Bill Adler and the Drug Underworld Innocence and Savagery

Atlantic Monthly Press, $22 hard

"I knew if I were caught I would go to the chain gang. But was not my life already a kind of chain gang? What, really, did I have to lose?"

-- Richard Wright, Black Boy

As I sit with Bill Adler in the happy-hour hubbub of Güero's, I distance myself from the conversation for a moment. I want to observe this one tough hombre. As I watch him I realize this remarkably tenacious and brave man possesses a quality I had observed only once before. In the middle of a riot with legendary underground writer William Burroughs, I'd witnessed a unique survival mechanism -- the ability to fade away. I'd seen Burroughs almost dissolve into a wall, drawing no attention to himself, while waves of demonstrators and baton-wielding police raced right by. In knife-edge situations, being able to become nearly invisible by reducing personal energy is an accomplishment of the highest order.

Of course, that ability is contrary to the portrayal of media action heroes and almost unique in our culture where everyone nearly shouts look at me, me, me. The really brave, like Bill Adler, are only startling in that they don't shout out for attention. At this moment in Güero's, Adler was as eye-catching as an old shoe. Yet I knew he had entered maybe the toughest crack underworld in the nation -- central Detroit -- and emerged with a story unmatched in the chronicles of the drug war. Adler literally risked his life to tell the remarkable story of a true King of Crack. It was the story of baby-faced Billy Joe Chambers and his brothers in the Chambers Gang.

Adler describes how Chambers, like many others before him, fled the rural South with just enough money for a one-way bus ticket north and a pocketful of dreams. Or more precisely, what passes for dreams when you stare at a future of sharecropping a cotton patch, a future so bleak anything seems like it must be for the better.

In the still-segregated town of Marianna, Arkansas, Chambers learned to rely on his sharp wits and quick smile. His generous manner elicited trust among his friends. But Chambers' resumé was as thin as the pine slats on the shack that had been his home. Shortly after arriving in Detroit, Chambers landed a job in a shoe store. He quickly learned that in the Detroit of the Eighties all the old good-paying jobs were long gone. The once-great auto industry was choking on the exhaust of its Japanese competitors and 34 percent of the Motor City's citizens were living on the public dole in worse conditions than during the Great Depression.

According to Adler, Chambers says, "I did whatever needed to be done. Some days they'd have me outside washing windows in a knee-deep blizzard. I'm like, `Oh wow, are you kidding? There has to be a better way.'"

There was. Starting with a little store front called Billy Joe's Party Store, where marijuana could be obtained in the exclusive back room, Chambers built a reputation for working long hours and delivering good service. A few short years later, Billy Joe and his brother Larry had prospered. By 1985 they'd become the crack kings of Detroit, employing many of the hard-working youth from their hometown.

If their flourishing business -- estimated by the government as grossing up to three million dollars a day -- had been legal, they would have been cover material for Business Week. In 1986, the year before their federal bust, the brothers took in an astounding $55 million. That year, by most estimates, Billy Joe and Larry's profits were greater than the faltering Chrysler Corporation.

Most white reporters avoid exploring this world of inner-city drugs because crack makes dealers paranoid, and dealers carry heavy armament. Most of the combat reporters covering the "drug war" stick hard to the safety of hanging out with narcotics squads. These writers are as far from the angry culture of the inner-city drug dealers as society matrons are from Watusi dance parties.

But Adler didn't let the fear of being a medium-built white man in a black world full of rage prevent him from digging out the story. His work, condensed into the book Land of Opportunity, breathes with the fire of the ghetto. It's one of the best investigative works of the Nineties.

I watch as Adler, with his goatee, thinning hair, and soft-spoken demeanor, explains how he became fascinated with the Chambers family after reading about them in a magazine story. Adler looks more like a jazz critic than a man comfortable on the mean streets -- beginning in February, the Austin resident will co-host a news program on labor issues for KOOP radio, in addition to his freelance writing. As I quiz him about this dangerous world and his ability to gain the trust of those who inhabit its underbelly, he seems a little surprised. His self-description is not heroic: "I didn't write a drug book. I wrote about the last wave of a great migration."

He calculates that the five years' labor it took to produce his acclaimed book, published in hard cover last May, has earned him "about 50 cents an hour." But it takes that kind of time for a white reporter to gain trust in the drug underworld, and even longer when people may still face prosecution. After getting into the nitty-gritty of the crack universe, Adler says, "Don't mistake it. I wasn't investigating a subculture or an underground economy, for people like the Chambers it was the only culture."

"I wrote about people," he says, "everyone -- even the cops -- gave up on." Which may sound farfetched to anyone who hasn't ventured to Red River and Seventh in the shadow of our downtown police station. Here the penny-ante street drug culture thrives. Cruise the block sometime and listen to the whispers, "Hey bro, wants some smoke?" They aren't talking about marijuana. And give the police some credit. Arresting $10 street-corner salesman will change nothing. Their places will be instantly taken by someone else trying to make a living on the street while, as usual, the big fish flourish.

For tens of thousands like the Chambers brothers, dealing drugs is a rational career choice, a chance for a little money and a lot more status than drudging along in a fast-food franchise. As one Austin teenager I interviewed put it to me succinctly: "Girls don't like guys who smell like fries."

I recently took two young men from what's not considered the worst high school to lunch. They brought along a friend, a tall, clean-cut guy wearing a starched shirt. It turned out he was on the basketball team. "I'm an anti-drug counselor," he told me.

"Have you guys ever smoked crack?" I asked.

The ball player responded, "I have, but not in a long time."

