“No One Took Us Seriously”: Black Cops Warned About Racist Capitol Police Officers for Years
Allegations of racism against the Capitol Police are nothing new: Over 250 Black cops have sued the department since 2001. Some of those former officers now say it’s no surprise white nationalists were able to storm the building.
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When Kim Dine took over as the new chief of the U.S. Capitol Police in 2012, he knew he had a serious problem.
Since 2001, hundreds of Black officers had sued the department for racial discrimination. They alleged that white officers called Black colleagues slurs like the N-word and that one officer found a hangman’s noose on his locker. White officers were called “huk lovers” or “FOGs” — short for “friends of gangsters” — if they were friendly with their Black colleagues. Black officers faced “unprovoked traffic stops” from fellow Capitol Police officers. One Black officer claimed he heard a colleague say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”
In case after case, agency lawyers denied wrongdoing. But in an interview, Dine said it was clear he had to address the department’s charged racial climate. He said he promoted a Black officer to assistant chief, a first for the agency, and tried to increase diversity by changing the force’s hiring practices. He also said he hired a Black woman to lead a diversity office and created a new disciplinary body within the department, promoting a Black woman to lead it.
“There is a problem with racism in this country, in pretty much every establishment that exists,” said Dine, who left the agency in 2016. “You can always do more in retrospect.”
Whether the Capitol Police managed to root out racist officers will be one of many issues raised as Congress investigates the agency’s failure to prevent a mob of Trump supporters from attacking the Capitol while lawmakers inside voted to formalize the electoral victory of President-elect Joe Biden.
Already, officials have suspended several police officers for possible complicity with insurrectionists, one of whom was pictured waving a Confederate battle flag as he occupied the building. One cop was captured on tape seeming to take selfies with protesters, while another allegedly wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat as he directed protesters around the Capitol building. While many officers were filmed fighting off rioters, at least 12 others are under investigation for possibly assisting them.
Two current Black Capitol Police officers told BuzzFeed News that they were angered by leadership failures that they said put them at risk as racist members of the mob stormed the building. The Capitol Police force is only 29% Black in a city that’s 46% Black. By contrast, as of 2018, 52% of Washington Metropolitan police officers were Black. The Capitol Police are comparable to the Metropolitan force in spending, employing more than 2,300 people and boasting an annual budget of about a half-billion dollars.
The Capitol Police did not immediately respond to questions for this story.
Sharon Blackmon-Malloy, a former Capitol Police officer who was the lead plaintiff in the 2001 discrimination lawsuit filed against the department, said she was not surprised that pro-Trump rioters burst into the Capitol last week.
In her 25 years with the Capitol Police, Blackmon-Malloy spent decades trying to raise the alarm about what she saw as endemic racism within the force, even organizing demonstrations where Black officers would return to the Capitol off-duty, protesting outside the building they usually protect.
The 2001 case, which started with more than 250 plaintiffs, remains pending. As recently as 2016, a Black female officer filed a racial discrimination complaint against the department.
“Nothing ever really was resolved. Congress turned a blind eye to racism on the Hill,” Blackmon-Malloy, who retired as a lieutenant in 2007, told ProPublica. She is now vice president of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association, which held 16 demonstrations protesting alleged discrimination between 2013 and 2018. “We got Jan. 6 because no one took us seriously.”
Retired Lt. Frank Adams sued the department in 2001 and again in 2012 for racial discrimination. A Black, 20-year veteran of the force, Adams supervised mostly white officers in the patrol division. He told ProPublica he endured or witnessed racism and sexism constantly. He said that before he joined the division, there was a policy he referred to as “meet and greet,” where officers were directed to stop any Black person on the Hill. He also said that in another unit, he once found a cartoon on his desk of a Black man ascending to heaven only to be greeted by a Ku Klux Klan wizard. When he complained to his superior officers, he said he was denied promotions and training opportunities, and suffered other forms of retaliation.
In an interview, he drew a direct line between racism in the Capitol Police and the events that unfolded last week. He blamed Congress for not listening to Black members of the force years ago.
“They only become involved in oversight when it’s in the news cycle,” said Adams, who retired in 2011. “They ignored the racism happening in the department. They ignored the hate.”
The department’s record in other areas of policing have drawn criticism as well.
In 2015, a man landed a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn — top officials didn’t know the airborne activist was coming until minutes before he touched down. In 2013, when a lone gunman opened fire at the nearby Navy Yard, killing 12 people, the Capitol Police were criticized for standing on the sidelines. The force’s leadership board later determined its actions were justified.
Last month, days after a bloody clash on Dec. 12 between militant Trump supporters and counterprotesters, Melissa Byrne and Chibundu Nnake were entering the Capitol when they saw a strangely dressed man just outside the building, carrying a spear.
He was a figure they would come to recognize — Jacob Chansley, the QAnon follower in a Viking outfit who was photographed last week shouting from the dais of the Senate chamber.
They alerted the Capitol Police at the time, as the spear seemed to violate the complex’s weapons ban, but officers dismissed their concern, they said.
One officer told them that Chansley had been stopped earlier in the day, but that police “higher ups” had decided not to do anything about him.
We don’t “perceive it as a weapon,” Nnake recalled the officer saying of the spear.
Chansley told the Globe and Mail’s Adrian Morrow that Capitol Police had allowed him in the building on Jan. 6, which would normally include passing through a metal detector, although he was later charged with entering a restricted building without lawful authority, violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. As of Tuesday, he had not yet entered a plea.
For Byrne and Nnake, their interactions with the “QAnon Shaman” on Dec. 14 highlighted what they perceive as double standards in how the Capitol Police interact with the public.
Like many people who regularly encounter the force, Nnake and Byrne said they were accustomed to Capitol officers enforcing rules aggressively — later that day, Nnake was told that he would be tackled if he tried to advance beyond a certain point. “As a Black man, when I worked on the Hill, if I forgot a badge, I couldn’t get access anywhere,” he told ProPublica.
Congress, which controls the agency and its budget, has a mixed record of oversight. For the most part, Congress has been deferential toward the force, paying attention to its workings only after serious security failures, and even then, failing to meaningfully hold its leaders accountable.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from D.C. who is a nonvoting member of Congress, told ProPublica she believes a national commission should be formed to investigate what occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6, similar to what followed 9/11.
“Congress deserves some of the blame,” she told ProPublica. “We have complete control over the Capitol Police. … Long-term concerns with security have been raised, and they’ve not been dealt with in the past.”
The force has also suffered a spate of recent, internal scandals that may prove pertinent as Congress conducts its investigation.
Capitol Police officers accidently left several guns in bathrooms throughout the building in 2015 and 2019; in one instance, the loaded firearm was discovered by a small child.
The agency has been criticized for a lack of transparency for years. Capitol Police communications and documents are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and, unlike many local law enforcement agencies, it has no external watchdog specifically assigned to investigate and respond to community complaints. The force has not formally addressed the public since the riot last week.
“All law enforcement is opaque,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “At least most local police departments are subject to some kind of civilian oversight, but federal police agencies are left to operate in the shadows.”
The agency’s past troubles have rarely resulted in reform, critics said.
After the April 2015 gyrocopter incident, Congress held a hearing to examine how 61-year-old postal worker and activist Doug Hughes managed to land his aircraft after he livestreamed his flight. Dozens of reporters and news cameras assembled in front of the Capitol to watch the stunt, which was designed to draw attention to the influence of money in politics. Capitol Police did not learn of the incoming flight until a reporter reached out to them for comment, minutes before Hughes landed.
Dine defended the force’s response to the incident, pointing out that Hughes was promptly arrested and no one was hurt.
Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, then the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, harshly criticized the department and other federal agencies for what he perceived as an intelligence failure.
“The Capitol Police is terrible and pathetic when it comes to threat assessment,” Chaffetz told ProPublica in an interview. “They have a couple people dedicated to it, but they’re overwhelmed. Which drives me nuts. … It’s not been a priority for leadership, on both sides of the aisle.” He said he is not aware of any serious changes to the force’s intelligence gathering following the debacle.
