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Herman Wrice’s War on Drugs

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from the magazine

Herman Wrice’s War on Drugs

The late Philadelphia activist showed how communities can fight back against a plague. Autumn 2022
The Social Order

Whether it was the sweltering heat, the rarity of the visit, or good advertising from the White House, the West Philadelphia Community Center was exuberant on a July day in 1990, when it welcomed President George H. W. Bush to speak about the devastating effects of crack cocaine. The president described how some neighborhoods had become “a war zone of despair.” He spoke with special pride of the city’s fight against addiction. He singled out children in the crowd who, he said, had “the right idea—no crack in Philadelphia except for the one in the Liberty Bell.” And he told the story of 11-year-old James, who used to work as a lookout for drug dealers because he was afraid to ask his crack-addicted mother for money. Someone helped James break out of the drug trade—a “towering mountain of a man who started a whole movement by declaring war on a crack house with a sledgehammer,” whom James now called “Dad.” This man, Bush said, was “the John Wayne of Philadelphia”: a white-hat cowboy who had spent the last three years leading hundreds of community marches, protests, and crack-house evictions in a battle against drugs in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.

That man was Herman Wrice. As a boy, he lived in a tiny village without running water or electricity, but he would emerge as a crucial figure in one of America’s great cities. In the 1960s, he led a community organization that helped provide employment assistance to blacks yearning to improve their lot. In the 1980s, as the crack crisis swept Philadelphia, Wrice became known nationwide for shutting down crack houses, leading community marches to reclaim neighborhood blocks, and pioneering guerilla tactics in a grassroots war on drugs. “You are getting your job done right here,” Bush said to Wrice and his compatriots, “in efforts like the all-night bonfire vigil one rainy night, when 300 of you in white hard hats closed down drug action on Indiana Avenue. When you lit that first bonfire, you were lighting more than just one flame against the cold: you were setting up a beacon of hope against evil, a symbol to other communities in despair.”

Though his name is still remembered in some quarters, Wrice has faded from American memory since his death in 2000. Before then, he had traveled from city to city to teach communities what he had learned fighting the drug crisis. He was a quintessential figure of the 1990s urban renaissance, when mayors, community organizers, and neighborhoods looked at two decades of disorder and decay and said, “Enough.” Such problems have now returned: drugs kill 100,000 Americans per year; violent crime and disorder have surged in cities across the country. Communities eager for solutions have something to learn from Herman Wrice’s story.

Born in 1939, Wrice spent his early years in Crites, West Virginia, a 90-person, 25-house mining village. He and his sister, Dolores, were left there in their grandparents’ care—their father was serving in World War II, while their mother took a factory job in Indianapolis. Crites was not an easy place to live, particularly for a black boy. When Wrice’s integrated school bus was forcibly resegregated, he and the other black children rode to school in the back of a coal truck.

It was thus something of a blessing when Wrice’s mother moved Herman and Dolores north with her, first to Chester, Pennsylvania, and then to Philadelphia’s predominantly black Mantua neighborhood. Wrice excelled in school, became enmeshed in the community, and attained a prominent role in a boys’ street gang, the Flames. He married his high school sweetheart, Jean, at 19; within five years, they had five children. (Wrice would end up with 17 kids in all: six biological and 11 adopted.)

Living in one of Mantua’s public housing projects, the Wrices were not immune to rising crime. In 1964, Jean was almost shot in an attempted robbery at a grocery store. Mantua’s gang-violence problem, Wrice decided, was out of control. He had long demonstrated a flair for community organizing, coaching local baseball games and remaining a fixture within the Flames. So he brought together leaders from the neighborhood’s other gangs over a bottle of Thunderbird wine and formed a group called the Young Great Society (YGS)—named not for the federal program but for an old Mantua gang.

