Promises! Promises!

  • submit to reddit

Bill Moyers examines how the effort to police drug violence plays a major role in presidential politics. Through one community, we see the vanishing rule of law in America, the loss of faith in our institutions and future, and our political failure to cope.



MICHAEL DUKAKIS: We’re going to have a real war, not a phony war against drugs.

GEORGE BUSH: Drug-related violence is turning sections of our cities into combat zones.

MATTHEW BYRNE: I’m not worried about the Russians invading the United States. We’ve got an internal enemy here.

BILL MOYERS: Yet I hear the politicians, the candidates, talking about the war on drugs.

GENE ROBBINS: The war’s not here. I don’t see it.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: When the politicians stop trying to get the vote to stay in office, it will go right back to square one. The people who live here will be fighting every day to keep what they have earned and what they have worked hard to get.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] I’m Bill Moyers. Talk politics anywhere in America these days and there’s no mistaking; people listen to the politicians and the pundits, and what they hear leaves them feeling distant from the process and disillusioned with the system. The frustration’s been building. In the last presidential election only half of the eligible voters actually went to the polls.

But all that is generalization. In this report we’ll look at one American community. We picked a neighborhood on the front lines of the drug war. That’s the issue most Americans say is their number one concern. It dramatizes the vanishing rule of law in America, the loss of faith in our institutions and future, and our political failure to cope. What we found here is a gulf. Where people live, the rhetoric of politics these days barely connects to the realities of ordinary life.

[Theme music from “All in the Family” begins]

[voice-over] This is south Jamaica, Queens, a working-class community nestled between New York City’s Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports. There are places like it all over America. Just down the road from Archie Bunker’s “All in the Family” neighborhood, South Jamaica drew middle-income blacks looking for a better life. Most people here have jobs, pay taxes, and own their homes on blocks made for kids and bikes on summer afternoons. But to live in South Jamaica is to see another side of America.

1st WCBS NEWSCASTER: WCBS news time is 8:21, 39 degrees in New York. A little boy has been killed in a fife in South Jamaica, Queens, this morning. We’re going live to Queens and WCBS Newsman, Jim Asindio. Neighbors and residents say crack dealers tried to take over the house, and when the residents fought back, the crack dealers began a war of terror that ended with this morning’s fire.

2nd WCBS NEWSCASTER: A grandmother in Queens reportedly was killed in an apparent retribution for testifying before a grand jury about a shoot-out that she saw.

3rd WCBS NEWSCASTER: A police officer was murdered in New York City this morning.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Death after death reported in passing news briefs. But this one last winter drew national attention. Patrolman Edward Byrne, 22 years old, was assigned to protect a witness whose house had been fire-bombed, a witness in a drug case. It was an execution, a message from the drug dealers that South Jamaica is ruled not by government but out of the barrels of guns. Byrne’s father Mathew is himself a retired police officer. He saw in his son’s death a warning that anarchy is growing fast in America’s neighborhoods.

MATTHEW BYRNE: [delivering speech] For many years we’ve heard about the so-called war on drugs. The drug peddlers are now telling us that they’ve declared war on society, and you and I are society. And now the question becomes, what are the decent people of the world going to do as a result of his death?

BILL MOYERS: That speech struck home at Americans across the country, and with the politicians.

Rev. JESSE JACKSON: One thing’s for sure, cities cannot stop the drug war. Down with drugs!

CROWD: Amen.

BILL MOYERS: South Jamaica suddenly became good campaign material.

GEORGE BUSH: You read about the execution of Officer Edward Byrne. You’ve read about the drug-related violence that’s turning sections of our cities into combat zones.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: My friends, the streets of America do not belong to drug peddlers and crack gangs; they belong to us, and we’re going to take them back.

BILL MOYERS: But in South Jamaica the rhetoric is drowned out by another reality.

1st POLICEMAN: Where’d the other guy go?

2nd POLICEMAN: He went around the comer.

BILL MOYERS: For two years the neighborhood has been the target of a special drug crack-down program ordered by the New York City Police Department. Murders here still rose by more than 30 percent last year, an increase blamed on crack.

3rd POLICEMAN: This is a trigger 357 magnum. It can do a lot of damage. These bullets went through the vest?

4th POLICEMAN: Sure.

3rd POLICEMAN: These bullets go right through a police officer’s vest.

BILL MOYERS: On almost any comer you can find business going on. Here’s something changing hands. And here. And here in broad daylight the boy goes to a hiding place, takes his merchandise, hands something over to this man, and again here. And the teenage businessman counts a roll of bills. In South Jamaica you don’t have to be an adult to work in the drug trade. This comer market is right next to a school.

AARON DOZIER: I’m afraid now. I always believed if I got off the LST in Normandy that I would survive, but here you don’t even know — if you go out your door you might get shot.

BILL MOYERS: Aaron Dozier lives down the block from the school yard drug market. He’s a World War II veteran and a retired postal worker.

[on camera] Officer Byrne was killed right near here.

AARON DOZIER: Yeah, about four blocks from here.

BILL MOYERS: And what happened after that?

AARON DOZIER: They set up a headquarters in the house that he was supposed to be guarding, and all the dope pushers moved over to this side of the street.

BILL MOYERS: They just lifted up their—

AARON DOZIER: They took up their equipment and walked right over here.

BILL MOYERS: They must not be very—

AARON DOZIER: Stand by the school.

BILL MOYERS: Have they harassed the kids on the block?

AARON DOZIER: Sometimes, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Try to hustle the drugs to them?

AARON DOZIER: They try to make the kids either be lookouts for the police or have the kids selling it for them actually, because a kid can’t get any time. What can he do? They have a kid make the deliveries.

BILL MOYERS: [indicating police sirens] Every time you hear this, what do you think? You’ve been in combat zones before, do you ever think this is a combat zone too?

AARON DOZIER: Yep. All night you can hear pistol shots, sirens.

BILL MOYERS: There was a nurse shot not far from here.

