SUN COLUMNIST Dan Rodricks is on a mission to persuade the drug dealers of Baltimore to stop the killings associated with their activities. His June 9 column was in the form of an open letter and was partly inspired by a recent FBI study reporting the first increase in violent crime in Baltimore since 1999.
"You can keep selling drugs. Just stop the killing and shooting that goes with it," Rodricks pleaded in his piece.
That column invited anyone involved in drug dealing who was interested in getting out to contact Rodricks for help finding a part-time job. The next day, four of eight people who had called the columnist about the job-placement offer came to The Sun's newsroom to talk with him.
Rodricks' June 12 column told their stories, which helped explain why breaking the cycle of drug dealing and the accompanying violence can be so difficult. His June 13 column described how one program, created by a prosecutor in the state's attorney's office, uses mentoring to try to save kids from "drugs, thugs and violence." His June 16 column documented how a former drug abuser might have a chance to get her old job back.
In his entreaty to drug dealers, Rodricks called them "brothers." He challenged them to be good citizens and appealed to their consciences. The columnist has made an emotional plea, something he thinks some of his earlier columns on the subject have lacked.
Many columns about criminal justice, the drug scene and violence offer statistics, summaries and platitudes - but can feel cliched and tepid.
A columnist is supposed to offer opinions as well as fact. At their best, column writers are provocative and catalysts for change. Here, Rodricks has pushed beyond the norm. He even used street vernacular in his passionate appeal to get dealers, citizens and readers thinking in new ways about critical community problems.
In this context, Rodricks, a columnist since the late 1970s, has succeeded. But he also has opened himself up to severe criticism and some ridicule.
"I think you've been smoking their samples," said reader Russ Hewitt. "You can't be that naive and survive. You think the average Baltimore resident or politician cares about the huge stack of bodies, when they don't. You also assume that the dealers have enough brains or self-respect to even consider your 'cease fire.' Puhlease!!"
Reader Grover Hall said: "Interesting article. But the people that need to read it won't. Either they can't read or they don't read the newspaper."
From Michael Werdin: "Mr. Dan Rodricks: Boy, are you a first-class dope. Congrats on the 'koom by yah' message."
WBAL radio host Chip Franklin devoted parts of two programs to lampooning Rodricks' work. Franklin told the City Paper that "most agreed that Rodricks' column ran the full gamut, from naive to pandering to disingenuous."
A number of readers, however, praised Rodricks' efforts.
"You have started a tremendous public service with the last two columns," said reader Bob Douglas. "Just as investigative reporting focuses attention on societal ills, you are exposing the human tragedy of the drug climate and pointing to a practical solution."
Reader C. P. Gilmore said: "People think that all these young men want to do is deal drugs or stay addicted. . .So thanks for getting the other side of the issue out. Maybe some will decide to try to get real jobs and treatment, if those selling think some people care."
Rodricks has the full support of his editors.
"All the drugs and violence can easily get ignored unless we keep looking for different ways of telling the story and challenging readers," said City Editor Howard Libit. "I think Dan has put himself and his column out in front on this issue with his open and emotional appeals for people to do something."
It could be considered unrealistic to ask drug dealers to consider the greater good of the community. Whether during Prohibition in the 1920s or today's illegal drug market, violence always has been used to expand business or enforce or break existing contracts.
So can a columnist make a dent in this kind of world? Rodricks believes he can. He dismisses much of talk radio and other criticism. "It's just talk. It's a new kind of ivory tower - isolated from any kind of real journalism or experience," Rodricks said.
Of the dealers he has interviewed, Rodricks says: "You can hear in their voices a certain fatigue and an earnestness. ... I don't think they called to brag about drug dealing."
The columnist believes his role is to push and prod people to think - but also to act.
"I've been doing this a long time, and frankly, I get sick of the same old approach to writing about urban violence and drugs - and I am, as a citizen, deeply disturbed about how we accept it as a two-paragraph news brief or a 15-second voice-over on the 11 o'clock news.
"So I'm going to help some guys find jobs and get them off the street. I hope others join in and help me."
Since June 9, Rodricks has received more than 20 calls from people in the drug trade. He contacted all of them by phone and has met with more than half in person. And Rodricks has started connecting some of these people seeking a fresh start with several companies that have expressed interest in hiring them.
Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.