Here are the people, frightened and fed up and trying to look brave, who went out to confront a narcotics dealer in their neighborhood last week: women pushing baby carriages, an old man limping on a cane, a church lady holding her little grandson's hand, some Vietnam veterans talking about one last war, some Johns Hopkins University students, three police cruisers hoping to keep things calm and some politicians thinking not merely of the next election but of the next generation.
They've seen the last few generations in their narcotized ruin. A horrible legacy, Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis calls it. So here he was, at the front of this line last Wednesday evening, maybe a hundred people stretched along The Alameda in wilting heat and headed toward 33rd Street and the home of a man alleged to be a major dealer of hard drugs.
Alleged by whom? Well, that's the problem. In the most frustrating lament of the streets, everyone "knows," but the dealing goes on and a city dies, one street followed by another. Police "know," but knowing it and proving it are different things. Ordinary citizens know, but ordinary people feel powerless.
Wednesday night was an attempt to change the old equations, to turn a community's anger into something transcending police and politics and courtrooms overmatched for the last quarter-century. This time, they would go to a drug dealers' home, announce publicly that the dealing must stop, and attempt to humiliate or intimidate him.
"We're gonna take this hill," somebody said, marching near the front of the big line turning onto 33rd Street.
"Got us a Marine here," somebody else said.
"People have to stand up," Tiger Davis said. "When we were kids, our fathers told us, don't run from the dog. Some dog comes after you, stand up to him. Well, we're not running from this dog."
Brave talk. Talk designed to pick people up as they approach this rowhouse and gather around Davis, who grabs a bullhorn now. Along 33rd Street, residents come out of their homes in the gathering twilight to hear what he has to say.
"At this house," he hollers, loud enough for neighbors, loud enough for the TV microphones hovering around him, "there is a known drug dealer who prostitutes our children. We will not tolerate this."
On 33rd Street now, beyond the crowd that has followed him here, Davis can hear the sound of applause. It's the people standing on their front porches, who know what he's talking about, who look at their own children and wonder if the drug dealers will seduce them one day.
"We know your name," Davis says now, turning to the alleged dealer's home. Behind the front door, there are glimpses of movement. Davis calls out the man's name, his nickname, his street alias. "We know you're dealing dope," he says, "and the police know, and the Drug Enforcement Administration knows. All the kids know."
A minister comes forward and says a prayer. He asks God to send the man out of his house. But the man inside isn't listening to God tonight.
"To the people on 33rd Street," Davis says now, "we need you to keep watch on this house. If we can't live in peace, he can't. We can't grovel in front of this beast. . . . Our children are shooting each other. Your children could catch a stray bullet. We have to drive these villains from our community."
A ripple of applause drifts through the crowd. The old women are there, and the man on the cane and the children, too, symbols of a future that arrives with troubling omens. The man inside the house does not come out. The crowd seems a little confused now. There were expectations of a confrontation, of angry words, of spontaneous drama conducted in front of television cameras.
Instead, it seems to be over. The scene has played itself out, no one has emerged, and after a few more minutes, everybody heads back up 33rd Street, back up The Alameda, and the evening ends with promises of more house calls to come.
Tiger Davis says this is just a beginning. One house at a time, he says, until drug dealers are sent the undeniable signal that their neighbors want them gone. We shall see. But, in the meantime, two pictures remain vivid: On 33rd Street, where many talk of being held prisoner to the drug trafficking, the alleged dealer's home had a special touch. It was the only one seen with bars over the windows and front door. He is a prisoner of his own actions.
And one other thing: Maybe the man inside is guilty, maybe not. Maybe an innocent man would have come outside and told the crowd, "Are you people crazy? I don't deal drugs. You're making a mistake."
Might someone be frightened of a hundred people? Yes, but there were police there, too, so the crowd danger wasn't much. But maybe the man stayed inside because he really is guilty, and he really was frightened at the sight of the crowd. And look who frightened him: mothers pushing strollers. A church lady holding her grandson's hand. An old man on a cane.
And each of them with more character, and more courage, than the miserable soul who wouldn't emerge from his house.