows scenes from Baltimore's inner city with a blues song about good and evil playing in the background. That linkage: sin-drugs-ghetto drives our moral panic. We have to get beyond this imagery to solve the urban crisis we face. I want to propose a radical solution. I use radical in its original sense -- as in getting to the root cause of a problem.

Liberty city like so many inner city areas represents the legacy of our segregated past. The black poor are concentrated there in ghettos where, as Julius Wilson has noted, work has disappeared. How can we begin address this? A massive jobs program would help. But before that happens here is an idea:

If dangerous chemicals contaminated a building, the city would consider relocation to deal with the public health problem. That is ultimately what the drug problem is. In the aftermath of a crash in housing prices, thousands of homes are now available for sale or rent at fire-sale prices. Why not fund relocation of innocent Liberty City families into some of these homes. The city would have to fund the cost of a first months rent, security deposit and moving fees.

Liberty Square could be condemned as a nuisance. It could then be turned over to some community use, perhaps a new community center. This will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, of course. But this will be far cheaper than continuing our local version of the drug war if you consider the potential $65,000 a year it costs to incarcerate one person. And how much would it cost to replace a failing $270,000 camera system?

Whatever the cost lets make sure the children of Liberty Square can finally be safe.

Donald Jones is professor of law at the University of Miami where he teaches constitutional law. He is the author of "Race, Sex and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male" (Greenwood Press 2005).

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