Norton, who also pressed Dine at the hearing, told ProPublica the intelligence lapses surrounding the gyrocopter landing should be considered a “forerunner” to last week’s riot.
“For weeks, these people had been talking about coming to the Capitol to do as much harm as they can,” Norton said. “Everyone knew it. Except the Capitol Police.” Reports show the force had no contingency plan to deal with an escalation of violence and mayhem at last week’s rally, even though the FBI and the New York Police Department had warned them it could happen.
Law enforcement experts said that the agency is in a difficult position. While it has sole responsibility for protecting the Capitol, it must work with other nearby federal law enforcement agencies, Washington’s Metropolitan Police and the National Guard in case of emergencies.
In an interview, Nick Zotos, a former D.C. National Guard commander who now works for the Department of Homeland Security, said that the roughly two dozen agencies responsible for public safety in Washington can cause territorial disputes, finger-pointing and poor communication.
“This is not a D.C. thing, necessarily, although it’s probably the worst in D.C.,” Zotos said. “Police departments just don’t play with each other nicely.”
Blackmon-Malloy told ProPublica that divisions within the Capitol Police could be just as dangerous, not only for Congress but for Black officers themselves. “Now you got to go to work on the 20th,” she told ProPublica, alluding to the inauguration. “And stand next to someone who you don’t even know if they have your back.”
The decision not to charge the officer who shot him stems in part from weak legislation.
Jacob Blake Sr., father of Jacob Blake, holds a candle at a rally Monday in Kenosha.Morry Gash/AP
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Jacob Blake, paralyzed and still suffering from injuries, got a phone call on Tuesday afternoon from Kenosha District Attorney Michael Graveley with some news: There would be no charges filed against the police officer who shot Blake seven times in August, sparking massive protests in the city.
“Based on the facts and the law, I have decided not to issue criminal charges against Officer Sheskey, Officer Meronek, or Officer Arenas. This decision was by no means easy,” Graveley wrote in a report published later that day. In a press conference, he described the shooting as a “tragedy.”
The video of the shooting has been viewed by millions of people, and is difficult to watch: Blake, who is Black, walks toward the driver’s side of a parked car in a residential Kenosha neighborhood, with his children in the back seat. A white officer, Rusten Sheskey, follows behind him with a gun drawn. As Blake approaches the door, Sheskey grabs him by the shirt and then fires his weapon.
It can be hard to imagine how Sheskey’s actions wouldn’t warrant criminal charges, even considering the blatant racism of our criminal justice system. But District Attorney Graveley, in a roughly two-hour press conference, argued that pressing charges would be unethical because, given the state’s law about when officers can use force, there was no way he could win at court
Even after atrocious policing, even after a man is paralyzed, use-of-force laws around the country often make it very, very difficult to punish cops. In Wisconsin and most states, police can legally fire their weapons against someone if they have “reasonable” fear the person will otherwise gravely harm them or someone in the vicinity. And here’s the kicker: The law usually says police officers get to define what’s reasonable.
At the press conference, Graveley explained why police could successfully argue that Sheskey’s decision to shoot was reasonable under the circumstances, using evidence not visible in the viral video most of the country watched.
According to Graveley, the police had reason to be nervous off the bat: Three officers were called to the scene by Laquisha Booker, the mother of Blake’s children, who told a 911 dispatcher that Blake had grabbed the keys to her rental car and was trying to take their kids away from her, according to a recording of the call played at the press conference. The officers knew that Blake had a felony warrant for alleged domestic abuse and sexual assault. When they arrived at the scene and tried to arrest him, a physical confrontation ensued—Blake says the officers punched him and dragged him to the ground, and the officers say he resisted their orders. At one point during the struggle, Blake was on top of Sheskey on the ground, according to a second video. Officers tried to stun him with a taser, but he tore the prongs out.
Blake admitted to investigators later that he was holding a knife in his hand after he stood up and began walking to the car. Sheskey says he followed Blake and then grabbed his tank top because he feared Blake would take the car with the children inside. (Booker had yelled that the children were hers.) According to a statement Sheskey gave later, he worried that if Blake drove away, it could result in a high-speed chase that could harm the kids, or they might be taken hostage. An independent police expert, former Madison Police Chief Noble Ray, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to grab Blake, according to the district attorney.
In the video footage, it looks like Sheskey then shot Blake seven times in the back. But according to the district attorney, two police officers and citizen witnesses told investigators that before the shooting began, Blake started turning toward Sheskey and made a motion with his knife hand; this allegation couldn’t be confirmed in the video because the camera view was obstructed by the car door and another officer. A medical examiner later concluded that Blake was shot four times in the back but also three times on his left side, adding some corroboration to the allegation that he turned.
Ray, the independent police expert, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to fear that Blake was trying to stab him at that time. Blake denies this allegation and says he was simply trying to put the knife back into the car. “They didn’t have to shoot me like that,” he said in a statement later, published in the district attorney’s report. “I was just trying to leave and he had options to shoot my tires and even punch me, tase me again, hit me with the night stick.”
If you asked many people on the street, they’d probably say it’s unreasonable for a cop to follow behind a man who is walking away, grab him by the shirt, and proceed to fire multiple shots into him at close range while his children watch from the back seat. But our laws are set up so that it doesn’t really matter what most people think: It matters what a police officer decides is a reasonable fear. And in a racist society where Black people are too often viewed as threats, police will almost always be able to come up with some justification for why they were afraid and believed they had to shoot.
Prosecuting cases like this will require states to change their use-of-force laws, so that officers don’t have so much power to define what’s reasonable. Until that happens, law enforcement will regularly get away with shooting people, including those sleeping in a car or at home on a couch, when it might have been possible to deescalate the situation instead. Officers continue to get away with violence because it’s not very hard to come up with a reason why they thought someone would harm them, especially when the law doesn’t require them to prove that they were correct or that the person was actually a threat. “Without any new rules from the legislature, we’re going to have this problem again and again,” says Farhang Heydari executive director of the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law. “We saw it in Breonna Taylor’s case, Eric Garner’s case, with Tamir Rice. It will happen over and over again until legislators step up and enact clear rules around force.”
It’s possible to change these use-of-force laws, which often differ from state to state and even city to city. California recently amended its statute so that an officer can only legally shoot if it’s “necessary,” rather than “reasonable,” to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury. But even there, it’s hard to predict whether the statute will bring justice after future police shootings, because California lawmakers didn’t define what “necessary” means in the law, again potentially leaving some room for discretion among police officers.
More than half of states considered legislation last year dealing at least in some way with police use of force, and at least several focused on deadly force. But many of the bills didn’t go as far as some criminal justice reform activists would hope. Delaware’s attorney general has pushed to reform her state’s law, but her proposed changes wouldn’t even go as far as California’s did: Delaware’s statute currently allows deadly force if an officer believes he or she is in danger. The attorney general wants to reform the law merely to specify that it must be a “reasonable” belief—which brings us back to the problem in Wisconsin and many other states.
The Policing Project’s Heydari recommends that new laws require officers to take deescalative steps, and to only use force as a last resort, limiting the types of response depending on the situation. Fair and Just Prosecution, an advocacy group that works with district attorneys, recommends a ban on deadly force against suspects who are fleeing.
Under the Biden administration, the federal government could step in to encourage these changes. The Justice Department, which may soon be led by US Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, could set a national guidance on when it’s acceptable for officers to use lethal force. The agency or Congress could also require states to follow this guidance in order to receive federal funding for training or other programs. Biden’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formerly prosecuted police brutality at the department. She supports efforts to scale back law enforcement and invest more in social services, and has encouraged the federal government to stop funding agencies with a long history of violence and racism.
In terms of Blake’s case, federal prosecutors at the Justice Department and a US attorney’s office are now conducting a civil rights investigation and could later decide to bring federal charges. The Justice Department could also launch an investigation into the Kenosha Police Department and push for a consent decree that would require reforms.
“Now our battle must go in front of the Congress, it must go in front of the Senate,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told reporters Tuesday after the district attorney’s decision not to file charges locally. One of Blake’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, said they would press forward with a civil rights lawsuit. “It is now our duty to broaden the fight for justice on behalf of Jacob and the countless other Black men and women who are victims of racial injustice and police brutality in this country,” he said in a statement.