AARON DOZIER: My wife’s-she worked with her. Eighteen years my wife worked with that nurse.

BILL MOYERS: With the nurse who was killed. She was shot in a line of fire.

AARON DOZIER: Yeah, caught in the line of fire.

BILL MOYERS: Maxine Peterson was shot to death last spring, apparently by drug dealers aiming for somebody else.

[on camera] Is your wife afraid?

AARON DOZIER: My wife is very afraid, yes.

BILL MOYERS: She’s didn’t want to be interviewed on camera because-is that the reason?

AARON DOZIER: Right, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Aren’t you a little nervous going public this way?

AARON DOZIER: I’m nervous, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you do it?

AARON DOZIER: Somebody has to take a stand. Someone has to stand up to this thing. Start with a little man and build it up, maybe a big man might get the idea.

BILL MOYERS: A big man. A president.

AARON DOZIER: Right. Hopefully.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] On Aaron Dozier’s block drug dealers reportedly operate out of one of the houses. They’ve moved in with the elderly owner. In this modest neighborhood expensive cars have become a common sight and many residents feel they’re under siege in a place that once was home.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: As a child you could play in the street, and going outside meant you could go outside and leave the doors open. People had respect for each other’s property.

BILL MOYERS: Maxine Tribble grew up in South Jamaica. She lives now just down the block from her parents, and just a few doors from a recently shuttered crack house. Maxine and her husband Ralph own their home. Both work at a Manhattan psychiatric center. He is a recreation therapist, she is a supervisor.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: Here you are working a legitimate job, trying to raise your family, and you’re trying to carve your own little niche. Okay? And here you have someone else who has absolutely no respect for you, no respect for your family, no respect for what you’re trying to do, to tell you, “Look, this is the block I want and this is what we’re going to do, whether you like it or not.”

BILL MOYERS: The Tribbles have joined with a few neighbors, like Doug and Betty Evans, to try and reclaim their streets from the drug dealers.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: Look, you want it? You take it up to the comer, not in front of my house. Ralph will get outside and tell everybody, he said, look, “that house, this house, that house, that one and that one, they all belong to me. Don’t stand here.”

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] But wasn’t that risky? I mean, there have been several people who’ve spoke up, fighting back against the drug dealers, who were hurt.

DOUG EVANS: Well, that’s true. You can get hurt. But, you know, I think your neighborhood is what you make it, you know. You gotta say something. If you got kids that-you know, like Ralph goes out there and tells those people to move on, don’t stand in front of our house and sell drugs. You gotta do those things, you know. You could get hurt, but sometimes you just have to do that because there’s only so much you can take.

BETTY EVANS: I remember one weekend the police raided Maxine and Ralph’s block, got the drug dealers and, you know, they were harassing them, so they came over to our comer. I called the police and I said no, and they told me they didn’t have police cars available to get rid of the drug dealers on our comer. And I said, “Don’t give me that.” I said, “Your men were a block away not 15, 20 minutes ago, and you’re going to tell me you don’t have any men?” I said, “Get those men out and get those boys off this comer.”

BILL MOYERS: What goes through your mind when you see your children go off to school?

MAXINE TRIBBLE: Brian takes a school bus. But even the walk from where he gets off, which is roughly a half block, anything can happen to him. He’s nine.

ELENA MANNES: Do you ever hear of bad things happening around here?

BOY: Yes.


GIRL: We was here when a man got shot.

BOY: Over there.

GIRL: Over there at the store. We heard a shot. We saw them go out the door.

BOY: And then we saw a guy running and saw another kid running after him.

GIRL: All the way down the street.

BOY: No, down that way.

GIRL: Yeah.

ELENA MANNES: Is that scary?

BOY: No.



GIRL: As long as we didn’t get shot.

ELENA MANNES: Why do you think he got shot?

GIRL: He did something wrong.

BOY: Drugs probably.

GIRL: He didn’t pay the man.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: It happened, I guess, not five minutes before he left that Monday morning. Someone was shot. And my son goes that way to catch his bus. And my concern is that, what would have happened if he or any other child had been near him at the time? They could have just as easily been shot.

LANCE TRIBBLE: When you hear about little kids getting shot because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, you know, they could be outside in front of their building. I don’t think that’s the wrong place at the wrong lime. You know, if that’s their house, they should be able to stand in front of their house without getting shot at and all that type of thing. I don’t think that’s the way to go.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Tribble’s oldest son Lance comes homes for vacation. Two years ago he left South Jamaica to live with his grandmother and go to high school in North Carolina.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: He just -said, he said, “Mom, there’s too much craziness.” He said, “There’s too much.” And he said, “I can’t even sit on my own step without having somebody walk by and ask me, ‘Are you working?'” working meaning, “Are selling drugs?”

LANCE TRIBBLE: A lot of it has to do with -I say -the law enforcement, I mean, and look at it now. One set of people go to jail, and the next set rise up, they go to jail, and the next set rise up, then that set who got put in jail before comes back out and knocks the next peg back down, so here we go again. Here we go one more lime. Nip it in the bud, stop it right there, you know, instead of letting it go on and on and on, like you’re breeding drug dealers. You know, that’s the way it seems to me.

BILL MOYERS: South Jamaica was home to one of the suspects in the killing of Officer Byrne. Nineteen-year-old Todd Scott was arrested along with three other young men, all allegedly acting under orders from a drug gang leader. Scott is awaiting trial. His lawyer agreed to an interview. On condition that we ask no questions about the case, Scott would talk about the life he led growing up in South Jamaica.

[on camera] A lot of people have never been in a neighborhood like yours. Tell me what it’s like. Is it a good place, a bad place’?

TODD SCOTT: I couldn’t-it was just like home, man, you know. It’s the only place I knew about. So I couldn’t say if it was good or bad, it was just home. It was bad, though, that’s the only life you knew, you know, being in the projects, doing whatever had to be done—

BILL MOYERS: Bad in the sense of what?



