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UNDER SIEGE

The elderly woman in the TV-show audience pleads with the shadows on the screen to give up the gang life and stop terrorizing her neighborhood.

Sitting in a studio with a hundred other people, the woman describes to them how her fourteen-year-old grandson was shot down in a gang incident last year.

The targets of her speech--three gang members sitting in another room in the TV studio and appearing to the audience only as shadows on video monitors--say nothing.

Another audience member describes the terrifying day of January 12, 1990, when he was shot six times by four gang members who made off with $7 from his business. The man still has three bullets in his body.

The gangsters on the TV monitors don't reply. When they finally talk, they say they have no jobs and nothing to do. "Some people play sports," says one of the shadows. "We gangbang."

The eerie exchanges took place late last month during the taping of a City of Phoenix television show about gangs and drugs. City workers had decided to, in effect, erect a barrier of disguise and actual location to separate the three gang members from the audience. It was for the gang members' protection, according to an employee of the city's Channel 35.

Most members of the audience were city employees; some of the others were "gang experts" invited by the city. But some of the audience members live in a South Phoenix neighborhood around 24th Street and Broadway that already knows a lot about barriers.

The area is the city's first "drug-free zone," and it looks more like Beirut than Phoenix. Orange-and-white barricade barrels with signs that read "Narcotics Enforcement Area--Open to Residents Only" stand in the middle of intersections along Roeser Road from 24th Street to 32nd Street and along 24th Street from Roeser more than a mile north to the Salt River.

The signs went up November 29, accompanied by extra police patrols. The zone and the resulting TV show promoting it are part of Phoenix's Neighborhood Fight Back program.

"With drastic times come drastic measures," says Leonard Knight, coordinator of the Fight Back program.

This drastic measure has people lined on both sides of the barricades. The area has one of the highest crime rates in the city, according to police and other officials. It is also littered with crack houses, as gangs have taken over abandoned buildings, police say.

Neighbors angry at the lack of city protection from hoodlums asked the city council for help in 1989. "My front window is like a movie screen," says Michelle Perkins. "I've seen shootings. I've watched people beaten and left at the curb." Perkins, who works for the city's Community Excellence Project, says her neighborhood is finally under control because of the barricades.

She is joined by people such as retiree Alvin Smith, 73, who has seen the neighborhood deteriorate for the past 35 years from a solid community to a drive-by shooting gallery. "We had families," he says. "People were working--people with pride. Now there's no respect. No pride."

Just about everyone agrees that gangs and drugs are serious problems in the area, but the police barriers go too far for some. Resident Cedrick Smiley says the city's response is overblown. "If they wanted to clean up the crack houses, they could do it any time they want," Smiley says. "Everyone knows which ones they are. When you see a white guy in a Mercedes driving up to an abandoned home, he ain't there to buy the house."

A.D. "Speedy" Hart, the man who still has three bullets in his body from last year's gang attack at his business, says the city has ignored the neighborhood's problems for years and treats residents of the area as the city's "black sheep."

"If this was Paradise Valley," says Hart, "they would have cleaned this up years ago."

The South Phoenix neighborhood is the only area in Phoenix that has been targeted with barricades. The program has cost $137,000 out of the $700,000 Fight Back budget.

Life in the "drug-free zone" can be harrowing, no matter who you are. Veteran police officer Robert Barnhart, who has patrolled South Phoenix for most of his career, says the cops patrolling the neighborhood frequently stop "suspicious" people--both pedestrians and motorists--to ask them who they are, where they're going and what they're doing there.

"When you pull over a guy who says he's visiting his cousin and he doesn't know where he lives, you know it's BS," says Barnhart, who works out of the city's "Community Excellence" building at 24th Street and Broadway. "More than likely that person is down there buying drugs."

Who are "suspicious" people? Barnhart describes them as those "who look out of place and ones that are not from the neighborhood."

"After a while," he adds, "you know who belongs in the neighborhood and who doesn't."

But resident Speedy Hart--himself a crime victim--says some of his friends have been pulled over by police for questioning. He calls it "harassment."

Hart, a forty-year resident of South Phoenix, is exasperated that the city's barriers have in effect declared his neighborhood off-limits--to law-abiding people as well as gang members.

"How would you like to invite a friend to your house and then have him hassled by the cops?" he says. "Do you think they would put up with this in Scottsdale?"

"We don't know any other way to do it," responds the city's Leonard Knight, who says he copied the idea for the zone from a program in Los Angeles. Knight says it worked there and it's working here.

Reported crimes and other calls to police are down dramatically, Knight claims. He says police statistics due in two weeks will bear this out. The barriers have kept the drug buyers out and the residents happy, Knight says.

In any case, the barriers are scheduled to come down this month unless the city coughs up more dollars, which Knight says is unlikely.

"When the barriers go down, the flashlight patrol begins," says Phoenix Community Excellence Project director Lucy Conner. Working out of an office at 24th Street and Broadway, Conner has organized about thirty neighbors into a marching Block Watch program to replace the orange plastic barrels with patrols of residents.

"Unless we do this, we can kiss this neighborhood goodbye," says retiree Alvin Smith.

Police officer Robert Barnhart says he doesn't know what will happen when the barricades come down. He's seen crack houses go back into business just days after a bust, "or they just move down the street." He gives the neighborhood a "50-50 chance."

Some people like to have better odds.
At last month's taping of the city's TV show on the drug-free zone, a man named Carlos stood up to explain how he tried to better his chances of surviving intact.

Carlos doesn't live in the barricaded community. He lives in a west Phoenix neighborhood that has its share of violence, too.

"I've been robbed five times since Thanksgiving," he told the audience. "I have nothing left. The police just kept patting me on the back and said, `Too bad. We'll see you next time.'"

Meanwhile, gangsters in the neighborhood were bragging to his daughter about the burglaries.

It seemed to him that drastic measures were needed. So in late December, Carlos borrowed from his military experience and planted land mines in his backyard. A few weeks ago, police found out about the land mines, and Phoenix's bomb squad removed them. So far, the County Attorney's Office hasn't taken any action against Carlos.

"We had families," one resident says. "People were working--people with pride. Now there's no respect. No pride.

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J. W. Casserly