Three days before New Year’s Day, and 26 years after being convicted on charges of possessing 14 kilograms of crack cocaine, Darryl Lamar “Lil D” Reed is scheduled to be released from federal prison.
President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of the infamous Oakland crack dealer, who made millions of dollars by his 20th birthday, but has been serving a 35-year federal prison sentence since 1990.
Reed threw himself a massive black tie party for his 20th birthday in 1988 at Golden Gate Fields in Albany. An estimated 3,000 people attended and MC Hammer performed. Reed, known as “Lil D,” got on stage and danced with the Oakland rapper.
Less than two weeks later, on Dec. 8, 1988, he was arrested and charged in federal court with possession of 14 kilograms of crack.
Under new federal guidelines for crack at the time, he was sentenced in 1990 to 35 years in prison.
From prison, Reed has tried to serve as a warning of to avoid the path he took and has been a speaker at the Oakland-based Urban Peace Movement’s “Silence the Violence” events.
In his 2010 book “Weight,” he wrote that early on he saw the drug game as glamorous watching his uncle, Oakland drug lord Felix Mitchell, run an interstate heroin trade.
Mitchell was murdered in prison while Reed was a senior in high school. But by then, Reed was already moving thousands of dollars of crack a day.
Mitchell’s funeral drew national attention with an elaborate procession that paraded his casket through the streets of Oakland by horse-drawn carriage — trailed by 14 Rolls Royce limousines.
Reed said Mitchell had treated him like a son, buying him expensive clothes and taking him for rides around town.
Reed wrote in 2010 that he was drawn to his uncle’s glamour — like thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, including diamond-encrusted frames for his glasses — but also because he was generous with his money, opening swimming pools in poor Oakland neighborhoods and buying toys for children:
“I still think about him today because I remind myself that he got murdered behind these prison walls and I will not allow the same fate to happen to me.”
But Reed is unequivocal that drug dealing was the wrong path for him:
“To anybody who thinks that I lived a great life, it was not worth decades of my freedom. … I want some of y’all to hopefully take my advice and do something constructive with your lives. The dope game is a set up.”
In an introduction to his book, Hammer wrote that many young men pursue drug dealing because they see no opportunity in their neighborhoods:
“I pray that the conditions change in our hoods. These conditions cause young men to choose the ‘game’ because they see no hope of the American dream being lived around them without the hustle and grind of the streets.”
“Lack of employment, single parent homes, violence, poverty and sub-par education systems all fuel the flames of despair and oppression that lead to the hustle. Lil D has lived and learned through it all.”
Early in his life, Reed had dreamed of becoming a baseball player.
He played for the Allen Temple Little League team at shortstop, left field and pitcher. He also played basketball as a point guard, winning a championship at the Rainbow Recreation Center.
But even early on while attending Lockwood Elementary School, Reed frequently got into fights. His short stature earned him the nickname “Lil D.”
He lived in a three-bedroom apartment near the corner of Seminary and Bancroft, where a grocery store, bowling alley, barber shop, ice creamery and recreation center were all within walking distance.
But so were drug dealing and prostitution.
He started engaging in petty crime while hanging out with friends in East Oakland. They would frequently go to the skating rink, Foothill Square and the Eastmont Town Center. Sometimes they would fight with kids from the rival neighborhoods and occasionally there was a shooting.
When they went to the arcade, they might rob other kids in the bathroom or break into the machines to get tokens.
He started scalping at A’s, Warriors and Raiders games when he was 12 years old. At first he would approach people and ask them if they had an extra ticket for the game, but would tell them he only had a few dollars, playing on their sympathy.
Eventually his scalping grew more sophisticated, employing partners to keep an eye out for undercover police. At rock concerts, he could find wallets and purses accidentally dropped and left behind.
Reed started in the drug game acting as a lookout but later started selling weed. As time went on he became increasingly involved, employing more people to help sell it.
From there, Reed’s business grew quickly. In 1983, he was in 10th grade and enrolled in Fremont High School. By a year later he had switched from selling weed to selling crack. At first he was selling a few grams a day, but by the time he was 18 years old, he had saved nearly a million dollars and was selling more and more.
Reed attributes his success at drug dealing to an early aptitude at math and consistent discipline because he never used the drugs he was selling. He wrote that he tried to make sure that the people working under him treated drug users with respect, avoided ripping customers off and tried to keep violence to a minimum.
“Nobody got murdered on that street when I started running it because I kept everybody in line. … If I saw someone doing something that was detrimental to the well being of the block, I would pull them to the side and explain why they shouldn’t be doing it.”
But while he acknowledges that the drug dealing was a mistake, he also argued in the book that his sentence was too harsh under the guidelines passed in the 1980s. New laws at the time set sentences for crack at 100 times those for powder cocaine.
Lawmakers have recently been at work correcting those disparities.
The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act lowered the disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100 to 18 times, a compromise that the American Civil Liberties Union argues still reflects discredited assumptions about crack cocaine.
Meanwhile, Obama has been granting commutations to numerous nonviolent drug offenders sentenced under the harsh guidelines. On Tuesday he commuted 111 federal sentences, including Reed’s, bringing the total number of commuted sentences in his presidency to 673.
The president already had commuted the sentence of 214 inmates earlier this month and is expected to continue to grant hundreds of commutations through the remaining months of his presidency while continuing to push for sentencing reforms.