“We’re going to talk with the Speaker of the House, Speaker of the Senate,” Blake Sr. added. “We’re going to change some laws. Some laws have to be reckoned.”
Lincoln Center under construction, after the demoltion of the historically black neighborhood of San Juan Hill. Image: NYPL
When James Baldwin visited San Francisco in 1963 to film a documentary about U.S. racism, he encountered neighborhoods in turmoil: the city was seizing properties through eminent domain, razing them, and turning them over to private developers. Part of a massive, federal urban renewal program, nearly 5,000 families—no fewer than 20,000 residents, the majority of them people of color—were being displaced from rental homes, private property, and businesses in the Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin spoke to a Black teenager who had just lost his home and watched as his neighborhood was destroyed. He told Baldwin: “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Soon after, Baldwin would say: “I couldn’t say you do. I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.”
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods.
That young man was one of millions of Americans, disproportionately of color, who lost homes and communities through the federal urban renewal program. In discussing its human costs—colossal in scope and yet profoundly intimate—Baldwin helped popularize a phrase common in Black neighborhoods: urban renewal meant “Negro removal.” To steal people’s homes, Baldwin understood, was to shred the meaning of their citizenship by destroying their communities. And “the federal government,” he said, “is an accomplice to this fact.”
The 1921 Tulsa massacre and redlining have pierced the popular consciousness in recent years as ways that, through murder and markets, Black communities were destroyed. Curiously, urban renewal has so far remained on the margins of these discussions. Yet that program, in operation between 1949 and 1974, constituted one of the most sweeping and systematic instances of the modern destruction of Black property, neighborhoods, culture, community, businesses, and homes. At its peak in the mid-1960s, urban renewal displaced a minimum of 50,000 families annually—a 1964 House of Representatives report estimated the figure at more like 66,000.
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods. Federal subsidies went to more than 400 cities, suburbs, and towns, supported more than 1,200 projects, and displaced a minimum of 300,000 families—perhaps some 1.2 million Americans. While Black Americans were just 13 percent of the total population in 1960, they comprised at least 55 percent of those displaced. And, while we tend to remember urban renewal as a big-city program, pursued by titans such as Robert Moses in New York, the vast majority of projects were carried out in cities of 50,000 residents or fewer. These were small cities such as Greenville, North Carolina, where 207 families of color and 11 white families were displaced; Tupelo, Mississippi, where 217 families of color and 31 white families were displaced; and Demopolis, Alabama, where 55 families of color and 7 white families were displaced. Urban Renewal was spread as widely as today’s marches for social justice.
Today, as racially disparate rates of eviction, police violence, and capital flight raise urgent questions about the right to live in safe, thriving communities, a more complete reckoning with urban renewal’s record of destruction is necessary. Fortunately, because urban renewal was federally funded, Washington collected data about how projects unfolded; these records also allow us to reconstruct the many costs of urban renewal. Thanks to a recent comprehensive digital mapping project which I helped spearhead at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, it’s now possible for the first time to visualize how hundreds of urban renewal projects displaced tens of thousands of Americans. While private–public practices such as redlining help explain the staggering racial wealth gap, the history of urban renewal, though no less materially devastating, involved kinds of theft that are more difficult to quantify—thefts that amount to the destruction of entire lifeworlds. And, the political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today. Like redlining, profit— in this case, returns derived from boosting property taxes— continues to define the state’s interest in destabilizing Black neighborhoods.
The political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today.
As the United States emerged from World War II, many cities faced a housing crunch. Whites policed the racial boundaries of their neighborhoods, often violently. And so as greater numbers of African Americans migrated north in search of manufacturing jobs and to escape the South’s more formal system of Jim Crow, Black neighborhoods quickly became overcrowded. Residents were often subjected to exorbitant rents in derelict housing owned by slumlords. Families and friends boarded together. Others sublet rooms to meet extortionate rents. Segregated neighborhoods in northern cities became so crowded that many schools operated in two shifts—half of the students went in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. “Blight” was the term policymakers used to describe the worsening conditions structured by these national practices of urban segregation.
Meanwhile, city budgets teetered on the edge of fiscal cliffs, from which they had only just clawed their way back up. The economic exuberance of the 1920s had produced an urban and suburban “land boom,” as the Wall Street Journal put it—the overheated, last gasp of a period “of great and extended prosperity.” Cities fueled this speculation by taking on staggering levels of debt to support the infrastructure that made private property profitable. Net annual additions to municipal debt between 1923 and 1931 averaged over $845 million (or more than $13.5 billion in 2020 dollars), or enough, as one contemporary analyst accurately predicted, “to keep municipal finance in a turmoil for two decades or more.”
When the bottom fell out of the stock market, the consequences quickly ricocheted through urban land markets and city budgets. Property values plummeted, and tax delinquency skyrocketed. In the Great Depression, some 1,200 local or county governments defaulted or went bankrupt.
The New Deal helped stabilize the situation. Later, defense conversion and contracting in World War II injected desperately needed capital into cities. But cities still held considerable debt, and the New Deal’s public works agenda was not without its own considerable costs—while federally subsidized labor constructed many bridges, libraries, schools, and sewage plants, these public assets had also become new line items on municipal budgets. Moreover, as the Depression shuttered factories and the Great Migration brought new residents, officials worried that property tax revenues would never rise to meet these new burdens.
As early as the late 1930s, New Dealers were increasingly concerned that city budgets were fiscal time bombs that threatened to explode the entire progressive project. And they saw that local governments were already using New Deal works programs to remedy the situation. As Mabel Walker, an urban analyst, noted in 1938, in New York City, federally subsidized works projects had begun “siphoning off [the] slum population,” constructing affordable housing “in cheaper areas,” and might even facilitate the delivery of cleared land to “higher income groups” and “business and industry.” The result, she wrote, was “in effect a gigantic subsidy or bonus handed out to property holders in these slum areas” who could never have assembled enough private capital to reset urban land markets themselves. By 1938 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia estimated the city had torn down or gutted nearly 9,000 buildings. In Philadelphia federal support for clearance subsidized the demolition of 8,328 structures, releasing land with an estimated value of $11.5 million.
Federal leaders struck on the idea of using urban renewal to harness this haphazard redevelopment of cities and turn it into a more coherent, national program of planning, redevelopment, and housing. They also recognized that the federal government’s budget overwhelmingly depended on capital generated in cities in the form of confiscatory, progressive corporate and personal income tax rates. As one of urban renewal’s federal designers put it, short of “a nation-wide overhauling of our traditional arrangements for taxation and public expenditures,” “it seems only fair that the federal government should aid the local governments to the extent necessary to cover their urgently needed outlays.” Federally subsidized slum clearance and redevelopment could put cities back on the path to fiscal independence—and the federal government wouldn’t have to share much of its precious income tax revenue.
Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment.
World War II delayed the initiative, but the Housing Act of 1949 set aside significant financing to enable cities to build public housing and to demolish neglected, overcrowded neighborhoods, and antiquated or abandoned industrial properties. As in a number of New Deal programs, the subsidies would be offered in the form of bonded debt, which, after cities delivered a matching share, the federal government would retire. The goal with such a convoluted system of finance was to get capital moving through private financial institutions and to plausibly deemphasize the role of the national government. These were local programs.
This growing mishmash of priorities was a hallmark of midcentury liberalism, which forged cross-cutting relationships with many different interest groups. Some policymakers, for instance, worked closely with real estate interests and business groups and their allies in city halls. Together they hungered for the potential bonanza of private redevelopment and city property tax yields. Others were aligned with progressive public housing advocates or worked closely to cultivate the support of African American community leaders. When he signed the 1949 bill, a signature piece of his Fair Deal agenda, President Harry S. Truman heralded a new front in the war for civil rights: securing a decent home for all Americans. Early on, Black clergy and civil rights activists were among the initiatives’ most hopeful supporters.
Congress soon confronted the reality that few local governments were pursuing the program. Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment. But the act’s regulations mandated that housing projects were to be prioritized.