TODD SCOTT: Drugs and shootings and all that, you know. You had to belong. It’s like being, you know, belonging. You had to go with the flow

BILL MOYERS: Go with the flow. Do you remember when you first heard about drugs?


BILL MOYERS: How old were you?

TODD SCOTT: I was like to.

BILL MOYERS: Ten. Were a lot of kids making money from selling drugs?


BILL MOYERS: Tell me how that would happen.

TODD SCOTT: Well, if you see somebody driving a Benz or having money and having jewelry and stuff, you know, you want to be like that. So the only way to get it is go to fast money.

BILL MOYERS: Fast money.

TODD SCOTT: Fast money.

BILL MOYERS: And that would be drugs.


BILL MOYERS: How much could a kid make running drugs?

TODD SCOTT: From like $250 to $500 a day.

BILL MOYERS: Two hundred and fifty?


BILL MOYERS: To $500 a day?


BILL MOYERS: Could a kid say, “I want in the business, or does he have to be recruited?

TODD SCOTT: You have to know somebody or somebody has to introduce you, you know.

BILL MOYERS: But was that hard?

TODD SCOTT: If you knew the right person it wouldn’t be.

BILL MOYERS: Who would the right person be?

TODD SCOTT: A friend, a relative, somebody you know. You start out just working for a person and move your way up. Somebody introduces to somebody and if somebody takes a liking to you, then they’ll put you in a bigger position right away, you know.

BILL MOYERS: What would that be, a bigger position.

TODD SCOTT: Like a lieutenant or something. ‘

BILL MOYERS: What would it take to be a lieutenant?

TODD SCOTT: You do good, you make a lot of money and the boss promotes you.

BILL MOYERS: How much would it take to-how much would one have to sell in order to get to be a lieutenant?

TODD SCOTT: It’s not a matter of selling. It’s like trust and loyalty, you know, honor and respect. That’s what it is, it’s not selling.

BILL MOYERS: Did you ever hold a job when you were in school?

TODD SCOTT: No. Most jobs I had was delivering papers or something, cutting grass.

BILL MOYERS: And would pay?

TODD SCOTT: Not enough. Twenty dollars for cutting somebody’s grass or something like that, you know.

BILL MOYERS: And that would take a couple of hours.

TODD SCOTT: Yeah. That’s not a career though. People want a career, something that will take them through life, you know.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In the housing project where Todd Scott lived, the next generation is growing up in the same world of drugs.

ELENA MANNES: What do you got there?

1st BOY: Four crack bottles.

ELENA MANNES: What do you have there in your other hand?

1st BOY: Look’s like a needle top.

2nd BOY: You all shouldn’t pick them up. Them dangerous.

3rd BOY: I know.

GENE ROBBINS: You have to be an independent person. You can’t follow what everybody else does. I never had a desire to sell drugs. I mean, the consequences are either death or jail.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Gene Robbins grew up with Todd Scott, just blocks away, and went to the same school. Now he comes to South Jamaica only to see his family. He’s a scholarship student at MIT, studying electrical engineering.

[on camera] Did many of your friends get involved in the drug business?

GENE ROBBINS: Some of them, not all of them. Quite a few.

BILL MOYERS: What happened to them?

GENE ROBBINS: The ones that are involved in the drugs business, a lot of them are in jail, some of them are still selling, some of them are dead: 30/30/30.

BILL MOYERS: How did you manage to stay out of the business?

GENE ROBBINS: When I was in the ninth grade, that’s when I started-my mother started making me and my brother go to church, which gave us some morals, you know. A lot of people around here don’t go to church; they have no morals.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you think those kids get involved?

GENE ROBBINS: Money, plain and simple. Money. That’s what talks around here. When you have money, you do about anything you want. I mean, that’s all they think about, money. It’s easy. It’s easy and it’s fast.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Not only easy, but maybe inevitable. In the last decade South Jamaica has lost more than 50 percent of its jobs, and nearly 25 percent of teenagers over 16 are neither in school nor working. Statistics from other cities across the country tell the same story we heard on the basketball court.

ELENA MANNES: Is it hard to find jobs right here in the neighborhood?

1st TEEN: What?!

2nd TEEN: Right here in the neighborhood?

3rd TEEN: Not in this neighborhood. There are no jobs in this neighborhood.

2nd TEEN: Unless you want to work at a Soul Food.

3rd TEEN: The Soul Food.

2nd TEEN: They want to pay you like $175 a week, but they want to slave you 12 hours a day. That’s not even minimum wage.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] And when Gene Robbins comes home from MIT, he finds his two worlds growing even further apart.

GENE ROBBINS: Out here, you know, you’re taking a chance with your life. Every day somebody might just come up to you, and if you say the wrong thing to somebody they might pull out a gun and shoot you.

ELENA MANNES: When’s the last time you all saw a gun around here?

2nd TEEN: A gun?

3rd TEEN: Yesterday.

2nd TEEN: This morning. Nah. My little sister looks out the window and see a dead body across the street from her house.

3rd TEEN: Every day you come out, it’s a big question. Are you going to live through the day or what? Will I make it through the day?

2nd TEEN: Will I make it through the day?

GENE ROBBINS: Shooting somebody randomly and not even mean a thing, I mean, it doesn’t even phase their minds. It’s like, “He shouldn’t have messed with me.” That’s all.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Shortly after we taped this scene one of these boys was shot and wounded in the stomach and arm. The shooting was reportedly drug related. Gene Robbins used to play in this very park with Todd Scott. But even an old schoolmate grows cautious when asked to talk about the accused murderer now.

GENE ROBBINS: As long as you mind your business, usually you’re okay. But the minute you cross that boundary and you’re cutting into somebody else’s profits, that’s when the violence starts.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] If the folks around here knew about a drug-related crime, would they report it to the police?

GENE ROBBINS: That wouldn’t be wise.


GENE ROBBINS: Because if you’re found out, your whole family might suffer as well as you. And you want to take that chance?

