Yesterday in a blog item Dallas Morning News editorial writer Tod Robberson stated as fact that the controversial car wash on MLK Boulevard -- topic of many Dallas Observer stories over many years -- is "a major drug emporium for South Dallas." The strong suggestion of the piece and an accompanying photograph was that Dale Davenport, an owner of the business, is a drug dealer.
That's a malicious lie. It makes me sick to my stomach. One phone call to almost any knowledgeable city official would have set Robberson right. It's such a specific and personal allegation, such an enormous slur on Davenport's well known exemplary personal history and character, one can't help wondering if Robberson's piece, obviously written in anger, was not a deliberate and malicious attempt to ignore the truth and use the power of a daily newspaper instead to deprive a private person of his livelihood.
The Robberson piece was riddled with other wrong statements that may have been simple mistakes. He states as fact, for example, that the car wash is now out of business. "But now it's closed," he says. "Good riddance."
It's not out of business at all. In my piece yesterday, I said police last Sunday had barricaded the place in a bizarre instance of selective enforcement, which I compared to past actions by the police department which were confessed to and apologized for by a former chief of police. But my piece did not say the car wash was out of business.
In 2005 Chief David Kunkle admitted before the Texas House Civil Practices Committee that his department had engaged in improper official harassment of the car wash owners. Kunkle promised it would never happen again. My story Monday said they were back at it.
Robberson's piece contains another piece of fiction writing that I can only attribute to urban mythology, or perhaps I should call it country club mythology. It's a picture of drug dealing that would be recognized immediately as completely false and unrealistic by any cop, by any reporter who had ever spent any time on the street, by anybody else who had ever spent time on the street, by anyone, for that matter, who had ever watched The Wire.
Without saying exactly where this picture comes from -- without claiming to have seen it himself, for example -- Robberson says of the car wash: "The main activity involved people walking back and forth with satchels and bags full of something unusual that required resupplying from a house a block away. That house had mean-looking guys outside, and expensive-looking cars parked out front."
That's not how it works. In fact it's the opposite of how it works. Dealers don't take their stash out of the depot house and carry it in a satchel to an open-air market known to be under constant police surveillance. In street drug sales above the level of small amounts of marijuana, money and drugs are exchanged on places place which dealers have gone to great lengths to protect from surveillance.
For one thing, Davenport and his father, Freddy, have covered their place with security cameras, which they make available to the police. They have a long documented history of calling the police when they think they see wrongdoing -- hundreds of calls and reports over the years that Robberson could have discovered with that single phone call he never made.
Yes, there are some bad drug houses in the immediate area, not to mention a gambling house that police have left alone ever since a City Council member complained about enforcement activities there, explaining it was where his own father plays poker. The Davenports have complained long, bitterly and loudly about the apparent hands-off posture of the police where nearby crack houses are concerned. One can only see echoes of the movie, Chinatown, in the failure of Dallas police to go after the nearby drug houses while devoting enormous resources instead to harassing the car wash.
But before we leave Robberson's picture of satchel-carrying drug dealers (does anyone alive actually own a "satchel" any more?), I need to add a bit of back-story. This same portrayal was painted for me by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. He said he had ordered the reluctant and fearful police driver of his official city SUV to take him into the heart of the car wash one day. He said that when people in the car wash saw the black SUV coming their way, they began tossing down satchels, jumping fences and high-tailing it.
I believe that the mayor saw something and that he interpreted is as evidence of drug dealing. I also believe -- not to detract in any ways from the mayor's august personage -- that if a drug dealer had an entire satchel of drugs in his possession, it would take 10 SUVs and automatic weapons fire to make him throw it down. And, I might mention, I believe that if a drug dealer or multiple drug dealers did throw down multiple satchels full of drugs, the police would have picked up those satchels, and, by the way, the Davenports really would be out of business by now, if not behind bars.
So do people at the car wash carry satchels? Yup. Every time I have been there, I have seen people with ... hey, do you mind if we call them duffel bags? Every time I hear the term satchel, I think of the Negro Leagues. But, yes, many duffel bags are in sight, all of them containing car washing supplies.
Why would they throw down their car washing supplies when they see a cop barreling onto the lot in a black SUV? Because the police, as they were doing when I was there Sunday, insist on deliberately misapplying an anti-panhandling ordinance to write expensive tickets on people at the car wash who wash other people's cars for a fee.