Rather than amend the legislation to offer greater incentives for housing, a revised version of the legislation, the Housing Act of 1954, created the federal Urban Renewal Administration, ceding to the interests of commercial lobbyists and mayors. The act loosened housing mandates and so unleashed a goldmine of federally financed business-oriented clearance and development.
Many of the developments that resulted are among their city’s most iconic. New York City’s Lincoln Square, anchored by Lincoln Center, displaced at least 4,000 families, many of whom were recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. (One imagines some of those residents had been displaced from Puerto Rico, too, where the federal government funded renewal projects in some 30 municipalities, displacing at least 10,000 families.) Pedro Quinones protested displacement by joining a movement called Save Our Homes. As he correctly understood, the program “has come to New York to ‘clean up’ minority groups.” But “we are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. . . . We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants to have what are called ‘better class people’ there.”
Other projects underwrote the emergence of the “meds and eds” economy that fuel so many cities today. The University of Chicago displaced more than 4,000 families in a series of projects. Clearance and construction of Oklahoma City’s University Medical Center displaced at least 700, disproportionately African American families. And Detroit’s massive Medical Center displaced around 2,000 families, again disproportionately of color. That campus now anchors the city’s fashionable Midtown neighborhood. The University of Pennsylvania spurred projects that displaced more than 700 African American families and a thriving Black business district. That community, called Black Bottom, had been owned or occupied by African Americans since at least the Civil War. Many of its men were Union Army veterans.
“We are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants ‘better class people’ there.”
Just counting families displaced, however, misses important dimensions of what made this so devastating. While they may not have been thriving in the terms that counted on municipal balance sheets, and while many residents were in dire economic straits, the informal, unplanned mix of public and private, business and culture often amounted to thriving communities. In New York, for instance, more than 600 businesses sat within the Lincoln Square project footprint, businesses that defined the commercial and cultural life of the neighborhood: diners and luncheonettes, candy stores and beauty parlors, a “Chinese goods” store, photography studios, a detective agency, and a funeral parlor.
For displaced businesses, federal law authorized a $2,500 reimbursement for “moving and fixtures” (the ceiling was ultimately abolished, but payments were still at local officials’ discretion). But business owners protested that the figure was a pittance compared to the costs associated with moving, reopening, and lost revenue in the meantime. Small businesses operated on vanishingly slim margins. One pharmacist estimated the cost of relocating and reopening was more like $20,000. Many displaced businesses simply closed down. These dynamics played out in small cities such as Rome, Georgia, too. Callie Martin had owned and operated Let’s Eat Café in the city’s cleared Black neighborhood. After packing up, moving, and reopening, she was barely scraping by. “I was able to give work to two people,” she told the local paper in 1971. “But now I’m just working by myself and not really making ends meet.” Renewal “really caused me to lose a decent living.” Hubert Holland, who lost his barber shop was clearer: “The way I see it, they destroyed the Negro businesses, what little they had.” Two years after clearance, just four of Rome’s 16 displaced Black businesses had reopened. As of 1963, some 39,399 businesses were reported to have been displaced through urban renewal alone (the federal highway program displaced thousands more). Urban renewal would run for another 11 years.
The vast majority of families displaced were renters: a 1968 study found that two thirds of all “relocatees” and three quarters of non-white families displaced were renters. While their landlords—slumlords in many cases—would be compensated for the loss of their property (and some quite handsomely), very often the families that actually lived in these buildings were not. Instead, federal statutes entitled these citizens to “relocation assistance”—vague guidelines that local authorities assist displaced families with finding temporary housing. The legislation “authorized” local governments to offer up to $300 in relocation grants to displaced families. That figure was raised to $500 in 1964, the first year that relocation funds and rental assistance were included elderly individuals. But in many cities, “relocation assistance” simply amounted to flyers with lists of local real estate brokers.
Because of baked-in local discretion, thousands and thousands of those who were displaced never received any financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them; as a result, displacement records constitute one of the archival silences of urban renewal. In one Cleveland neighborhood, 717 families’ homes were razed to clear land for industrial redevelopment. Of them, 224 moved to “unknown” locations (they were likely living with friends and family); 57 moved into other forms of “substandard” housing; and 301 still lived, as the city’s Black paper reported, “in the midst of abandoned housing.” Across a number of Cleveland’s renewal programs, officials admitted not knowing what had become of another 1,194 families.
Thousands of those who were displaced never received financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them.
The transfer of wealth, capital, and land from these communities to large business interests and developers only scratches the surface of the damage done by urban renewal. Ties of kinship and community were shattered. The loss of a sense of “rootedness” was devastating. Grady Abrams, who was displaced from the Five Points neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia, recalled the traumatic experience of his lost community. “It is one thing to leave your home, your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner.” He testified to the lasting trauma: “It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. In fact, my neighbors and I lost relationships forever. There is nothing of the past now in Five Points that I can show my grandchildren and great grandchildren that was part of my past. Nothing at all.”
All of these issues were known to federal administrators. As one 1965 report found, thanks to urban renewal, “Nonwhites have been forced into already crowded housing facilities, thereby spreading blight, aggravating ghettoes, and generally defeating the social purpose of urban renewal.” Displaced citizens, another report found, “are faced with having to reconstruct their lives. . . . They must terminate relationships and break routines that—especially for the elderly—have been equated with life itself.” These were connections to tradition, community, and history that the built environment makes manifest—the millions of memories and attachments we make to each other through spaces like street corners and schools, bars and barber shops.
As we try to reconstruct these histories, so far we only have comprehensive family displacement data for the years 1950–66. These figures dramatically undercount families of color because in many places Latin and Caribbean communities were counted as white, as in the Lincoln Center project and a number of clearance projects in California. Moreover, the government only counted families for displacement purposes, because they were the primary displacees entitled to the paltry and frequently underdelivered relocation assistance grants. Non-elderly single people and nonconforming households—by which officials meant gay and lesbian families and those in which unmarried women and men cohabitated—were not entitled to relocation assistance. They literally didn’t count.
Rather than solve urban decay, urban renewal often exacerbated the problems. Many projects took years to complete. In the state of New York, it took an average of 8 years to develop a project; in New York City the average was 13 years. Those who stuck around their old neighborhoods often lived among boarded-up and vacated buildings or vacant lots. Not surprisingly, crime, which often hadn’t been much of a problem before, frequently took hold. Once optimistic Black residents—who had hoped to take their relocation checks out to the suburbs or use them to secure new homes in their old neighborhoods—couldn’t wait to get out. As one Black property-owner in Cleveland put it, “I’d move tonight if the city will buy my property. I’m ready to get out.” But in Cleveland, as in other cities, the local urban renewal office often intentionally delayed purchasing properties. In the mid-1960s, the federal Civil Rights Commission found that city officials allowed targeted properties to fall into further disrepair in order to secure a lower purchasing price ahead of demolition.
As historian Arnold Hirsch found in his landmark study of midcentury Chicago, clearing out African Americans was often the entire point: as the Chancellor of the University of Chicago put it, the program would act as “an effective screening tool” and as a way of “cutting down the number of Negroes” in the neighborhood surrounding the elite institution. That said, communities of color, immigrants, and the elderly were not alone in shouldering the costs of urban renewal. Many working-class white communities were devastated as well. While white families had more options for neighborhoods where they could move, and greater access to traditional mortgages, the loss of community and history reverberated across the color line.
“It is one thing to leave your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner. It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. There is nothing of the past now that I can show my grandchildren.”
In Boston, the majority of families displaced to build the city’s new West End and brutalist Government Center complex—nearly 70 percent—were white. Though even that figure suggests that nonwhite Bostonians were disproportionately displaced: as of 1960, they were still less than 10 percent of the city’s population. Still, the sheer number of white families displaced in Boston, more than 7,000, is staggering. And, as in Black neighborhoods, class played an important role in leading officials to choose certain communities—those with fewer resources and less political clout suffered greater losses. In Brooklyn, for instance, white, middle-class gentrifiers successfully blocked or modified key aspects of Robert Moses’s redevelopment plans for Brooklyn Heights and neighborhoods farther south. In the process, they also taught city planners about the potential value to be gained through preservation and gentrification. From these clashes emerged new, subtler and more recognizably modern forms of urban renewal: code enforcement, historical zoning, targeted policing.