BILL MOYERS: Do you know of that actually happening?


BILL MOYERS: What happened?


BILL MOYERS: How’d it happen?

GENE ROBBINS: I’d rather not talk about that.

BILL MOYERS: Does it make you nervous silting here in public talking about this?

GENE ROBBINS: No, because I’m not going to tell you anything that’s going to get me in trouble.

BILL MOYERS: But you could, you could get in trouble just by talking about drug dealers.

GENE ROBBINS: If anybody snitches on a drug dealer and they get found, they’re as good as dead, or hurt, very badly hurt if not dead.

BILL MOYERS: Do you get immune to the violence around here?

GENE ROBBINS: Yeah, because people have been shot around here that’s never gotten on the news. I mean, it’s never been reported. People have died around here and, I don’t know, I’ve never seen it in the newspaper, or anything. I could say, you know how the government-I mean, let’s say the city writes off some neighborhood; maybe they wrote off this one.

BILL MOYERS: And yet I hear the politicians, the candidates, talking about the war on drugs.

GENE ROBBINS: The war’s not here. I don’t see it.

BILL MOYERS: So there’s a gap between the rhetoric and the reality of people’s lives here.

GENE ROBBINS: Yeah, a great gap. It’s an abyss. A chasm, not just a great gap. A bottomless pit. Those are words more descriptive of the gap that I see.

BILL MOYERS: [interviewing] This is the year book.

KEN BERSON: Yes, it is.

BILL MOYERS: Show me the two kids.

KEN BERSON: All right, here is one youngster, Todd Scott, and here is Gene Robbins.

BILL MOYERS: Two kids, almost on the same row of pictures in the same year book from the same school. One is claimed by the street and the other one goes to MIT. Who’s winning right now, the Gene Robbins’ or the Todd Scotts?

KEN BERSON: I would like to say the Gene Robbins’ are winning. I don’t think the Gene Robbins’ are winning. And I say that knowing full well that I will be criticized for saying that.

BILL MOYERS: It must hurt you to say that.

KEN BERSON: I does, it really does. Easy, easy, I don’t want anybody hurt geting off the bus.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Ken Berson is the principal of Gene Robbins and Todd Scott’s junior high school. A principal’s day starts at the school bus door.

KEN BERSON:Let’s go, let’s go.
[to Moyers] There were many day I was out on the comer with a baseball bat, not letting my students go to the left and making them go to the right. To the left was a drug house, to the right was the school. My youngsters do not come in here wearing all sorts of gold chains, and they don’t come in here wearing beepers. Now, I know they’re not doctors on call. A beeper is a signal that they’re peddling.

[at schoolbus] Go ahead, hang around on the other side, but not on school property.

[to Moyers] You see a youngster standing on a comer not in school. Why is he there? He’s a lookout or he’s going to deliver something to someone else. A car will pull up, give him a package, he’ll deliver the package. Now, why are they using the youngsters? Because until they’re 16 there is very little that the police can do with this youngster. They can pick him up five times. Five times they can pick him up and they have to let him go because he’s under 16. The laws protect all youngsters. Unfortunately it’s a way for the abusers of these laws to get around it. This year alone we’ve lost-I’ve lost two of my children, and they were both killed tragically.


KEN BERSON: Both drug related. It’s something that children should not have to deal with. Unfortunately our children face it more than ever.

BILL MOYERS: More than ever? What’s happen to change it?

KEN BERSON: I think it’s indicative that when children and adults look in the newspaper, when they read about their political leaders being involved in problems. I’ve had children say, well, why should I not do this or why should I not do that when, look at my senator or look at my assemblyman or look at my congressman, they’re indicting them, or look at this person, look at the person in Washington, is it possible that they were really making pay-offs to countries that were growing-that were supplying drugs to this country? Children really are more sophisticated than we give them credit for and they pick up on this.

[in classroom] How would you, if I said, Okay, you’re now in charge of this problem, how would you deal with the problem with drugs that are affecting not only the area, but the country?

1st STUDENT: You have to have new jobs to start for people so more people are going to be working. And less — I probably think less drugs will be going around, because the people have jobs. I understand that that’s why they’re doing the drugs in the first place.

2nd STUDENT: Have like a community watch for people, and if you see anybody selling drugs, report it to the police.

3rd STUDENT: But no one’s going to do that because people are scared.

KEN BERSON: Okay. Why are people scared?

3rd STUDENT: Because people are getting gunned down for speaking the truth and coming out.

KEN BERSON: When we talk about the drug problem, obviously what does this involve doing—

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The average age of first drug use in the United States is now 12 and a half. Direct federal spending on drug abuse treatment and prevention in New York State has not grown at all in the last decade. Five hundred million dollars that Congress earmarked two years ago for local government has stalled in the bureaucracy; less than half the money has been spent. And today New York City’s drug education budget is actually half of what it was in 1970. The city spends about $18 per student per year.

KEN BERSON: We need programs to keep children in school, not only in school from eight in the morning to five at night; we need evening programs where children can be taken off the street, given somewhere to go. And we have recreation programs, that’s true. But they’re limited. Our buildings are really monuments to disuse, because they’re not being used properly, they’re just not, and it has to do with money. The classrooms aren’t being used, the computers aren’t being used. Why aren’t they being used? Why are our students allowed to be out on the street where they’re going to get into trouble? Unfortunately I don’t know what’s going to be done, and that’s what bothers me.

BILL MOYERS: I don’t believe that.

KEN BERSON: That’s what really bothers me. I don’t see-as I said, I don’t see anything. All I hear is rhetoric, and I don’t see any programs coming out of Washington.

WOMAN: [speaking up at meeting] Why do we have to have a major drug war before we get any attention, as far as the politicians are concerned, in outside communities? They don’t care. As long as they get my vote, that’s the only time I see them, that’s the only time I hear from them is when they want my vote.

