Politics & Government

City Council Report: Where There’s Smoke Shops, There’s Fire, Apparently

The anti-smoke shop movement inexplicably finds some traction at the horseshoe. Because this is Councilman Rickey Callahan's America.


Each session of the Dallas City Council begins with an invocation by some local divine. On Wednesday, it was a woman who leads school kids through mindfulness exercises. I was curious to see it, having missed all this mindfulness business while I was away. It turns out to involve a lot more talking than I expected. “First,” said the invoker, after having said several other things over the course of two minutes, “I speak a word of gratitude for the city council and to the mayor for all that is unfolding for the citizens of the city of Dallas, to know that divine wisdom is that guiding force.” She was careful not to name this force, which, as she noted, went by “many names,” but I think I’ve got it narrowed it down to either Walt Humann or Loki.

The morning speakers included regulars Dolores Phillips, who today proclaimed that she “was born straight heterosexual and I will stand by that to infinity,” and homeless curmudgeon/suspected Yankee Robert Chicarelli, who in the past has generally taken a combative tone against Rawlings on account of the mayor’s various vaguely-presented misdeeds while repeatedly threatening to “go to jail” but who this time adopted a strategy of conciliation, asking to be made an advisor on homeless affairs despite having no connection whatsoever to Walt Humann.

With that out of the way, there followed three other speakers who were on hand to support the day’s major item: a proposal for new regulations covering any store selling tobacco or paraphernalia.

This isn’t a new issue; Councilman Rickey Callahan in particular has long pushed for new rules on smoke shops, claiming that many are actually “vice” dens trading in prostitution, illegal drugs, and gambling. But nothing much had been done on the issue. The tendency of a democratic society is to respond to events, rather than mere data, which itself lacks the emotional immediacy of a good, compelling story.

Last month, the anti-head shop movement got its event when a certain Jerrell Dilworth was shot and killed by two men in their car and then dumped into a nearby residential parking lot in what police are characterizing as a drug deal gone wrong. The incident is said to have begun with a meet-up in front of a “head shop,” as the local NBC affiliate describes it. Each of the three speakers were connected to the housing complex where the body turned up.

The property manager for the complex gave an exceedingly non-specific account of wrongdoing by unspecified people with implicit connections to either this particular shop or other shops or something. This was intertwined with a list of anti-crime measures taken by the apartment complex itself, including eviction of those who fail to comply with the apartment’s policies. The incident with the body being “just dumped, that shows the evilness of the people that are coming from that direction,” she added, with “that direction” apparently referring to the direction of smoke shops. She described having to document other “crime activities” herself, driving around in a golf cart and taking pictures of trespassers. “I won’t put my life at risk as well and I have to be discreet about it,” she said, speaking into the TV cameras.

Another speaker, who’s been quoted in several outlets about how she covered the body, gave more amorphous testimony about neighborhood drug activity, telling the council that there are “20 drug houses” in that neighborhood, which is “infested with drugs.” “They have half the kids as watchmen for them while they sell drugs … the stores are drug houses, everything.”

What none of the speakers mentioned was the actual smoke shop that’s been insensibly tied to this murder. Indeed, the elephant in the chamber on Wednesday was that neither the police whose initial report mentions the store in passing, nor the neighborhood residents who are demanding that smoke shops be regulated, have claimed that this particular store had anything to do with the drug transaction that occurred nearby. We heard a great deal about the neighborhood itself being infested with drugs, apparently with the backing of “half the kids;” and we’ve heard claims about other stores that are operating as fronts, which is no doubt true. But if the tobacco shop has anything to do with the neighborhood’s problems, then the very people who are putting so much effort into tying it to this murder have neglected to mention them.

The police report asserts that Dilworth arranged by phone to meet the two other men “at 7303 Ferguson Road, the Tobacco Shop, to engage in a drug transaction.” But 7303 Ferguson Road isn’t “the Tobacco Shop,” by which the police seem to mean a store with a “tobacco” sign; it’s a retail strip with several establishments, including a taco place and a barber shop, plus a covered DART stop on the other side of the sidewalk — a neighborhood node of activity, then. And none of the men involved seemed to have gone near the tobacco store; the police report states that Dilworth immediately got into the car with the other two, which proceeded to the nearby apartment complex.

“Neighbors cite murder as grounds for tougher regulations on Dallas paraphernalia shops,” reads the headline at the local ABC affiliate. If you happen to finish the article, though, you’ll find that the store in question doesn’t even sell paraphernalia, according to the operator, who appears confused as to why his cigarette store is suddenly being implicitly blamed for murder and child narco-soldiery.

