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Man helps rally Ohio city against drugs

/ Source: The Associated Press

His eyes darted up and down the intersecting streets, watching for trouble. He shuffled his feet, making sure no one surprised him from behind. And he prayed, asking God to protect him and touch the hearts of the drug dealers glaring at him from across the street.

For about four hours, Jesse Lowe stood silently by himself holding a cardboard sign with three words scrawled in black marker: "Drugs Bring Death."

His message wasn't aimed just at the dealers or residents of the neighborhood scarred by shootings and fear. He wanted the city to hear him.

In the months since, Lowe's solitary protest has drawn together black and white, rich and poor in a city simmering with anger since a white police officer shot and killed a black woman and wounded her baby during a drug raid. The officer faces trial Monday on negligent homicide and negligent assault charges.

'Drugs Bring Death' signs
Upwards of 100 people have shown up at many of the nine rallies he's put together, waving "Drugs Bring Death" signs. They've handed out thousands of stickers, T-shirts and signs that now blanket the city midway between Toledo and Dayton. A billboard company donated space on four signs, and businesses have supplied food for the rallies.

"The courage of one man is spreading to everyone," said police Maj. Kevin Martin. "This is what the solution has to be. As police, we're limited in what we can do."

Lowe didn't need anyone to tell him the damage drugs have inflicted. His father was a junkie and a dealer who spent time in prison. Lowe's mother kept him so far from his father's influence that they never really knew each other until he was a senior in high school.

Now a father himself at 35, Lowe cuts hair for a living and hears about mothers who choose getting high over taking care of their kids. At night, he's a security guard who has seen teens stealing to support their habit.

The day after hearing a man threaten to shoot someone over a drug deal in March, Lowe drove to the corner of St. Johns and Catalpa avenues — a crossroads for children who walk to a junior high and elementary school a few blocks away.

It's also a favorite spot for street corner drug sales, mainly marijuana and crack.

Within minutes, passing drivers were honking horns and shouting "God bless you" and "About time someone stood up."

And then a warning. "Don't you know they'll kill you out there?" one man shouted.

'Let the sign talk'
The drug dealers who set up shop every day outside a convenience store across the street stared. Then they told him that guns kill, too. One man tried to chase him away with three pit bulls.

Lowe, who's built like a football player, never responded.

"I let the sign talk," he said. "Those three words said more than I could."

Four hours after he stepped on the corner, one man told Lowe he was getting a gun.

"That's when I left," he said. "I'm a pretty tough guy, but I can't beat a bullet."

Manufacturing still plays a vital role in Lima, a city of 40,000 people, but the factories that once turned out buses, locomotives and tanks have closed or cut jobs. Selling drugs has become a more lucrative option than a lot of other jobs.

Both of the city's fatal shootings this year have been drug-related. Two people died of heroin overdoses in March. In April, following six drive-by shootings in a little over a month, the mayor and ministers pleaded with residents to put down their guns.

The police shooting in January magnified the trouble.

Fed up with seeing lives wasted
Lowe's stand against drugs wasn't motivated by the shootings. He was simply fed up with seeing too many lives wasted.

His wife, Cynthia, told him to take someone with him, but no one was willing to go along that first time. Neighborhood association leaders called his stand heroic while others said he was naive and putting his family at risk.

"I called him the next day and told him to get his butt home," said Ruth Glover, who owns the beauty shop where Lowe works. "I told him if he was going to do it again, he wasn't going to stand alone."

Still, she admired his courage.

"He had to do what his spirit led him to do," she said. "So many times we're too afraid or worried about what people will say. A lot of people don't want to get involved. They're afraid."

A week after that first protest, about 15 people stood with Lowe at another intersection in the same neighborhood.

"I don't know what caused Jesse to go out there, but thank God," said Bob Horton, a minister. He listens to a police radio scanner at home and has noticed a change in the neighborhood.

"People are calling in more when they see something," he said. "They didn't use to do that."

Helping former addicts
At a downtown rally in the spring, Judy Hartzog parked her wheelchair along a curb and waved a "Drugs Bring Death" sign at passing cars.

She doesn't get out much. Yet there she was, right alongside the mayor and police chief.

"God bless you," she told Lowe. "You're doing the best thing ever."

Lowe has helped seven former addicts find jobs and is putting together a nonprofit organization with the goal of speaking out to young people and ridding the city of drugs.

Most of his supporters are older; some are parents whose kids are strung out on drugs. He's also got the backing of police officers and city leaders.

Missing are the young people he is trying to reach.

"The ones I'm truly trying to help are scared or shamed to come out," he said. "They're afraid because people know them. It might be their uncles, cousins, their own sons and daughters they'd be protesting against."