STEVE MARSTON: [addressing group of tenants] This past February when Officer Ed Byrne was murdered not too far from here, we received a lot of adverse publicity. With all the focus and the attention that we got, I had some expectation of having the drug situation somewhat cleaned up by now. You know as well as I do that hasn’t been the case.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Steve Marston is the public housing manager at South Jamaica Houses, the project where Todd Scott grew up. When he urged tenants to pressure the politicians, he was given a warning by his superiors.

STEVE MARSTON: I was reprimanded for not always agreeing with the housing police. I’m telling you that I am not willing to write off South Jamaica Houses to crack or to any other crime around here, and I think it’s about time that you and I reclaimed our pride in who we are, our place and our rights.

BILL MOYERS: Most of the project’s tenants are long-time residents of a decade or more, and most are working people; only 25 percent receive public assistance.

STEVE MARSTON: I’m at a loss as to what to tell the tenants when somebody comes in and says, “Gee, the drug dealers want to rent a room in an apartment. And I told them no, and they threatened to cause me harm.” What do I, as a housing manager, tell these people? I’ve exhausted all the remedies that are at my disposal, and I really feel for these tenants and I wish there was more I could do. I don’t know, I get complaints daily from the tenants about drug activity, where people are loitering and lingering in public entrances, in the stair halls. They use the stair halls and roof landings for bathrooms. The tenants have been harassed, threatened, beat up, and some of them have even been murdered here because of what they’ve known about drugs. One of the things that really concerns me is that every arrest involves maybe to, 12 hours of overtime. In other words, the police are given the message that if they make more than two or three arrests a month they’re going to get in trouble.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Ed Zitek is a New York City housing patrolman assigned to South Jamaica Houses. The tenants call him “Rambo” because of his arrest record.

ED ZITEK: My rust month here I made 22 arrests and it caused a lot of overtime. They weren’t used to that when I got here. June and July alone I had to put in 130 hours overtime, and I believe it was about 20 to 25 arrests right here in this same area, for drugs, crack.

[From housing rooftop]

He’s straight ahead, right over there. There he is right there, sitting there. He’s got a black shin on, blue dungarees, black hat. I got him twice. He’s been arrested about eight, nine times probably.
Honestly, I think we do more paper pushing than anything. If somebody has to vials or less, I’ve gotta give him a DAT, providing he has no warrant. A DAT is a Desk Appearance Ticket. It’s to cut down overtime and crowdedness in the court. They don’t want you to get the system jammed up. I take a person in for a DAT, providing he has no warrants, I issue him a Desk Appearance Ticket where in the future he returns to coon on a specified date and time to answer the charges. Actually he’s out in two and a half hours; me, I’m in for the rest of the tour. And then when he’s got my DAT in his pocket, he’ll come down here and complete what he wants to do because I’m sitting back doing the rest of the paperwork that goes with a DAT. So I am very, very much against giving anybody DATs for drugs. I find it a waste of time. Might as well give him a regular traffic ticket and he’s out the door. He gets fingerprinted and photographed, but he’s down here and I’m out of service. It feels like you’re throwing sand against the tide.

STEVE MARSTON: I think it’s unfortunate that the number of arrests are dictated by overtime policy. I mean, I want the cops to be as serious about this drug problem as my tenants are and as I am and my staff is.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Are you saying that the pressure to keep down overtime is effecting the arrests that are made?

STEVE MARSTON: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what does that say to you?

STEVE MARSTON: Well, it makes me and a lot of people question how serious this war on drugs is.

BILL MOYERS: We’ve had a war on drugs now for seven years.



STEVE MARSTON: I haven’t seen it here.

WCBS NEWSCASTER: Police and federal agents conducted a major drug sweep in Queens today.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] On August 11th city police, the FBI, and the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency did carry out raids allover South Jamaica. They arrested 30 alleged members of the gang headed by Fat Cat Nichols, the man police believe may have ordered the killing of Officer Byrne.

JAMES FOX, FBI Official: There should certainly be a message here to even the most hardened drug lord, that if they start fooling around with law enforcement as they did with Ed Byrne, they’re really going to have to pay the price.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But even this raid came only after a police officer was killed, and just a week after the arrest, police from the local precinct saw other drug gangs already moving in on Nichol’s turf.

POLICEMAN: Spread your legs and look at the car. Don’t turn around and look at me, you got it? MAN: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: It was business as usual for cops like Sgt. Ernie Naspertto.

ERNIE NASPRETTO: The minute we leave here, within 10 minutes someone else will come in and sell, and they’ll be out themselves selling again probably within three or four days. Cops are going to tell you, “Hey, I made the arrest.” The assistant district attorney’s going to tell you, “Yeah, you did make the arrest, but I also got 300 arrests here that I’m processing.” The judges are going to say, “Yeah, I’d love to send this guy away forever, but corrections is telling me there’s not enough places to put them.” And corrections is saying, “I’m already at 114 percent capacity. What are you sending me here?”

POLICE MAN:[chasing suspect] Okay, now, Jimmy, now.

ERNIE NASPRETTO: The bottom line is the prison system has to be quadrupled, so that when you do get arrested you actually do go to jail.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] When slate and federal laws providing stiffer drug penalties take effect, on the prisons and courts will grow. To pay for more jail cells and police, New York City’s Mayor Koch is calling for a cut in city services.

POLICEMAN: Go ahead, search her right now. Do you live here? Yes or no.

WOMAN: — is over here.

POLICEMAN: What’s his name?

WOMAN: Palo.


ELENA MANNES: Does this do any good, this stuff?

ERNIE NASPRETTO: I don’t know. If I had the answer I’d be on the, you know, the ticket in November. I don’t know. It’s a matter of priorities. We have to change our priorities. You know, we’re so concerned about the Persian Gulf and Nicaragua, legitimate concerns. But the thing is, if we erode from within, what good is it? How can you protect American interest throughout the world if you erode from within? And that’s what’s happening with this drug epidemic.