In total, at least 550 square miles of U.S. cities were razed through urban renewal. The scale of displacement in big cities was staggering. Washington, D.C.’s Southwest projects displaced more than 4,000 families. The Lubbock, Texas, Coronado project forced out nearly 1,300 families and, federal data shows, managed not to touch a single white family. The country’s single largest project in terms of dislocation was Cincinnati’s Kenyon-Barr, which displaced at least 4,953 families—4,824 of which were African American. However, the intimacy of clearance in small city renewal projects was no less devastating. Communities that had lived and worked beside each other were ripped apart. Tiny Danville, Kentucky—population 9,010 in 1960—cleared out its lone Black residential and commercial district, displacing businesses and at least 48 families of color. When violence erupted in smaller cities in Georgia—Augusta in 1970 and Rome in 1971—a younger generation of African Americans in these communities signaled that discriminatory policing and displacement continued to define their second-class citizenship.
Throughout, local and federal officials kept their eyes on the bottom line: property values and property tax revenues. As the commissioner of the federal Urban Renewal Administration testified before Congress, the leading rationale for the program had “always been to sustain and increase the capacity of cities to meet rising needs for essential public facilities and services”; “private enterprise could not do it alone”; and “the impact of urban renewal upon taxable values is particularly important.” Local officials enthusiastically ratified these commitments. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley expected the city’s tax harvest on renewed land to rise from $2.3 million to $4.8 million. The massive Southwest, Washington, D.C., renewal project—estimated to displace some 2,500 black families—was expected to produce nearly $5 million in tax revenue annually against less than $600,000 prior to clearance. Even Tiny Calexico, California, population 7,900 in 1960, situated on the California–Mexico border, predicted a nearly fourfold uptick in property tax yields on its renewed land, from $4,400 to $16,400.
Many projects failed, leaving cities under pressure to boost property values through aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, the DOJ found that Ferguson’s harsh policing of Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue.
Yet, for many cities, these forecasts were dead wrong. Many projects failed to materialize, often removing otherwise “productive” properties from the tax rolls. The result has been even greater pressure on municipal governments to boost property values and tax yields, goals they have often pursued through greater borrowing and aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by Ferguson, Missouri, police, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the city’s harsh policing of its Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue. The recent allegations that Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police was tied to a special police squad—“Place Based Investigations”—makes the linkage between policing, municipal revenue creation, and redevelopment even clearer. According to attorneys for Taylor’s family, the warrants associated with narcotics investigations were meant to address one of the “primary roadblocks” to a multimillion-dollar redevelopment initiative. As the attorneys put it, “When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.”
The young man James Baldwin spoke with in San Francisco understood that the fullest expressions of identity and citizenship rest on the most intimate foundations—the spaces of home and community through which our lives take on meaning, a neighborhood to which we might return, memories created and that come rushing back. Returning to such spaces enables us to rediscover our roots, collapsing, for a moment, the distance between past and present. Urban renewal robbed generations of these formative spaces—and much more besides.
As today’s movements for social justice grapple with state-sanctioned violence on communities of color, we must also be alert to the fact that policing is but one branch of the local state. While the audacity and scale of urban renewal was exceptional, the structural conditions and fiscal-political logics that created it are still with us. Indeed, today’s austerity and municipal debt only increases urban budgetary pressures, which helps explain why cities led by Black mayors and councils are as likely as any other to pursue aggressive displacement and redevelopment schemes. These powerful dynamics also help explain why city officials resist calls for defunding the police: they guard present property values and are one among a number of tools for producing the property values of the future. Focusing on policing alone, then, misses this broader picture—of urban real estate, the fiscal bases of city governance, and capitalism. Producing flourishing Black communities today means addressing all of these forces at once.
Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery.
The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.
By Lizzie PresserPhotography by Wayne Lawrence
This story was co-published with The New Yorker.
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
IN THE SPRING OF 2011, the brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before. The brothers were among dozens of Reels family members who considered the land theirs, but Melvin and Licurtis had a particular stake in it. Melvin, who was 64, with loose black curls combed into a ponytail, ran a club there and lived in an apartment above it. He’d established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land, and his sense of self was tied to the water. Licurtis, who was 53, had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s.
Their great-grandfather had bought the land a hundred years earlier, when he was a generation removed from slavery. The property — 65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore — was racked by storms. Some called it the bottom, or the end of the world. Melvin and Licurtis’ grandfather Mitchell Reels was a deacon; he farmed watermelons, beets and peas, and raised chickens and hogs. Churches held tent revivals on the waterfront, and kids played in the river, a prime spot for catching red-tailed shrimp and crabs bigger than shoes. During the later years of racial-segregation laws, the land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. “It’s our own little black country club,” Melvin and Licurtis’ sister Mamie liked to say. In 1970, when Mitchell died, he had one final wish. “Whatever you do,” he told his family on the night that he passed away, “don’t let the white man have the land.”
Mitchell didn’t trust the courts, so he didn’t leave a will. Instead, he let the land become heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. The practice began during Reconstruction, when many African Americans didn’t have access to the legal system, and it continued through the Jim Crow era, when black communities were suspicious of white Southern courts. In the United States today, 76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans.
Many assume that not having a will keeps land in the family. In reality, it jeopardizes ownership. David Dietrich, a former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force, has called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. Black families watch as their land is auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will.
Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families. Now, as reparations have become a subject of national debate, the issue of black land loss is receiving renewed attention. A group of economists and statisticians recently calculated that, since 1910, black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of lost land. Nathan Rosenberg, a lawyer and a researcher in the group, told me, “If you want to understand wealth and inequality in this country, you have to understand black land loss.”
By the time of Melvin and Licurtis’ hearing in 2011, they had spent decades fighting to keep the waterfront on Silver Dollar Road. They’d been warned that they would go to jail if they didn’t comply with a court order to stay off the land, and they felt betrayed by the laws that had allowed it to be taken from them. They had been baptized in that water. “You going to go there, take my dreams from me like that?” Licurtis asked on the stand. “How about it was you?”
They expected to argue their case in court that day. Instead, the judge ordered them sent to jail, for civil contempt. Hearing the ruling, Melvin handed his 83-year-old mother, Gertrude, his flip phone and his gold watch. As the eldest son, he had promised relatives that he would assume responsibility for the family. “I can take it,” he said. Licurtis looked at the floor and shook his head. He had thought he’d be home by the afternoon; he’d even left his house unlocked. The bailiff, who had never booked anyone in civil superior court, had only one set of handcuffs. She put a cuff on each brother’s wrist, and led them out the back door. The brothers hadn’t been charged with a crime or given a jury trial. Still, they believed so strongly in their right to the property that they spent the next eight years fighting the case from jail, becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.
LAND WAS AN IDEOLOGICAL PRIORITY for black families after the Civil War, when nearly 4 million people were freed from slavery. On Jan. 12, 1865, just before emancipation, the Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked them what they needed. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” their spokesperson, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, told Sherman. Freedom, he said, was “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Sherman issued a special field order declaring that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be given to African Americans — what came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The following year, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening up an additional 46 million acres of public land for Union supporters and freed people.
The promises never materialized. In 1876, near the end of Reconstruction, only about 5% of black families in the Deep South owned land. But a new group of black landowners soon established themselves. Many had experience in the fields, and they began buying farms, often in places with arid or swampy soil, especially along the coast. By 1920, African Americans, who made up 10% of the population, represented 14% of Southern farm owners.
A white-supremacist backlash spread across the South. At the end of the 19th century, members of a movement who called themselves Whitecaps, led by poor white farmers, accosted black landowners at night, beating them or threatening murder if they didn’t abandon their homes. In Lincoln County, Mississippi, Whitecaps killed a man named Henry List, and more than 50 African Americans fled the town in a single day. Over two months in 1912, violent white mobs in Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out almost the entire black population — more than a thousand people. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research, at Morgan State University, told me, “There is this idea that most blacks were lynched because they did something untoward to a young woman. That’s not true. Most black men were lynched between 1890 and 1920 because whites wanted their land.”