“If they want me to put height markers in, if they want me to put a drop box and a panic button — if that’s what we got to do — we’re going to do that,” Gallagher told ABC. “Then what? What’s the problem going to be then?” That’s a fine question, and much more to the point than any of the questions our council members asked during the staff briefing that followed after the three speakers were done presenting their non-Euclidian shadow case against the smoke store.

In one sense, Mr. Gallagher is right to be concerned. His business has been quite suddenly and inexplicably demonized without anyone making a single overt argument as to what he’s done wrong. And it’s always jarring when one is first enveloped in the vast and hyperactive neuron-cloud of unreason that is the American public consciousness, and which can only be properly understood from within. The good news, and the most telling part of this story, is that Mr. Gallagher’s shop won’t actually be subject to the proposed regulations that are being justified in part by what happened outside that shop, because those regulations only apply to stores that sell things that his store doesn’t sell.

To Councilman Callahan’s credit, he himself doesn’t seem to have jumped on the murder as justification for the regulations, which have been months in the making and which do address a real problem, albeit one that barely overlaps with the neighborhood deterioration on Ferguson. As Callahan told the council on Wednesday, Dallas has some unknown number of sordid-looking establishments with no products on the shelves but plenty of suspicious activity involving “drugs,” “gambling,” and “ladies of the evening.” He’s right. But what he fails to realize is that he’s just described strip clubs.

In fairness to Callahan, there are differences between the officially unregulated little drug enclaves he’s talking about and the unofficially unregulated strip clubs that have long served as a major component of the Dallas convention industry. In fairness to fairness, we didn’t hear about those differences from the council that’s trying to portray the former as some sort of outsize threat to the community. This supposedly paradigm-shattering scenario we’re being sold of a violent dispute emanating from a shadowy vice den before spilling over into the surrounding neighborhood actually happens all the time, but it starts at strip clubs, or pool halls, or nightclubs, or bars, all of which are subject to regulation. You can get a sense of this from newspaper crime reports, but many of them pass largely unnoticed; I only know about the extent of this because I spent four years in prison hanging out with Dallas gang members and hearing their amusing anecdotes, many of which start in a strip club before moving on to drunken, high-speed shootouts. Since gang members are generally poor marksmen, only a small portion of these incidents leave any trace in the form of a corpse or hospital visit or anything else that might result in a write-up or police report. And then there are the parking lot fights and the strippers who sell coke and all the other little things that, had they happened at one of the places that Callahan doesn’t care for, would naturally constitute some major community crisis.

The real community crisis isn’t as exciting or lurid as the fun little events that take up so much oxygen in both regional and national news cycles, and thus in our politics. It’s the inability of the bulk of our elected leaders to think in terms of consistent principles of governance, even when they make the effort to do so. Callahan in particular likes to decry certain proposed regulatory measures, such as those intended to reduce traffic in downtown, as contrary to the fundamental liberty accorded Americans since time immemorial. “This is America,” he’s proclaimed on at least two different occasions in the three months I’ve covered the council. And Councilman Kleinman’s statement of support on Wednesday for additional regulations began, “As much as I’m not a fan of additional regulation … .” I once spent a fascinating half-hour trying to parse Kleinman’s explanation as to why it was fiscally conservative to borrow money to build new roads but not to repair existing ones. And as we saw a few weeks back, the mayor himself wasn’t capable of expressing the reasoning behind his centerpiece ethics provision that barred campaign managers from lobbying but placed no such ban on PAC managers without first evoking freedom of speech as absolute and then immediately dismissing it as something to be tossed aside if some small amount of good may be achieved thereby.

This kind of deep-seated degree of confusion among the powerful is always dangerous to civil society, but it’s especially problematic now. As with government entities across the nation, the city of Dallas will be presented with a range of drug reform provisions over the next few years as the issue continues to gain momentum in local politics. There’s reason to believe that a cite-and-release policy on small amounts of marijuana now has sufficient support to pass the council (though probably not with the help of Callahan, whose “This is America” rhetoric doesn’t extend to carrying plant matter in one’s pocket). This will serve the interests of the city; more importantly, it will serve the interests of the individual human beings whose lives are disrupted and even placed in danger by a policy that entails throwing young people into a poorly-run city jail with a well-documented history of negligence, and then into a state prison system that’s been ranked among the worst in the country in terms of ignoring rapes, among other indicators, and where guards routinely hold fights between teenage inmates and sometimes fight them themselves, as has been described to me by former inmates and even guards.

There is a great deal more that needs to be done, though, if the state and its appetites are to be brought into line with the decency and personal liberty that Callahan has somehow decided he represents. Those things cannot be done with this council, or with this mayor.


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