BILL MOYERS: In the battle to save South Jamaica, some are turning to an unofficial army.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: [in class] Our first battle is with our own selves, to be able to claim the right to have discipline over ourselves. Strength, spiritual strength rust.

BILL MOYERS: Abdul Mutaka Bhir is a Muslim. For eight years he’s been running a martial art school in South Jamaica, training neighborhood children in self-defense in his program called SWAM.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: SWAM is the ingredient to help mature us and develop us to the utmost of our ability. So, again, SWAM means what!

CHILDREN: Strength! Wisdom! [unintelligible] and Maturity!

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: [to Moyers] SWAM means struggle, and it definitely has been a struggle against the drugs that’s out here, with no help from the political forces. Even the city itself is at us trying to take our building we occupy to try to run our organization.

BILL MOYERS: After the Muslims renovated the building at their own expense, the city tripled the rent. Muta Kabbir got a personal loan. But the Muslims are still fighting to hold on to the building and stay near the children of South Jamaica Houses.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: This has been labeled the graveyard of South Jamaica. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] A playground out on the graveyard.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: Yeah, a playground in the graveyard. But even in the graveyard, like I said, there’s still individuals that are in the graveyard that are still jewels in the mud, you see, individuals that still basically have the inspiration within themselves through all the struggle and all the sacrifice to able to feel that they have the enthusiatical spirit to be able to raise themselves up out of the mud and to become somebody.

BILL MOYERS: Jewels in the mud.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: Jewels in the mud. So this is basically what I’m trying to be. I’m trying to be an individual that’s an archaeologist in this part of the earth.

GLORIA TYRELL: Good morning.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: Yes, ma’am, how’s everything?



GLORIA TYRELL: I saw your name on the —

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] To many parents Abdul Muta Kabbir has become as a local hero.

GLORIA TYRELL: For me the work you do. In fact, I want you to help my son.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: Oh, thank you very much, ma’am.

GLORIA TYRELL: And we’re right here in the neighborhood, so we’re aware of the good that you’re doing.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: Thank you very much.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] I’m Bill Moyers from Public Television. How are you?

GLORIA TYRELL: Yes, Mr. Moyers, how are you?

BILL MOYERS: Do you live around here?


BILL MOYERS: What does a man like this mean to you? We hear all the Lime that there aren’t any role models in the black community, male role models.

GLORIA TYRELL: He means to us in the community that if anything breaks out that we can’t handle, we go to him. It means that rather than -and this is not a knock to the churches, this is not a knock to the politicians -but we feel, my son and I feel more secure going to him for some type of aid for our home and our well-being than we would any of the local politicians or elected officials.

BILL MOYERS: But what does it say to you that you have to tum to a private individual, to a religious order, to protect yourself from crime, from drug dealers —

GLORIA TYRELL: The system has broken down, the system has broken down. There’s a laxity in it now that’s going to spread.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by the system? You mean local government? State government?

GLORIA TYRELL: All of it, all of it.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: All the way from the top, all the way down.

GLORIA TYRELL: All the way, all the way. It cannot be just one.

BILL MOYERS: Are you going to vote this fall?


BILL MOYERS: Of course. Do you think it makes a difference?

GLORIA TYRELL: I want to say it — I want to be optimistic, and I want to say all the things, I really want to say the good. But in this year, 1988, I don’t think my vote is going to make that much of a difference.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In South Jamaica the normal ground rules underlying citizens’ faith in government seem to be breaking on every front. On street after street, residents live amid a wasteland of neglect, junk fills empty lots that could be playgrounds. Two decades ago the city issued a redevelopment plan for the neighborhood. It was never carried out until this summer. Suddenly the city announced a renewal program that could mean the demolition of many homes and businesses.

BETTY EVANS: They’re tearing down all these buildings, all the buildings this way. There coming down the block, they’ll take your house —

BILL MOYERS: To the Evans and their neighbors, this urban renewal plan meant just one more battle for their turf, and this time they were fighting not just the drug dealers but city hall.

Mr. PROFIT: — which none of us will be able to afford, so that means we’re out of the neighborhood. That’s the only way I can see —

BILL MOYERS: Once again in South Jamaica, government seemed not friend but foe.

Mr. PROFIT: We’ve been in this neighborhood all our lives. This is where we started from. When we first came here we were just paying rent, now we own all of this. These are our roots here. Who wants to give it up?

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: [at meeting] Me and the constituents that’s with me, we have put all our nickels and dimes and our blood and our sweat and dreams into our organization. We had no help from no politician, we had no help from basically nobody in the community. But we still stood up. They’re going to tell me I have to leave the area, which I want to stay in and do something greater for our community.

BILL MOYERS: And now Abdul Muta Kabbir was not the only one fighting to keep his building.

1st SPEAKER: I’ve heard the word urban renewal about 100 times tonight, but one word I didn’t hear is gentrification. Now, that’s a nasty word, because what it means is that you uproot all the people in a certain economic level and put them someplace else, and replace them with people from a higher economic bracket. We have to start thinking how many of us will be included in that group. That’s all I have to say. Thank you.

CAROL BANNER: Two years ago we came to this same room. We were assured that this would not happen. We were assured that nobody-there would be no rezoning, nobody would have to be relocated. We were assured of it. Now what can you say to me? I don’t want to give up my land, because I have it for my children to have someplace to stay. You talk about housing. There are houses there that are empty, that are abandoned that the city owns. Why don’t you clean up what we have before you try to take something. If you want to do something, clean up the drugs, fix up the abandoned buildings. There are buildings all along Southern Boulevard and Shore Avenue. We have not been assured of anything by anyone until the city gives us this information which they choose to dole out as they see fit. Now, what’s gonna be done? Our property is going to be taken, we’re going to be pushed out of this community? Not me. Not me. And I know damned well these people here ain’t gonna take it. Not again.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] What would it mean to you if the city succeeds, if these homes are bought and turned into

MAXINE TRIBBLE: What would it mean to me? It would mean the loss of 29 years of my life, it would mean 29 years of working for my parents to get what they have, and for a lot of the people on this block to get their part of the American dream, only to have it taken away from them by someone who does not live in the area, nor do they care about what happens to you, because it’s not happening to them.