YGS channeled young men’s energy away from violence and toward productive work. According to a profile penned by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Wrice and YGS had, by 1966, launched projects providing employment assistance, day care, vocational education, and methadone treatment, while setting up a halfway house for heroin addicts. By 1969, YGS was involved in nearly 100 public-service activities and boasted a budget of $250,000. As of 1970, it had helped set up nine manufacturing firms that employed 125 people and whose products included circuit boards for firms like IBM, GE, Leeds, and Northrup. Much of its initial funding came from the Anheuser-Busch Charitable Trust, which University of Pennsylvania professor Russell Ackoff helped connect with YGS.

YGS, according to Humphrey, took no federal aid. Its success was made possible by Wrice’s seemingly inexhaustible energy. As Wrice told biographer Jean Horton Berg, “I cry when the sun goes down. ’Cause I have to go to bed. I’d like to live above the Arctic Circle and have a six-month day. Then I could really get things done.” But while Wrice earned nearly 30 awards and commendations between 1968 and 1974 and served on several statewide commissions, he lost a race for a city council seat in the 1974 election. Dispirited, he left for Iowa, where he ran a drug rehabilitation program.

Wrice would not return to Philadelphia until 1985, when Ackoff, the Penn professor who had helped fund YGS, coaxed him back. With Ackoff’s help, Wrice took a nominal position at Wharton and reimmersed himself in the community.

Wrice’s return came at a grim time for the city. Mantua was typical of America’s urban black neighborhoods in the 1980s, with poverty endemic and those with means having already fled. In 1964, when Wrice launched YGS, 16 percent of Mantuans aged seven to 17 were in police custody and the neighborhood’s crime rate was twice that of the rest of the city, according to the West Philadelphia Community History Center. And by the time Wrice returned, according to a report by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, 15 percent of Philadelphians were drug users, and 70 percent of arrestees tested positive for cocaine. When Wrice again began coaching after-school baseball, he found that half his players were regularly high. The Philadelphia police reported more than 16,000 violent crimes across the city in 1985, more than double the number reported in 1964.

Wrice hit his breaking point when one of his star baseball players was too strung out to show up at a championship game. As he later told the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wrice gathered a posse of neighborhood men, including several police officers, and marched on a crack house near the corner of 35th and Wallace Streets. Their signs read, “We Gonna Take Our Neighborhood Back” and “Stop Selling Poison to Our Children.” Challenged by the crack dealers occupying the house, Wrice—standing an intimidating six-foot-four and carrying a sledgehammer—advanced, only to find the door swinging open and the dealers scattering. “It dawned on me that no one has ever stood up to these people before,” he told 60 Minutes. The men boarded up the house, effectively shutting it down.

The operation soon became the model for Wrice’s newly minted antidrug organization, “Mantua Against Drugs” (MAD). More protests, and more boarded-up crack houses, followed. Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode sent Wrice a white hard hat and an encouraging note: “If you’re going to close crack houses, you better wear this.” Wrice’s program quickly spread to Philadelphia neighborhoods. By 1990, when Wrice was profiled for Crime File, the expanded Philadelphia Anti-Drug Coalition (ADC) contained some 80 neighborhood groups. It also caught the attention of President Bush, who not only had famously taken a hard line on crack but also had emphasized the importance of community organizations, which he called the “thousand points of light.”

Wrice developed guerilla tactics against crack dealing that came to be known as the Wrice process. Vigils were the hallmark. On any given night, Wrice and other ADC members would march to, and assemble in front of, a suspected drug house or crack corner. Wearing their signature white hard hats, they would occupy the block for hours, chanting, singing, and standing up to any dealers confronting them. The next morning, they would return to clean up trash, mow lawns, and beautify the area. And the next night, they’d be back at it.

“Wrice developed guerilla tactics that came to be known as the Wrice process. Vigils were the hallmark.”

