PEORIA -- Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow:Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press) is so insightful about race relations in this city, state and nation that it should be must reading for everyone who cares about civil rights.
First read the book, a masterful account of why so many millions of African American men are in prison or branded with felony records and unable to earn decent livings.
(Hint: it's the new Jim Crow, a modern way to marginalize and segregate African Americans without appearing to be racist. All you have to do is target African Americans, as in 'stop and frisk' and other types of harassment, and create harsh penalties for crack cocaine use. Bingo, they've got a record, while white men, who also use drugs, are not harasssed in this way.)
Then visit the Peoria Housing Authority to see the new Jim Crow in action.
There you will find a Trespass List, of people banned from PHA property and subject to arrest for trespassing.
Hedy Elliott Gardner, who teaches GED classes at the housing authority sites, first looked at the lengthy list of more than a thousand names, and was shocked to recognize some of the people. Some were deceased. Some were in prison for long terms. Yet they remained on the list.
I filed a Freedom of Information request to get the policies that control the list. The PHA quickly produced the policies.
Here is my response to the board, delivered at the PHA board meeting on June 25. The Trespass List, I wrote,
"appears to violate basic due process rights for those placed on the list.
1. There is no avenue of appeal for anyone placed on the list. This is a recipe for corruption. (Any PHA official or police officer can put someone on the list.) A timely neutral hearing, open to the public, should be held for anyone placed on the list who wants to appeal.
2. There is no avenue of appeal for someone who wants to be removed from the list who is denied by PHA officials and PHA agents. Again, a neutral hearing, open to the public, should be held for anyone whose request to be removed is denied by PHA officials. This should include an appeal on behalf of any person asking that a name be removed, so among other reasons, the long term incarcerated or deceased can be removed in a timely fashion.
3. The entire list should be reviewed at least quarterly, and not just annually.
4. Accurate statistics should be kept on those asking to be removed. This is not being done now, apparently."
The board listened, but made no comment. I'm hoping they will act swiftly.
After I spoke, Hedy Elliott Gardner spoke, and read the names of six people on the list she knows are deceased. Basic efficiency should mean these names are removed promptly, and not just once yearly if then.
Next Tom Larson, the PHA's Safety and Security Administrator gave his report. He said eleven evictions have taken place "for criminal conduct of residents or their guests."
I'm wondering about this -- if a guest breaks the law (and has been convicted? Or just accused?), should the resident be evicted? Where's the due process? Perhaps another Freedom of Information Act request will yield details on this policy.
Then Larson gave the meat of the presentation: there will be massive police presence at Taft Homes next week, to prevent another July 4 incident with illegal fireworks. Remember that, last year?
No rental cars or trailers will be allowed to enter the Taft property, because they might contain fireworks, he said. No non-residents will be allowed on the grounds, he said.
Police will set up "a command post" in a vacant apartment. "The Trespass List will be issued to all officers and enforced," he said.
There will be "zero tolerance" for illegal firewords and open alcohol drinking, he said. (Will this be a city-wide policy? Will authorities do something about the illegal fireworks that always go off all over the city, in white neighborhoods?)
He and board members said some residents complained about the incident last year and are worried about their safety and their children's safety. Fair enough. "They don't want outside influences. For safety we will enforce the rules," Larson said. He said officers will be flexible in some situations.
A letter has been sent to Taft residents explaining what will happen, and will be distributed again at a Taft block party set for June 28. (Another FOI request should produce that letter.)
So ask yourself -- how would you, white, middle class reader, feel if the police locked down your neighborhood, refused to allow your guests to enter, not even your grandma in a rental car? And did all this before a holiday? Guess there's no family dinner this time.
Are there better ways to police the PHA properties?
Last month, Hedy Elliott Gardner spoke to the board about what she has seen, namely the Trespass List distributed to the public contains many people with the same name and no other identifying information, allowing police to harass innocent people with common names. (There are three 'Tony Johnsons" all 'black males,' on the list, for example.)
Residents commonly say "here comes slavery" when they see police arrive, since they fear they will be taken to jail, even if innocent, she said."They refer to the police as 'slavery,' " she said. (Great community relations - not.)
In addition, she said she has been told that police routinely search residents at Taft Homes and take their money. They believe they are only allowed to possess $400, she said, a figure that she has heard from several different individuals. Outrageous, if true! (And if someone complains, put them on the Trespass List! There's no appeals process.)
At Harrison, people have told her they are required to carry photo identification at all times."Is that your policy?" she asked the board? (Shades of Arizona!)
She and I will be watching to see if any action is taken on these issues.
Meanwhile, read that book! It's an eye-opener, well written, riveting.
-- Elaine Hopkins