BILL MOYERS: But isn’t it a good idea to come in and clean up this neighborhood, hoping that in the process you can throw the drug dealers out’?

MAXINE TRIBBLE: It’s one thing to remove the drugs from a neighborhood, but it’s another thing altogether to take a home from someone who has lived there for 20-some-odd years, who has raised their family, most likely their grandchildren are being raised in that same home, and displace them because of somebody’s grand idea of what they think the model city should look like. It’s like the farmers in the mid-west. They’re there for generations, and it was the saddest thing to me to see a farmer whose father and grandfather and father before him have worked the land, only to have some big combine come in and swallow them up.

And that’s What’s happening here.

NEIL DIAMOND: [singing] Everywhere around the world. they’re coming to America.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In South Jamaica these days, politics plays to a tired house.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: We’re going to have a real war, not a phony war against drugs. And, my friends, we won’t going to deal with drug-running Panamanian dictators anymore.

DOUG EVANS: I hope so. I think that’s what’s wrong with this country. We’re making too many deals with the wrong-people.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Do the people who live here expect very much from their political leaders, from the system up the line, or have they lost faith?

BETTY EVANS: I think they’ve lost faith, I really do. They’re very, I would say almost apathetic to the politicians.

DOUG EVANS: But everybody don’t vote here, because most of the people don’t believe in voting, because they don’t think they’re going to get anything if they vote. They don’t think that-it’s like they really don’t think that voting works.

RALPH TRIBBLE: We used to take people to the polls once in a while. Like, we used to vote, but then nothing happened. That’s where the apathy came in. Nothing happened, so they just said the heck with it, why vote?

BILL MOYERS: Who’s really at fault do you think? Is it the government? Is it

BETTY EVANS: It’s everybody.

BILL MOYERS: Are the people themselves—

BETTY EVANS: It’s everybody. I think it’s everybody.

BILL MOYERS: It’s that the politicians calmly listen and then disappear.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: You have to have someone to take the leadership role.

BETTY EVANS: And it’s propping up now.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: Slowly. I have been asked by a few people, and I keep telling them, no, because, to run for a local office, and my reason for saying no is very simple, because I think I can do more at this level. Because when you start moving into the political arena, you may not want to but there are too many games that are being played, and I don’t like playing games where I feel that lives are at stake, and it’s the lives of our young people, because they are our future.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: My friends, four years from now when our citizens walk along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., or when they see a picture of the White House on television, I want them to be proud of their government.

RALPH TRIBBLE: Promises, promises, promises. That was a play. Let’s get it off the stage and make it for real in the real World on the street.

GEORGE BUSH: Now you must see me for what I am, the Republican candidate for president of the United States…. My opponent’s view of the world sees a long, slow decline for our country, an inevitable fall. But America is not in decline. America is a rising nation.

BILL MOYERS: You can cross party lines in South Jamaica and find the same view of politics. Aaron Dozier, the World War II veteran choose his party 40 years ago.

AARON DOZIER: Since Eisenhower was the European theater commander and I was in Europe, I switched to vote Republican because he was a Republican.

GEORGE BUSH: My administration will be telling the dealers, “whatever we have to do we’ll do, but you’re day is over. You are history.”

AARON DOZIER: They’re promising always there’s a bright future, this and that, but when they get in office you don’t hear anymore about it. War on drugs: every day in this little neighborhood there’s a bust or there’s a killing. My grandkids are still here in this environment. As an honest Citizen, we don’t have nothing. We’re at the mercy of these people.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] You fought for this country, you believed in it all your life. Do you feel let down, betrayed?

AARON DOZIER: Yes. I think they could do more to stop this drug thing.

BILL MOYERS: They talk about it all the time,


AARON DOZIER: Excuse me. We’re paying the National Guard, we’re paying these troops weekends. To have them go out and patrol these areas, run these crack dealers off of the street

BILL MOYERS: It’s gotten bad enough that you’d be willing to take that kind of chance with our civil liberties?

AARON DOZIER: That’s right. It’s destroying this country. Like Greece existed for 200 years and it was destroyed from within, Italy. All the great nations was destroyed from within. And this drug is beginning the destruction of this nation we don’t figure a way out how to solve it.

BILL MOYERS: Hi, Michael. How are you?



AARON DOZIER:] A kid like that’s very vulnerable in a neighborhood like this, isn’t he?

AARON DOZIER: Sure. He’s about three, think.

BILL MOYERS: You had to cope with drugs in your own family, haven’t you?

AARON DOZIER: Yes. I lost one son.


AARON DOZIER: Overdose of heroin. I have a daughter that’s in a re-hab center. Her children are living with me. She’s being rehabilitated now.

BILL MOYERS: For drugs?


BILL MOYERS: If I were Michael Dukakis or George Bush sitting here and talking to you on your back stoop, what would you say to me? What do you think will happen if we don’t come to grips with this?

AARON DOZIER: We will be a third-rate country. We’ll no longer be first class in anything. We won’t be able to control it.

BILL MOYERS: It’s already taken over your neighborhood.

AARON DOZIER: My neighborhood? It’s taken over most o[ The country. This is just a starting point. It’ll spread like wildfire.

MATTHEW BYRNE: [making speech] Are we now going to roll over and play dead because we are afraid of them? Are we going to throw up our hands in despair and run behind locked doors because we believe That They are invincible and that they cannot be stopped? I would like to think that the answer to these questions is a very resounding no.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In The months since The death of his son, Matthew Byrne has been making speeches trying to raise money for the war on drugs and arouse communities to political action.

MATTHEW BYRNE: This is the time to do it. You’ve got November 4th coming up. You’ve got between now-because if you don’t get them now, you’re not going to get a shot at them for two more years. Okay? So if you’re to get them, get them now. And ask them point blank, “Damnit, what are you doing [or me besides sitting in an office and mouthing all of these causes that you come up with?” Thank you very much again.

