Remembering the Crack Epidemic

As a young man, freelance writer Kenji Jasper watched the crack epidemic destroy some of the people he grew up with. He discusses the impact of crack cocaine on communities with Farai Chideya.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

But the crack epidemic isn't just about the law, it's about lives. And so earlier, I spoke to writer Kenji Jasper. As a young man living in Washington, D.C., Kenji saw firsthand how crack destroyed the lives of people he grew up with.

Mr. KENJI JASPER (Freelance Writer): I saw a lot of spent shell casings. I saw a lot of empty crack vials. I saw a lot of crowds of people scattering when rounds were fired at a house party, a couple of times in large or public places on the street.

I was familiar, sort of, most often with the image of one or two people resting under the heels, and the soles of the feet of 20 or 30 other guys, just literally doing their best to beat them to death. Blood stains, bullet holes in cars that happen to be driving by what I saw on the street.

All this sort of traces of - I was fortunate enough to sort of stumble upon the scenes, generally after they had passed or when they were far enough away from me, where it didn't matter. But at the same time, I always had this sense that the violence and the death was closing in on me.

CHIDEYA: How many books have you written now?

Mr. JASPER: I think five.

CHIDEYA: Was writing the way that you escaped the epidemic?

Mr. JASPER: Definitely, and I ended up sort of writing about, you know, the underworld and the struggles of young men, so I was choosing, I guess, between the dark and white to be metaphorical because it was those young men, perhaps even more so than myself, who were going through the most difficult times around me. And I felt like someone needed to document their story.

And time and time again, I didn't find any other writers in my own spheres and circles, and you know, not full of populace at large, not as I was - a boy who was doing that. And so I sort of vowed as I went into my 20s to try to do that for all the other kids out there like me, who had been looking for documents of that kind of existence and for that kind of struggle.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned earlier that your path was assured in a sense, because your parents were very strict.

Mr. JASPER: Yes.

CHIDEYA: But did anyone ever approached you and say - hey, you're a minor. You know what, why don't you just carry this stuff for me. It's going to be all right even if you get caught, they'll let you off - that whole rap that you get.

Mr. JASPER: It did happen. It's an experience that I remember very vividly. I was walking my dog and a guy from my high school who lived in the neighborhood approached me with what I thought to be a good 50 rocks of cracks stapled together, and he asked me to walk him down the street, for him, to a certain address.

And I thought about it for a second, you know, because I knew most of the guys I knew who dealt, they had nice clothes, you know, they had pagers, they had all these things that I really wanted at the time. But I just had an intuitive feeling that starting down that path, you know, would've led to my end in one way or the other.

And so I said no and I dropped them back in his hand, and I kept walking. That was sort of the one moment where I thought I was at the brink of temptation and might have gone for it. But, you know, if my mom had ever found, you know, crack in the crib, or, you know, money I couldn't explain, I probably would've been dead anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: What do you think about the legal issues, about the disparities between crack cocaine sentencing and powder cocaine sentencing?

Mr. JASPER: I think it's just another reflection of the disparities of justice in this country for black and white people. Cocaine is a drug that has been glamorized for as long as I've been alive and even before then. But crack, which was - is a derivative of it, usually, you know, a less pure form of the drug actually has been demonized as this filthy thing that no one ever wants to be a part of.

You know, even though you have plenty of celebrities who have used it - either white celebrities who have used it, who have been arrested for it - still the penalties time and time again, and the court systems across this country are weighed against particularly young black men who are caught in possession of the drug and selling it. It's all about what color you are, and what you're selling, and where you're selling it that determines the kind of sentence you get.

CHIDEYA: Well, Kenji, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

Mr. JASPER: You're more than welcome.

CHIDEYA: Kenji Jasper is a writer based in New York. He has written several novels and non-fiction books. He is editor of the forthcoming book, "Beats, Rhymes & Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip-Hop."

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, good golly Ms. Molly, April could be Confederate Heritage Month if some Georgia lawmakers have their way, and a young Harvard grad tells her story of finding her own path.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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