Shame was key. Dealers “can’t stand embarrassment, not that kind,” Wrice said. The same principle justified the hanging of “wanted” posters depicting known drug dealers. But Wrice’s vigils were also an effective example of a community reasserting its self-rule. Like any other form of antisocial behavior, drug dealing happens on the margins of society. Only when the majority retreats does such behavior take place out in the open. By cleaning up the area they were occupying, Wrice and his fellow marchers reclaimed their right to control their neighborhood, taking it back from the dealers.

Observers credited the vigils with devastating the crack trade. Contemporaneous police estimates ranged from a nightly cost to the dealers of $100,000 to $500,000. As one inspector told Crime File, “If you were to total up all the nights that they’ve been at various places in this city, and all the drug sales they’ve kept from happening, it probably runs into the millions of dollars.” Police also said that the vigils helped boost narcotics arrests.

Central to the Wrice process was cooperation with police, a departure from past organizing practices. “The community fought with the police instead of with the real enemy,” Wrice told Philadelphia. “The drug business just loved it.” Wrice explained to 60 Minutes that he had asked fellow black Philadelphians, “Who do you hate the most, police or drug dealers? That’s very simple, which one do you want to take on? If you’re going to hate police more, that means you’re part of the problem. If you’re going to hate drug dealers more, that means you’re part of the solution.” As MAD and the cops collaborated, the police got information on drug dealers and provided protection for what was dangerous work. (Wrice claimed that at various times he had been hit with a Jeep, smashed in the face with a baseball bat, and firebombed, and that his car had been stolen and house ransacked.)

Vigils were not Wrice’s only tactic. MAD worked with the power companies to shut off utilities for crack houses and collaborated with the property owners to evict tenants, who were usually squatting or not paying the rent. It sealed 600 abandoned houses with cinder blocks in 15 months to keep drug dealers from occupying them. Wrice would also “scare judges,” as he told a young Tucker Carlson, organizing MAD members to show up for bail hearings and thereby pressuring the magistrates into issuing bonds that suspected dealers couldn’t pay.

What distinguishes the Wrice process was its use of civilian means for law-enforcement ends. The vigils, after all, exemplified the First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. But a civilian exercising his free-speech rights, undertaking public pressure campaigns, and orchestrating bureaucratic skullduggery doesn’t face the same procedural rules and constitutional roadblocks that police investigators do. “Cops need hard evidence to fuck with you,” Wrice said to Carlson. “Neighbors don’t.” Today’s direct action is more often directed at cops than at criminals, but the Wrice process employed similar principles: ordinary citizens can apply pressure and foster change through the mass exercise of their own civil liberties.

In 1991, Wrice declared his political convictions in plain terms. “Yes, I’m a conservative,” he said. “That’s what everybody wants to see these days. But most don’t have the guts to say it.” He endorsed “cut[ting] welfare off” and argued for dismantling affirmative action in favor of “education and jobs” for the black poor. And he embraced tough-on-crime rhetoric: in a November 1990 speech cited by academic Jackson Smith, Wrice expressed pleasure at hearing that “one of my favorite [17-year-old] drug dealers is dead,” saying that now he would not have to “chase after him” anymore. But Wrice’s brand of conservatism was hardly an outlier in the 1990s. The groups that partnered with police and crusading mayors to clean up urban America were motivated by perennial concerns: public order, crime, drug use, social deviancy and license, and the defense of the rights of what Philadelphia sociologist Elijah Anderson called the “decent” lower class against the antisocial behavior that today’s urban activists often excuse as the by-products of marginalization or oppression.

In any case, Wrice’s program proved extraordinarily successful. A 1994 National Institute of Justice brief documented more than 200 groups or individuals fighting drugs in their communities, from Denver to Detroit to Washington, D.C. Collaborating with government officials, Wrice helped these groups grow, first across Pennsylvania and then around the country. By 1996, Wrice claimed to have trained “street warriors” in 350 communities. When he died four years later of a heart attack, obituaries remembered him for his late-in-life launch of Turn Around America, an organization dedicated to spreading community activism nationwide.