BILL MOYERS: But out in the real world, on the comer where his son was killed, Matthew Byrne knows The odds of reversing the cycle of destruction That’s claiming the South Jamaica’s of America.

[on camera] Michael Dukakis and George Bush have never been to l07th Avenue in Queens. But if I were Dukakis or Bush standing here with you right now, Mr. Byrne, what would you most want me to know and in my inaugural address say about this?

MATTHEW BYRNE: Well, I would want you to know that The war on drugs in a real war and that we, in effect, have lost our streets. I’m not worried about the Russians invading the United States. We’ve got an internal enemy here that is virtually taking over our streets. And I’m not talking about just in New York City. Again, some people say, “Well, that’s a New York problem.” It’s a problem that’s pervasive throughout the country. And I would say to both of them if They were standing here that this is no joke, we’ve gotta take those streets back, and tough measures are required, and if you’re not ready to take those lough measures then don’t take the job. Don’t get up and talk about it. Do it.

BILL MOYERS: Who’s accountable ultimately for what’s happening to us with drugs? Is it the government? Is it people, or suppliers, is it users? Where can you put the finger of responsibility?

MATTHEW BYRNE: Well, I don’t think you can point that to anyone segment. I don’t think we can blame law enforcement or the politicians. But if I had to single out one class -and I don’t like to paint with a broad brush -the one class that I am most incensed of is the so-called casual users of drugs. There’s no such thing as a victimless crime when it comes to drugs. You have people standing on street comers now getting slaughtered by these mutts. And I found out recently, in the jargon of the drug dealer, when they kill an innocent person, that
person is referred to as a mushroom.

BILL MOYERS: A mushroom.

MATTHEW BYRNE: A mushroom. So when you hear someone saying, “We offered a couple of mushrooms today,” they’re talking about they killed innocent people who were standing on a street comer and got in the line of fife, because they were having a war with a rival drug dealer. It shows you the very low regard they have for human life when they can refer to you and I as a mushroom.

BILL MOYERS: What happens to a people when they lose their basic faith in the ability of their government, local, state or national, to provide that basic security that is the first right of life?

MATTHEW BYRNE: Well, then you have a society where people never leave their houses, they go in, they lock the door, they throw up their hands and they say, “No one can help us.” And that leads to anarchy. That’s when the people on the street take over, such as down in Columbia where you have a bunch of goddamned hoods running a country. There’s no government in Columbia anymore. The government are the cartels and they’re running it. And that’s what happens when people lose their faith in the ability of government to protect them and of government to do something about their problem.

WOMAN: We are all taking a stand to take back our community. Tonight is the first night

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This summer a few residents held a vigil outside the house where Officer Byrne was killed.

DOUG EVANS: I came basically because the guy got killed here, and when I look at the house that’s what I think of. People here are really afraid of getting into trouble and getting hurt.

BETTY EVANS: Or being seen is more like it —

DOUG EVANS: Yes, being seen, yeah.

BETTY EVANS: -by the drug dealers.

DOUG EVANS:If you see that they’re out, that means that they’re really sincere and they really want to see the neighborhood change. And as long as people still have the guts to stand up for what they believe, it’s gotta change. You know, punks can’t tell you what to do.

ABDUL MUTA KABBIR: Talk is cheap when it has no action behind it. You know what I mean? People have to learn to talk the talk and then work the talk, because things are not going to be done until we continue to be consistent at what we do, to be able to make things that we discuss at the table, make them realities.

MAXINE TRIBBLE: As far as the community is concerned in regards to the campaign, I don’t think it’s going to make a darned bit of difference. I think the people that live here, if they don’t fight, fight for what they want and fight to keep what they have, no matter who’s president it’s not going to make any difference.

BILL MOYERS: Do you feel no one’s listening, no one’s who can really do something about what’s going on here? Whether it’s the mayor of the city, the president of the United States, no one’s listening?

MAXINE TRIBBLE: You get that feeling. You do, because, you know, you just seem like you’re such a little, small insignificant problem compared to the arms race and, you know, providing international aid. But without the little guy, you won’t have the money to provide for arms or aid to anybody. You just won’t have it. And how do you expect people to feel good about themselves or feel good about the country in which they live if the government is not paying any attention to what the little man is saying, the cries for help that are being made and they’re ignoring them as if they’re-You know, it’s like the wind through the trees; you hear it all the time but you don’t do anything about it. You know, you see the trees move but you know it’s the wind, so, eh, you go on about business as usual.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Walking these streets and listening to the people who live here, you cannot miss what matters to them: their homes, children, safety, their neighborhoods, schools and jobs. These are their commonplace concerns. You understand why they feel on the other side of a gulf in this political year. From here the candidates are like the politicians and Tom Wolfe’s novel, gladiators who lose all touch with any reality except the game. Well, Ibis is no game. What matters here is life and deal reality. When it finally reaches here, the rhetoric, with all its promises, has nothing to say. I’m Bill Moyers.

[theme from “All in the Family”]

WCBS NEWSMAN: Shots rang out in three locations in Queens late last night leaving two people dead and seven others injured. Live on the newsline from Queens, here’s Jim Asindio.

NEWSMAN: Six people were cut down by a gunman’s bullet. Three were young women, one is said to be an innocent bystander, a 17-year-old boy who was killed.
Long-time residents of Ibis once peaceful community are shaking their heads in disgust Ibis morning. They say the shooting last night are just another indication that drug dealers are in control of the streets here.

Police are continuing their investigation, and they say this is just another episode in what seems to be a battle over turf between different drug dealers. But they’re not only angry, they’re fearful. This resident expresses that fear.

RESIDENT: And I don’t really want to get involved, because I’m afraid. I don’t want to walk out of my house and get killed.

This transcript was entered on May 18, 2015.

  • submit to reddit