"When was the last time?"

"It's been more than a month," he said with pride.

And last year I asked my nephew if he had ever seen cocaine in his Austin high school. "Sure," he replied, looking as though I were an alien out of touch with earth culture. I had visions of dealers with goods hidden in their lockers. "When was the last time?, I asked.

"Yesterday."

Yesterday! I was startled. My nephew doesn't cruise in the speed lane. "What were the circumstances?"

"We had a substitute teacher and the guy behind me laid out lines on his desk. He was selling them for five dollars."

So let's get real; who in Austin has the money to buy this stuff? I remember the night I got lost in my car and blundered onto the street that was the open-air emporium before the well-publicized police raids largely shut it down. It was a drive-in drug supermarket. Most of the crack customers I saw cruising up to the street salesmen looked like college kids or white middle-class office drones.

This experience didn't fit my expectation, one reason I so respect Adler's work, his determination to pierce the shroud of hypocrisy and hysteria that surrounds drugs. It's what makes Land of Opportunity so compelling. The true story of Billy Joe Chambers' story defies every cliché and convention.

Small at 5'2", Chambers relied on likability and marketing skill, not muscle, to rise to the top. His rules were simple -- stay loyal to the organization and don't do drugs. While other dealers cut their product, Chambers offered a quality rock for the dollar. Adler notes the organization's emphasis on quality products was as important to them "as, say, Frank Perdue's reputation for selling tender chicken. Quality control was everything."

As he prospered, Chambers bought repossessed HUD houses and turned them into business outlets. Even after million-dollar weekends were common, Chambers' idea of the high life was cruising around town with his friends in his Cadillac, listening to tunes and dining on Pizza Hut Pizza to go.

Chambers' one recorded extravagance was a doozy. He rented five white stretch Caddies and in procession drove into impoverished Marianna for his younger brother's high school graduation. Adler relates how the group pulled into the high school parking lot and were greeted like Hollywood movie stars. "Parents' cameras snapped, recording the event for posterity; teenagers squealed and pressed against the cars. The brothers failed to discourage the adulation. `They were throwing money out the windows,' says one teacher. School administrators were too stunned to move."

Which is not to forget crack's dark side. Adler writes about Billy Joe's brother Larry's instructions to his Uzi-toting doorman. "Project warmth," he counseled. "When a crackhead comes to you and his woman is on his back, his babies don't have no Pampers, he hasn't eaten in two days, and he's about to spend his last five dollars on crack, you have to make him feel good about spending his money."

As the crack operation took in millions, not surprisingly, it began to attract attention. Finally, a local Detroit TV station spent a week trumpeting their coming exposé revealing the crack family who ruled Detroit. The Chambers remembered thinking, "These guys must really be big. We ought to get to know them." As they gathered to watch the show they were surprised to learn the exposé was about... themselves!

Predictably, their organization was soon busted by the feds. Billy Joe Chambers, rich enough to hire a Johnny Cochran or F. Lee Bailey, hired an attorney who almost dozed off during the trial. Half the organization used court-appointed lawyers. Theirs was a strange mixture of sophistication and naïveté. They were sensational at marketing yet they were still innocent kids from the sticks. They were multi-millionaires who didn't even have a lawyer on retainer.

Nor did they know what to do with wealth. Swiss bank accounts? They didn't have any. They simply didn't know how to hide money in international banks. "What happened to their fortune after they went to jail?" I questioned Adler.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they buried it in a vacant lot," he replied.

"How can that be?" I asked.

Adler replied, "Billy Joe calls me from prison from time to time. I'll try to get him to call you and you can ask him yourself."

Two weeks later the operator was on the line with a collect call from "Mr. Chambers." Billy Joe's rap was upbeat and congenial, even friendly. "Why were you so badly represented at your trial?" I asked.

"First, I didn't take it seriously," he replied. "I had only been busted for pot. I didn't know anything from the feds; I didn't take it serious."

"My lawyer was garbage," he said. "I trusted people in authority. I grew up believing in loyalty. I gave my lawyer $25,000 and he didn't care about me."

Chambers was irate that if he was convicted of selling powdered cocaine -- white people's crack -- he would be doing far less time. Penalties are far harsher for crack over powdered cocaine. It's a racial issue that receives scant recognition in the white legislative world.

"So how long did the streets stay clean after they put away the Chambers brothers?"

Billy Joe laughed. "The day they cuffed me up the transition had started. Nothin' changed."

On the crack life, Chambers explained, "we never had any food on our table. I grew up with the poors stealing and killing. Poor people surviving off poor people. You build an organization; you help some poors, and you destroy some poors." All this was said matter-of-fact. That was simply the way he found it.

At one point in our hour-long conversation he said, "If I grew up in a house with a judge, I'd probably be a judge. I did what I knew." In one way, Billy Joe Chambers was eminently likable. With better credentials, he might have been a lion of industry. Instead, he's facing most of his adult life in the penitentary. Chambers said he might be out when he's 47 ----"I'll still have a life to lead."

It sure ain't a middle-class world Adler captured in Land of Opportunity. As Adler talks, I'm intrigued by story after story that reveals a curious blend of innocence and savagery. "I didn't want to write a sensational tale of a drug lord. I wanted to put a human face on it," he says. "Remember, in Marianna for the Chambers brothers, there weren't even minimum wage jobs."

And what are we to conclude?

"I didn't come away hopeful," he says. "There's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There's no happy ending." n The prolific Jeff Nightbyrd has participated in so many aspects of journalism it's difficult to mention just one. He is currently involved with United States-Cuba baseball relations.

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