By the second half of the 20th century, a new form of dispossession had emerged, officially sanctioned by the courts and targeting heirs’ property owners without clear titles. These landowners are exposed in a variety of ways. They don’t qualify for certain Department of Agriculture loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs can’t use their land as collateral with banks and other institutions, and so are denied private financing and federal home-improvement loans. They generally aren’t eligible for disaster relief. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the extent of the problem in New Orleans, where 25,000 families who applied for rebuilding grants had heirs’ property. One Louisiana real-estate attorney estimated that up to $165 million of recovery funds were never claimed because of title issues.
Heirs are rarely aware of the tenuous nature of their ownership. Even when they are, clearing a title is often an unaffordable and complex process, which requires tracking down every living heir, and there are few lawyers who specialize in the field. Nonprofits often pick up the slack. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, has cleared more than 200 titles in the past decade, almost all of them for African-American families, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Josh Walden, the center’s chief operating officer, told me that it had mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina. He said that investors hoping to build golf courses or hotels can target these plots. “We had to be really mindful that we didn’t share those maps with anyone, because otherwise they’d be a shopping catalogue,” he told me. “And it’s not as if it dries up. New heirs’ property is being created every day.”
Through interviews and courthouse records, I analyzed more than three dozen cases from recent years in which heirs’ property owners lost land — land that, for many of them, was not only their sole asset but also a critical part of their heritage and their sense of home. The problem has been especially acute in Carteret County. Beaufort, the county seat, was once the site of a major refugee camp for freed people. Black families eventually built homes near where the tents had stood. But in the 1970s the town became a tourist destination, with upscale restaurants, boutiques, and docks for yachts. Real-estate values surged, and out-of-town speculators flooded the county. David Cecelski, a historian of the North Carolina coast, told me, “You can’t talk to an African-American family who owned land in those counties and not find a story where they feel like land was taken from them against their will, through legal trickery.”
BEAUFORT IS A QUAINT TOWN, lined with coastal cottages and Colonial homes. When I arrived, last fall, I drove 20 miles to Silver Dollar Road, where Melvin and Licurtis’ family lives in dozens of trailers and wood-panelled houses, scattered under pine and gum trees.
Melvin and Licurtis’ mother, Gertrude, greeted me at her house and led me into her living room, where porcelain angels lined one wall. Gertrude is tough and quiet, her high voice muffled by tobacco that she packs into her cheek. People call her Mrs. Big Shit. “It’s because I didn’t pay them no mind,” she told me. The last of Mitchell Reels’ children to remain on the property, she is the family matriarch. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews let themselves into her house to pick up mail or take out her trash. Around dinnertime on the day I was there, the trickle of visitors turned into a crowd. Gertrude went into the kitchen, coated fish fillets with cornmeal and fried them for everyone.
Her daughter Mamie told me that Melvin and Licurtis had revelled in the land as kids, playing among the inky eels and conch shells. In the evenings, the brothers would sit on the porch with their cousins, a rag burning to keep the mosquitoes away. On weekends, a pastor strode down the dirt street, robed in white, his congregants singing “Wade in the Water.” Licurtis was a shy, humble kid who liked working in the cornfields. Melvin was his opposite. “When the school bus showed up, when he come home, the crowd would come with him and stay all night,” Gertrude said. When Melvin was 9, he built a boat from pine planks and began tugging it along the shore. A neighbor offered to teach him how to shrimp, and, in the summer, Melvin dropped nets off the man’s trawler. He left school in the 10th grade; his catch was bringing in around a thousand dollars a week. He developed a taste for sleek cars, big jewelry and women, and started buying his siblings Chuck Taylors and Timberlands.
Gertrude was the administrator of the estate. She’d left school in the eighth grade and wasn’t accustomed to navigating the judicial system, but after Mitchell’s death she secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs. The judgment read, “The surviving eleven (11) children or descendants of children of Mitchell Reels are the owners of the lands exclusive of any other claim of any one.”
In 1978, Gertrude’s uncle Shedrick Reels tried to carve out for himself the most valuable slice of land, on the river. He used a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which required him to prove that he had occupied the waterfront for years, continuously and publicly, against the owners’ wishes. Shedrick, who went by Shade and worked as a tire salesman in New Jersey, hadn’t lived on Silver Dollar Road in 27 years. But he claimed that “tenants” had stood in for him — he had built a house on the waterfront in 1950, and relatives had rented it or run it as a club at various times since. Some figured that it was Shade’s land. He also produced a deed that his father, Elijah, had given him in 1950, even though Mitchell, another of Elijah’s sons, had owned the land at the time.
Shade made his argument through an obscure law called the Torrens Act. Under Torrens, Shade didn’t have to abide by the formal rules of a court. Instead, he could simply prove adverse possession to a lawyer, whom the court appointed, and whom he paid. The Torrens Act has long had a bad reputation, especially in Carteret. “It’s a legal way to steal land,” Theodore Barnes, a land broker there, told me. The law was intended to help clear up muddled titles, but, in 1932, a law professor at the University of North Carolina found that it had been co-opted by big business. One lawyer said that people saw it as a scheme “whereby rich men could seize the lands of the poor.” Even Shade’s lawyer, Nelson Taylor, acknowledged that it was abused; he told me that his own grandfather had lost a 50-acre plot to Torrens. “First time he knew anything about it was when somebody told him that he didn’t own it anymore,” Taylor said. “That was happening more often than it ever should have.”
Mitchell’s kids and grandkids were puzzled that Shade’s maneuver was legal—they had Mitchell’s deed and a court order declaring that the land was theirs. And they had all grown up on that waterfront. “How can they take this land from us and we on it?” Melvin said. “We been there all our days.” Gertrude’s brother Calvin, who handled legal matters for the family, hired Claud Wheatly III, the son of one of the most powerful lawyers in town, to represent the siblings at a Torrens hearing about the claim. Gertrude, Melvin and his cousin Ralphele Reels, the only surviving heirs who attended the hearing, said that they left confident that the waterfront hadn’t gone to Shade. “No one in the family thought at the end of the day that it was his land and we were going to walk away from it forever,” Ralphele told me.
Wheatly told me a different story. In his memory, the Torrens hearing was chaotic, but the heirs agreed to give Shade, who has since died, the waterfront. When I pressed Wheatly, he conceded that not all the heirs liked the outcome, but he said that Calvin had consented. “I would have been upset if Calvin had not notified them, because I generally don’t get involved in those things without having a family representative in charge,” he told me. He said that he never had a written agreement with Calvin — just a conversation. (Calvin died shortly after the hearing.) The lawyer examining Shade’s case granted him the waterfront, and Wheatly signed off on the decision. The Reels family, though it didn’t yet know it, had lost the rights to the land on the shoreline.
Licurtis had set up a trailer near the river a couple of years earlier, in 1977. He was working as a brick mason and often hosted men from the neighborhood for Budweiser and beans in the evenings. Melvin had become the center of a local economy on the shore. He taught the men how to work the water, and he paid the women to prepare his catch, pressing the soft crevice above the shrimps’ eyes and popping off their heads. He had a son, Little Melvin, and in the summers his nephews and cousins came to the beach, too. One morning, he took eight of them out on the water and then announced that he’d made a mistake: only four were allowed on the boat. He threw them overboard one by one. “We’re thinking, We’re gonna drown,” one cousin told me. “And he jumps off the boat with us and teaches us how to swim.”
In 1982, Melvin and Gertrude received a trespassing notice from Shade. They took it to a lawyer, who informed them that Shade now legally owned a little more than 13 acres of the 65-acre plot. The family was stunned, and suspicious of the claim’s validity. Many of the tenants listed to prove Shade’s continuous possession were vague or unrecognizable, like “Mitchell Reels’ boy,” or “Julian Leonard,” whom Gertrude had never heard of. (She had a sister named Julia and a brother named Leonard but no memory of either one living on the waterfront.) The lawyer who granted the land to Shade had also never reported the original court ruling that Gertrude had won, as he should have done.