Wrice returned to Philadelphia in the mid-1980s, a grim time for its poor neighborhoods. (ANDIPANTZ/GETTY IMAGES)

The 2020s aren’t the 1980s, but rising crime, disorder, and drug use nevertheless invite comparisons. Crack mostly took lives through associated violence, while the opioid crisis has driven overdose death rates well above records. But would-be organizers and city leaders still face similar challenges. What can they learn from Herman Wrice?

The most important question about the Wrice process is whether it worked. Wrice and the officials around him certainly thought so, though there were, of course, dissenters. The data on where it was deployed, on local crime rates, and on overdose deaths are nowhere near complete enough to offer a definitive answer.

Similar community groups, however, have had a measurable impact on crime. In a 2017 paper, Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey constructed a novel data set of nonprofit formation to show that between 1990 and 2010, “every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9 percent reduction in the murder rate, a 6 percent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4 percent reduction in the property crime rate.” An organization as large as the Philadelphia Anti-Drug Coalition likely contributed measurably to that city’s crime drop.

Community reclamation programs, moreover, have been shown to reduce crime. Research in Philadelphia found that greening vacant lots—an example of the sort of remediation that MAD would conduct—dramatically slashed gun assaults in adjacent areas. Neighborhood-watch programs also tend to discourage crime: in Medford, Oregon, an additional neighborhood watch in an area was associated with a 3 percent reduction in crime.

Can the Wrice process work in an era of less concentrated drug dealing? Technology has made the drug corner and the crack house less important: savvy consumers know that they can just text a dealer to get their fix. Still, the average person dependent on heroin might not be a savvy consumer. Many large cities still have open-air drug markets in blighted neighborhoods, from the Tenderloin in San Francisco to Philadelphia’s Kensington to Hunts Point in New York City. Such markets are associated with the concentration of drug-overdose deaths.

Recent innovation in policing tactics, meantime, show real benefits to targeting concentrated areas of drug use and disorder, rather than picking off dealers one by one. So-called drug-market initiatives, which involve rounding up all the dealers in an area simultaneously and prosecuting or threatening to prosecute them, have been shown to reduce drug sales and violent crime in the places targeted. Research on Los Angeles’s Safer Cities Initiative, which concentrated police resources in Skid Row and cleared homeless encampments, found that the program significantly reduced nuisance, violence, and property crime.

None of these interventions perfectly matches to the Wrice process. But all suggest that a deliberate reclamation of a neighborhood by its residents, systematically asserting control of and then rehabilitating entire areas, can succeed. Urban life today may not be dogged by crack houses, but one can imagine a well-organized neighborhood group making its community inhospitable to drug dealers and other threats to orderly life.

Unfortunately, today’s cities are taking the opposite approach. Last December, I visited New York City’s Supervised Consumption Site (SCS) in East Harlem, a clinic where people can use drugs under the supervision of trained medical staff. What alarmed law-abiding residents was not so much the SCS itself as how it contributed to the concentration of drug services—methadone clinics, treatment facilities, the city’s needle exchanges—in their neighborhood. The SCS, which attracts dealers, sits just across from a public preschool, as do many of New York’s drug-treatment programs.

People with substance-use disorders need treatment, but only a small fraction of them actually receive it. Cities from New York to San Francisco seem less interested in addressing the drug crisis than in shunting its victims into neighborhoods where residents can safely be ignored and drug dealing can be given tacit license. Leaders often don’t act until the disorder, crime, and misery fostered by the drug crisis and urban decay spill out into more “respectable” parts of their cities.

Time was when men like Herman Wrice refused to accept this state of affairs. They saw that the neighborhoods they loved had been overrun by drug dealers, preying on their children—and they fought back. Wrice’s mural still watches over Mantua, but the John Wayne of Philadelphia deserves to be known by more than just his former neighbors. He should be remembered not only for his successes but also for the model of community change he left behind, whose lessons reverberate today.

Top Photo: A mural in Philadelphia depicting the antidrug campaigner (MIKE ROBINSON/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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