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Few Get Rich, Most Struggle in Crack's Grim Economy : Drugs: In job-poor areas, many turn to dealing. But riches often are illusory, rip-offs and arrests all too real.

THE REAL COST OF CRACK. How a Decade of Addiction Has Changed Los Angeles . One in a series

December 20, 1994|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"If you were going to introduce a new product and wanted cheap labor and huge profits--without advertising, investment or infrastructure--you wouldn't look in Beverly Hills," said J. Eugene Grigsby, director of UCLA's Center for African American Studies. "From the perspective of a pure marketing analysis, the conditions in most African American urban areas were ripe to spawn an alternative economic structure."

Demand for the intense but fleeting high was insatiable, the customer base captive. A huge labor pool, already alienated from the mainstream work force, jumped at the promise of an instant payday. Getting a piece of the action required no job application, no educational background and no special training--other than street savvy, one of the few skills already in plentiful supply.

"It was like, 'I don't need no education, I don't got to kiss nobody's ass, I'm the boss, this is my enterprise--and I'm only 16,' " said ex-gangster T. Rodgers, a founding father of the Bloods, who ruled over a now-defunct crack empire during the 1980s. "Any kid old enough to hold a rock could become king for a day."

South-Central street gangs, viewed by the cocaine smugglers as tough but expendable foot soldiers, provided a ready-made distribution network for the marketing of this new discount commodity.

In a so-called "Dun and Bradstreet Primer" issued in 1989 by the U.S. attorney general, the Bloods and Crips were described as the nation's most powerful crack-trafficking ring, urban terrorists who had achieved dominance in at least 47 cities, "due in part to their steady recourse to murderous violence."

The most sophisticated gang factions, along with their prison-based leadership, do control a large share of the wholesale trade, sometimes buying directly from Colombian suppliers. They also have embarked on an unprecedented cross-country migration, lured by profits many times higher than on Los Angeles' saturated streets. But most authorities ultimately have come to see the gangs less as huge conglomerates than as independent contractors--bandit franchisees duking it out in a cutthroat market.

Unlike Mafias of past generations, which were able to parlay their ill-gotten gains into legitimate enterprises, most street gangs haven't demonstrated that kind of cohesiveness or business acumen. Even if tainted, such ventures might at least have created a few more avenues to mainstream success in the city's most desolate neighborhoods. Instead, like a giant plantation economy, crack has only intensified the financial vacuum, siphoning up the spare change of people who have nothing left to spare.

"Crack may have allowed some people to kind of take care of business and support their families, but it's essentially a redistributive, zero-sum economy that squeezes the last cents out of the poorest communities in America," said Los Angeles historian Mike Davis, who has written extensively about the trade. "Despite all the gangsta rap images of these new robber-baron coke-dealers . . . I think black Americans will emerge from this pretty much as they always have: the victims."

Norman Tillman was bigger than most street-level dealers ever dream of becoming, a true high-rolling, fast-living, crack impresario. "But it's an illusion--a delusion," said Tillman, 35, who figures he was worth about $700,000 before his coast-to-coast drug ring collapsed in the late 1980s.

A graduate of Dorsey High in Southwest Los Angeles, Tillman spent his teen-age years toiling in a string of low-paying jobs, from pumping gas to marinating fast-food chicken to stripping paint. Later, he served in the Marine Corps and won a tennis scholarship to The Citadel in South Carolina, but broke his ankle and ended up living on a $250-a-month unemployment check.

When childhood friends sent him a first-class plane ticket back to California in 1983, they enlisted Tillman in one of the most prolific crack-dealing crews ever to rise up from Los Angeles' streets. In the span of a few years, he moved from selling crack on the curbside to supervising a network of rock houses to netting about $50,000 a week distributing kilos to other dealers across the country.

"It had all the trappings of legitimacy," said Tillman, an imposing, statuesque man with a shaved head and silver hoop earring. "I felt as successful as any other successful businessman . . . on the same par as a Ph.D. graduate with money-management skills."

But Tillman's success was as ephemeral as a $20 rock. In rapid succession, his cohorts got busted--in Chicago, in Boston, in Indianapolis--costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost product, bail bonds and legal fees. After his supplier was indicted, Tillman lost even more buying bogus dope from unreliable connections. He invested $80,000 in a children's photography studio that he called Tiny Tots, but his employees walked off with the cameras.

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