Shade’s ownership would be almost impossible to overturn. There’s a one-year window to appeal a Torrens decision in North Carolina, and the family had missed it by two years. Soon afterward, Shade sold the land to developers.
THE REELSES KNEW that if condos or a marina were built on the waterfront the remaining 50 acres of Silver Dollar Road could be taxed not as small homes on swampy fields but as a high-end resort. If they fell behind on the higher taxes, the county could auction off their property. “It would break our family right up,” Melvin told me. “You leave here, you got no more freedom.”
This kind of tax sale has a long history in the dispossession of heirs’ property owners. In 1992, the NAACP accused local officials of intentionally inflating taxes to push out black families on Daufuskie, a South Carolina sea island that has become one of the hottest real-estate markets on the Atlantic coast. Property taxes had gone up as much as 700% in a single decade. “It is clear that the county has pursued a pattern of conduct that disproportionately displaces or evicts African-Americans from Daufuskie, thereby segregating the island and the county as a whole,” the NAACP wrote to county officials. Nearby Hilton Head, which as recently as two decades ago comprised several thousand acres of heirs’ property, now, by one estimate, has a mere 200 such acres left. Investors fly into the county each October to bid on tax-delinquent properties in a local gymnasium.
In the upscale town of Summerville, South Carolina, I met Wendy Reed, who, in 2012, was late paying $83.81 in taxes on the lot she had lived on for nearly four decades. A former state politician named Thomas Limehouse, who owned a luxury hotel nearby, bought Reed’s property at a tax sale for $2,000, about an eighth of its value. Reed had a year to redeem her property, but, when she tried to pay her debt, officials told her that she couldn’t get the land back, because she wasn’t officially listed as her grandmother’s heir; she’d have to go through probate court. Here she faced another obstacle: heirs in South Carolina have 10 years to probate an estate after the death of the owner, and Reed’s grandmother had died 30 years before. Tax clerks in the county estimate that each year they send about a quarter of the people who try to redeem delinquent property to probate court because they aren’t listed on the deed or named by the court as an heir. Limehouse told me, “To not probate the estate and not pay the taxes shouldn’t be a reason for special dispensation. When you let things go, you can’t blame the county.” Reed has been fighting the case in court since 2014. “I’m still not leaving,” she told me. “You’ll have to pack my stuff and put me off.”
FOR YEARS, the conflict on Silver Dollar Road was dormant, and Melvin continued expanding his businesses. Each week, Gertrude packed two-pound bags of shrimp to sell at the farmers’ market, along with petunias and gardenias from her yard. Melvin was also remodelling a night club, Fantasy Island, on the shore. He’d decked it out with disco lights and painted it white, he said, so that “on the water it would shine like gold.”
The majority of the property remained in the family, including the land on which Gertrude’s house stood. But Licurtis had been building a home in place of his trailer on the contested waterfront. “It was the most pretty spot,” he told me. “I’d walk to the water, and look at my yard, and see how beautiful it was.” He’d collected the signatures of other heirs to prove that he had permission, and registered a deed.
When real-estate agents or speculators came to the shore, Melvin tried to scare them away. A developer told me that once, when he showed the property to potential buyers, “Melvin had a roof rack behind his pickup, jumped out, snatched a gun out.” It wasn’t the only time that Melvin took out his rifle. “You show people that you got to protect yourself,” he told me. “Any fool who wouldn’t do that would be crazy.” His instinct had always been to confront a crisis head on. When hurricanes came through and most people sought higher ground, he’d go out to his trawler and steer it into the storm.
The Reels family began to believe that there was a conspiracy against them. They watched Jet Skis crawl slowly past in the river and shiny SUVs drive down Silver Dollar Road; they suspected that people were scouting the property. Melvin said that he received phone calls from mysterious men issuing threats. “I thought people were out to get me,” he said. Gertrude remembers that, one day at the farmers’ market, a white customer sneered that she was the only thing standing in the way of development.
In 1986, Billie Dean Brown, a partner at a real-estate investment company called Adams Creek Associates, had bought Shade’s waterfront plot sight unseen to divide and sell. Brown was attracted to the strength of the Torrens title, which he knew was effectively incontrovertible. When he discovered that Melvin and Licurtis lived on the property, he wasn’t troubled. Brown was known among colleagues as Little Caesar — a small man who finished any job he started. In the early 2000s, he hired a lawyer: Claud Wheatly III. The man once tasked with protecting the Reels family’s land was now being paid to evict them from it. Melvin and Licurtis saw Wheatly’s involvement as a clear conflict of interest. Their lawyers tried to disqualify Wheatly, arguing that he was breaching confidentiality and switching sides, but the judge denied the motions.
Earlier this year, I met Wheatly in his office, a few blocks from the county courthouse. Tall and imposing, he has a ruddy face and a teal-blue stare. We sat under the head of a stuffed warthog, and he chewed tobacco as we spoke. He told me that he had no confidential information about the Reelses, and that he’d never represented Melvin and Licurtis; he’d represented their mother and her siblings. “Melvin won’t own one square inch until his mother dies,” he said.
In 2004, Wheatly got a court order prohibiting the brothers from going on the waterfront property. The Reels family began a series of appeals and filings asking for the decree to be set aside, but judge after judge ruled that the family had waited too long to contest the Torrens decision.
Licurtis didn’t talk about the case, and tried to hide his stress. But, Mamie told me, “you could see him wearing it.” Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of him pacing the road early in the morning. When he first understood that he could face time in jail for remaining in his house, he tried removing the supports underneath it, thinking that he could hire someone to wrench the foundation from the mud and move it elsewhere. Gertrude wouldn’t allow him to go through with it. “You’re not going with the house nowhere,” she told him. “That’s yours.”
At 4 a.m. on a spring day in 2007, Melvin was asleep in his apartment above the club when he heard a boom, like a crash of thunder. He went to the shore and found that his trawler, named Nancy J., was sinking. Yellow plastic gloves, canned beans and wooden crab boxes floated in the water. There was a large hole in the hull, and Melvin realized that the boom had been an explosion. He filed a report with the sheriff’s office, but it never confirmed whether an explosive was used or whether it was an accident, and no charges were filed. Melvin began to wake with a start at night, pull out his flashlight, and scan the fields for intruders.
By the time of the brothers’ hearing in 2011, Melvin had lost so much weight that Licurtis joked that he could store water in the caverns by his collarbones. The family had come to accept that the dispute wasn’t going away. If the brothers had to go to jail, they would. Even after the judge in the hearing found them guilty of civil contempt, Melvin said, “I ain’t backing down.” Licurtis called home later that day. “It’ll be all right,” he told Gertrude. “We’ll be home soon.”
ONE OF THE MOST PERNICIOUS legal mechanisms used to dispossess heirs’ property owners is called a partition action. In the course of generations, heirs tend to disperse and lose any connection to the land. Speculators can buy off the interest of a single heir, and just one heir or speculator, no matter how minute his share, can force the sale of an entire plot through the courts. Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, told me that even small financial incentives can have the effect of turning relatives against one another, and developers exploit these divisions. “You need to have some willing participation from black families — driven by the desire to profit off their land holdings,” Kahrl said. “But it does boil down to greed and abuse of power and the way in which Americans’ history of racial inequality can be used to the advantage of developers.” As the Reels family grew over time, the threat of a partition sale mounted; if one heir decided to sell, the whole property would likely go to auction at a price that none of them could pay.
When courts originally gained the authority to order a partition sale, around the time of the Civil War, the Wisconsin Supreme Court called it “an extraordinary and dangerous power” that should be used sparingly. In the past several decades, many courts have favored such sales, arguing that the value of a property in its entirety is greater than the value of it in pieces. But the sales are often speedy and poorly advertised, and tend to fetch below-market prices.
On the coast of North Carolina, I met Billy Freeman, who grew up working in the parking lot of his uncle’s beachside dance hall, Monte Carlo by the Sea. His family, which once owned thousands of acres, ran the largest black beach in the state, with juke joints and crab shacks, an amusement park and a three-story hotel. But, over the decades, developers acquired interests from other heirs, and, in 2008, one firm petitioned the court for a sale of the whole property. Freeman attempted to fight the partition for years. “I didn’t want to lose the land, but I felt like everybody else had sold,” he told me. In 2016, the beach, which covered 170 acres, was sold to the development firm for $1.4 million. On neighboring beaches, that sum could buy a tiny fraction of a parcel so large. Freeman got only $30,000.