I'm working on that aspect for a column for next week's paper. For now, let me simply suggest there's an easy way to tell drug dealers from car washers. The car washers wash cars. They tend to be old or at least older. They have calloused and hardened hands from working. They dress modestly. They carry duffel bags full of car washing supplies.
No, drug dealers do not think to themselves, "Wow, I know how I could create a clever cover for my drug dealing. I could go stand in the broiling sun all day and wash other people's cars for 20 bucks." In fact, if you could think of some way to force drug dealers to wash cars at the car wash all day in order to deal drugs, you could probably put an end to drug dealing.
Mayor Rawlings told me he had asked Dallas Police Chief David Brown to send undercover officers into the car wash to arrest drug dealers. He told me Brown had declined to do so, explaining it would be a waste of resources because there are no major drug dealers there and that's not how major drug dealing works.
I'm sorry to say that former Morning News City Hall reporter and now editorial writer Rudy Bush joined commenters on Robberson's piece to say he had personally surveilled the car wash and had found incontrovertible evidence of drug dealing. "I haven't been there that I didn't see a car pull up, a window roll down, someone walk up to it and an exchange happen," Bush says in his comment. I don't know what he saw. Bush wouldn't maliciously make things up, as I believe Robberson has done.
But I do think Bush's observations are not unrelated to something Robbberson says in his piece. Robberson writes: "The bag people at the car wash kept so busy and spent so much time not washing cars at the car wash, they dragged chairs and a sofa out to the back, covered area so they could rest during lulls in business. That is, the covered area in back where the overhead police cameras couldn't monitor them."
Yes, the car wash people do sit on furniture in the back and hang out. They do drink beer. They do play cards. I suspect once in a while one of them may fire up some reefer. I have caught whiffs of something there that was either weed or somebody was burning sprinkles of potpourri.
The car wash is a huge social center in this bitterly poor neighborhood, and what we are looking at, dear friends, is poor black people having fun. Drive down there. Look around the 'hood. A block away you will see bombed out hulks of apartment buildings with no glass in the windows. You will see small modest frame dwellings, some of them falling apart, some immaculately maintained (one of them owned by a guy who earns his entire livelihood washing cars at the car wash).
You will not see any swimming pools. You will not see a country club. No golf course. Cars, washing cars, hanging out, playing cards, dominoes, some smoke from a barbecue trailer, some of that other kind of smoke are the swimming pool here, the country club, the golf course. All of that is this car wash. The sad fact is that our mayor and Rudy Bush and maybe Tod Robberson -- if he ever even drove by the place -- look at this scene and assume evil.
Is it just a big friendly picnic, and everybody's welcome? Hell no. I have to watch my ass when I go down there, pick my moments and keep my eyes open in the back of my head. I've been run off. What hell: I'm an old white guy. In what parallel universe does an old white guy think everybody at the car wash on MLK is going to look up and say, "Oh, happy day, a white person approaches!" But you do know, Morning Newsites, that if a geez like me can do it, you young strapping fellows can also walk into that car wash yourselves some day and actually talk to people. In fact, how has this story gone on for a decade, and nobody from the News has ever done that? They could at least hire a black reporter and have him or her do it for them while they watched from an armored vehicle across the street.
There is also this: The Davenports are the only white people in this picture. Sorry, but I have been on this case for 10 years, and I believe that race is a very important factor here. The police department would never dream of engaging in this behavior with a black business owner on MLK.
There is also a sense in which a certain kind of white person, the country club type especially, just doesn't get how two white East Texas good-old boys, Freddy Davenport and his son Dale, could be down there hanging out and getting along so well with all those poor black people in a tough neighborhood. I would suggest that just as Robberson and the mayor haven't spent enough time on the streets in South Dallas, they haven't spent enough time in East Texas. Those are exactly the kind of white guys who can fit in well with black people in South Dallas.
What Robberson wrote about the Daveports is horrible. It's devastating. Now in the permanent and inescapable Googlesphere, there is a written record of a major American daily newspaper calling this family drug dealers. The Davenports own multiple businesses in East Texas. They sit on the boards of banks. They belong to a church. They have kids. These are honest decent people. Robberson's piece is a deliberate and malicious attempt to use the power of the press to maim them. It makes me sick.
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