Our Hero the Drug Dealer

The feds call Rickey Brownlee one of South Florida's biggest narco-traffickers. His friends and neighbors in Opa-locka call him a valiant victim.

"The guy is damn all right. If everybody had the heart, the concern, the respect like he had, this place would be better. I tell you what, Rick was the kind of guy who would open little kids' eyes and minds up to have respect, to stay in school, to keep their hygiene up. He always kept himself neat and his hair cut."

A woman wanders over. She doesn't want to give her name but does want to offer her two cents on Brownlee: "He helped my baby when she fell on the railroad tracks and had to get pins put in her hip," she says. "He helped pay the hospital bills."

Bunker, rising red-eyed from a brief catnap, rejoins the conversation. "They saying people were scared to come out of their homes because of Rick. Is that true?"

"Hell no," the woman answers.
A young man in a metallic blue car with chrome wheels pulls up to the curb near the empty lot. He has heard that Brownlee's reputation is being questioned and offers yet another unsolicited endorsement. "That man did a lot for this neighborhood. A lot!" he shouts before rolling off.

The more time you spend in the Triangle, the more anecdotes you hear. How Brownlee gave a high school friend $5000 when her father needed emergency surgery. How he paid for the funeral of a boy whose mother couldn't afford it. How, for Brownlee's bond hearing, his sister Janice collected 700 signatures on a petition asking the judge to release him on bond. (The judge denied the request.)

Praise for Brownlee isn't limited to the sidewalks of the Triangle. Two weeks after Brownlee's arrest, at the February 11 Opa-locka City Commission meeting, inside the city's ornate, arabesque town hall, Brian Dennis stands up to address the row of commissioners seated on the dais before him. Dennis, a 31-year-old with a scruffy beard, has a reputation around town as a political gadfly. Tonight he adds another concern to his list.

"I am Rickey Brownlee," the ex-navy man tells the commissioners. "I didn't know him personally, but [based on] my past history of what I used to do, I am Rickey Brownlee. It seems to me that a lot of people think that Rickey Brownlee has done a disservice to the community. I didn't know Mr. Brownlee, but I know for a fact there are no jobs out there. So to sit there and act like he was a monster when this is the only opportunity there is, I think you all should really apologize to Mr. Brownlee's family."

The commissioners dismiss Dennis stonily and proceed with the evening's business. Within the staid environs of city hall, Dennis's suggestion of an apology may sound eccentric. But his sentiments echo what people in the Triangle have been saying for years. "If you can't find a job nowhere else, you can turn to this," Dennis says. "It's a way of keeping your lights on, your water on; it's a means of survival. When you have major companies laying people off, and you have this thing to resort to, wouldn't you take a gamble and make money this way?"

Dennis did. When he lost his $375-a-week job as a truck driver, he turned to Street Survival 101. "I took my very last paycheck and bought a half-ounce of cocaine. I bought it from someone I knew. Then I cooked it down." He sifted the powder, added two grams of baking powder, then boiled it in a beaker with water. When it formed a solid mass, called a "cookie," he took the cocaine -- now in its smokable crack form -- and put it on a paper towel to cool. He cut, bagged it, and hit the streets. Then he bought some more. "I made about $1200 a week off two ounces," he says.

Dennis has spent a total of thirteen months in jail for charges ranging from unlawful possession of marijuana to aggravated battery. Never for drug dealing. He says he no longer deals and now runs his grandfather's mobile car wash business in north Dade. "If you're a drug dealer in the black community, we don't look at it the way the outside world looks at it," he explains. "This is a job. It's no different than somebody going down to Miami International Airport. If you blame Rickey Brownlee, that's wrong. These people who are buying, everybody has their own free will. I tell you, when the trial starts, I'm going to be rooting for Mr. Brownlee 100 percent."

The same cannot be said of Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram. To him Brownlee's popularity ranks as a personal affront. Ingram recalls feeling "devastated almost to tears" after hearing Dennis's brazen speech before the commission. "I just thought that was the height of insanity," the mayor says. "The impact of [drugs] is so severe -- the number of homicides, the number of AIDS-related deaths, the corrosiveness of such a devastating drug."

A former Miami police officer who has occupied the mayor's office for an unprecedented twelve years, Ingram knows plenty about the lack of economic opportunities facing Dade's poor, black communities. "We live in a racist society," he asserts. But drugs are not the economic answer, he stresses, and drug dealers are not role models, even if they're charming, generous, and charismatic. "Money without morality is nothing."

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