Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What to read when you're writing about drug dealing

For more than a year now, I've been working on a series about Belton Platt, a former Charlotte cocaine dealer known in the 1980s as Money Rock. (Read it at charlotteobserver.com/moneyrock.)

Most of my information has come via public documents and interviews. But I've also been reading about drug dealing, urban America and Charlotte's history to better understand Money Rock's life and times.

I learned in "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets" (Penguin Press; 2008), for instance, that there's no single business model for selling cocaine and crack. Sudhir Venkatesh, now a Columbia University professor, was a geeky University of Chicago graduate student attempting a sociological survey in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes when he stumbled upon members of a crack-selling gang known as the Black Kings. With the blessing of one of the gang's leaders, he embedded himself with gang members.

While Money Rock's cocaine operation was a locally-grown business, the Black Kings were more  a multi-state corporation, complete with a board of directors that held periodic meetings at a Chicago mansion. J.T., the college-educated middle manager who plays a starring role in the book, supervised about 200 men.

Venkatesh's book also explores the symbiotic relationship between gang members, administrators and residents of the now-demolished housing project. In the project, where police often didn't show up when called, the gang functioned as law enforcement, social services and local government. Like Money Rock, J.T. saw himself as a philanthropist: "He gave money to some local youth centers for sports equipment and computers. He willingly loaned out his gang members to Robert Taylor tenant leaders, who deployed them on such tasks as escorting the elderly on errands or beating up a domestic abuser."

 Closer to home, Tom Hanchett's "Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975" (University of North Carolina Press; 1998), showed me how inner-city Charlotte of the 1980s came to be.

Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, explains that Charlotte actually grew more segregated from the 1940s to the 1970s. He attributes this sharpening of race and class segregation to federal programs and policies that reshaped cities and often promoted racial and economic homogeneity.

Among those policies was urban renewal. Congress launched the program under the federal Housing Act of 1949 to replace slum housing with affordable new residences. But bit by bit, special interests changed the rules so that local governments could tear down “blighted” neighborhoods – “blighted” being a term defined by those in power – and replace the housing with government buildings, hotels or whatever they deemed a better use.

 Charlotte's urban renewal efforts bulldozed several African-American communities. The largest and best known, a once-vibrant neighborhood called Brooklyn, is now the site of government and office buildings, a hotel and a park. Urban renewal, which came to be known among black Americans as “Negro removal,” destroyed 1,480 structures in Brooklyn, including restaurants, small businesses and twenty-eight churches.

Poor residents forced to move from urban renewal areas ended up in other neighborhoods. You could argue that urban renewal basically created new slums in different places. And those impoverished areas were often the places where Money Rock sold his cocaine.

In "Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America" (Plume; 1996), I saw how one person's story can illuminate broad societal issues. Leon Dash's protagonist is Rosa Lee Cunningham, an illiterate heroin addict and former prostitute who lived in Washington D.C.

 Rosa Lee, who teaches her grandson to shoplift and sells drugs when she's desperate for money, is, at first blush, one of the most flawed characters you'll ever encounter. But Dash delves into Rosa's past and explores the culture in which she was raised to help explain why urban poverty persists through generations.
Dash succeeds, I would argue, and by the book's end, readers see Rosa not as a stereotype, but as a three-dimensional figure, and a sympathetic one at that.

After Part 1 of my series ran this past weekend, several readers commenting on my story faulted what they viewed as favorable coverage about a former cocaine dealer. Drug dealers destroy lives, they pointed out. And they are correct.

I'll say a couple things about that. First, keep reading. I'm not glorifying Money Rock. But by the end of the story, I think you'll see I've portrayed Belton Platt fully. He was not the world's worst person when he was a drug dealer. He's not perfect now that he's a minister. People are complicated. I also hope you'll end up pondering some of the same questions I've asked as I've researched this story. Like, why did a kid with potential see cocaine as his best chance for success?


Anonymous said...

One could write a thesis and earn an anthropological degree and never stray 1 mile from Beatties Ford Road and West Blvd.

Anonymous said...

And your point is? The same could be said of Harris Blvd., Highway 51, Park Road, and any of the other main thoroughfares in the more affluent areas of Charlotte.