The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity. In one case that I examined, the mining company PCS Phosphate forced the sale of a 40-acre plot, which contained a family cemetery, against the wishes of several heirs, whose ancestors had been enslaved on the property. (A spokesperson for the company told me that it is a “law-abiding corporate citizen.”)
Some speculators use questionable tactics to acquire property. When Jessica Wiggins’ uncle called her to say that a man was trying to buy his interest in their family’s land, she didn’t believe him; he had dementia. Then, in 2015, she learned that a company called Aldonia Farms had purchased the interests of four heirs, including her uncle, and had filed a partition action. “What got me was we had no knowledge of this person,” Wiggins told me, of the man who ran Aldonia. (Jonathan S. Phillips, who now runs Aldonia Farms, told me that he wasn’t there at the time of the purchase, and that he’s confident no one would have taken advantage of the uncle’s dementia.) Wiggins was devastated; the 18 acres of woods and farmland that held her great-grandmother’s house was the place that she had felt safest as a child. The remaining heirs still owned 61% of the property, but there was little that they could do to prevent a sale. When I visited the land with Wiggins, her great-grandmother’s house had been cleared, and Aldonia Farms had erected a gate. Phillips told me, “Our intention was not to keep them out but to be good stewards of the property and keep it from being littered on and vandalized.”
Last fall, Wiggins and her relatives gathered for the auction of the property on the courthouse steps in the town of Windsor. A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood behind them. Wiggins’ cousin Danita Pugh walked up to Aldonia Farms’ lawyer and pulled her deed out of an envelope. “You’re telling me that they’re going to auction it off after showing you a deed?” she said. “I’m going to come out and say it. The white man takes the land from the black.”
Hundreds of partition actions are filed in North Carolina every year. Carteret County, which has a population of 70,000, has one of the highest per-capita rates in the state. I read through every Carteret partition case concerning heirs’ property from the past decade, and found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of Carteret’s population is black. Heirs not only regularly lose their land; they are also required to pay the legal fees of those who bring the partition cases. In 2008, Janice Dyer, a research associate at Auburn University, published a study of these actions in Macon County, Alabama. She told me that the lack of secure ownership locks black families out of the wealth in their property. “The Southeast has these amazing natural resources: timber, land, great fishing,” she said. “If somebody could snap their fingers and clear up all these titles, how much richer would the region be?”
Thomas W. Mitchell, a property-law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, has drafted legislation aimed at reforming this system, which has now passed in 14 states. He told me that heirs’ property owners, particularly those who are African-American, tend to be “land rich and cash poor,” making it difficult for them to keep the land in a sale. “They don’t have the resources to make competitive bids, and they can’t even use their heirs’ property as collateral to get a loan to participate in the bidding more effectively,” he said. His law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, gives family members the first option to buy, sends most sales to the open market, and mandates that courts, in their decisions to order sales, weigh non-economic factors, such as the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms. The state also hasn’t repealed the Torrens Act. It is one of fewer than a dozen states where the law is still on the books.
Last year, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which, among other things, allows heirs’ property owners to apply for Department of Agriculture programs using nontraditional paperwork, such as a written agreement between heirs. “The alternative documentation is really, really important as a precedent,” Lorette Picciano, the executive director of Rural Coalition, a group that advocated for the reform, told me. “The next thing we need to do is make sure this happens with FEMA, and flood insurance, and housing programs.” The bill also includes a lending program for heirs’ property owners, which will make it easier for them to clear titles and develop succession plans. But no federal funding has been allocated for these loans.
THE FIRST TIME I MET Melvin and Licurtis in the Carteret jail, Melvin filled the entire frame of the visiting-room window. He is a forceful presence, and prone to exaggeration. His hair, neatly combed, was streaked with silver. He didn’t blink as he spoke. Licurtis had been given a diagnosis of diabetes, and leaned against a stool for support. He still acted like a younger brother, never interrupting Melvin or challenging his memory. He told me that, at night, he dreamed of the shore, of storms blowing through his house. “The water rising,” Licurtis said. “And I couldn’t do nothing about it.” He was worried about his mother. “If they took this land from my mama at her age, and she’d been farming it all her life, you know that would kill her,” he told me.
The brothers were seen as local heroes for resisting the court order. “They want to break your spirits,” their niece Kim Duhon wrote to them. “God had you both picked out for this.” Even strangers wrote. “When I was a kid, it used to sadden me that white folks had Radio Island, Atlantic Beach, Sea Gate and other places to swim, but we didn’t!” one letter from a local woman read. She wrote that, when she was finally taken to Silver Dollar Road, “I remember seeing nothing but my own kind (Blk Folks!).”
In North Carolina, civil contempt is most commonly used to force defendants to pay child support. When the ruling requires a defendant to pay money other than child support, a new hearing is held every 90 days. After the first 90 days had passed, Melvin asked a friend in jail to write a letter on his behalf. (Melvin couldn’t read well, and he needed help writing.) “I’ve spent 91 days on a 90 day sentence and I don’t understand why,” the letter read. “Please explain this to me! So I can go home, back to work. Sincerely, Melvin Davis.” The brothers learned that although Billie Dean Brown’s lawyer had asked for 90 days, the court had decided that there would be no time restriction on their case, and that they could be jailed until they presented evidence that they had removed their homes. They continued to hold out. Brown wasn’t demolishing their buildings while they were incarcerated, and so they believed that they still had a shot at convincing the courts that the land was theirs. That fall, Brown told the Charlotte Observer, “I made up my mind, I will die and burn in hell before I walk away from this thing.” When I reached Brown recently, he told me that he was in an impossible position. “We’ve had several offers from buyers, but once they learned of the situation they withdrew,” he said.
Three months turned into six, and a year turned into several. Jail began to take a toll on the brothers. The facility was designed for short stays, with no time outside, and nowhere to exercise. They couldn’t be transferred to a prison, because they hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Early on, Melvin mediated fights between inmates and persuaded them to sneak in hair ties for him. But over time he stopped taking care of his appearance and became withdrawn. He ranted about the stolen land, though he couldn’t quite nail down who the enemy was: Shade or Wheatly or Brown, the sheriffs or the courts or the county. The brothers slept head to head in neighboring beds. “Melvin would say crazy things,” Licurtis told me. “Lay on down and go to sleep, wake up, and say the same thing again. It wore me down.” Melvin is proud and guarded, but he told me that the case had broken him. “I’m not ashamed to own it,” he said. “This has messed my mind up.”
Without the brothers, Silver Dollar Road lost its pulse. Mamie kept her blinds down; she couldn’t stand to see the deserted waterfront. At night, she studied her brothers’ case, thumbing through the court files and printing out the definitions of words that she didn’t understand, like “rescind” and “contempt.” She filled a binder with relatives’ obituaries, so that once her brothers got out they would have a record of who had passed away. When Claud Wheatly’s father died, she added his obituary. “I kept him for history,” she told me.
Gertrude didn’t have the spirit to farm. Most days, she sat in a tangerine armchair by her window, cracking peanuts or watching the shore like a guard. This winter, we looked out in silence as Brown’s caretaker drove through the property. Melvin and Licurtis wouldn’t allow Gertrude to visit them in jail. Licurtis said that “it hurt so bad” to see her leave.
Other members of the family — Melvin and Licurtis’ brother Billy, their nephew Roderick and their cousin Shawn — kept trying to shrimp, but the river suddenly seemed barren. “It might sound crazy, but it was like the good Lord put a curse on this little creek, where ain’t nobody gonna catch no shrimp until they’re released,” Roderick told me. Billy added, “It didn’t feel right no more with Melvin and them not there, because we all looked out for one another. Some mornings, you didn’t even want to go.”
Sheriff’s deputies came to the property a few times a week, and they wouldn’t allow the men to dock their boats on the pier. One by one, the men lost hope and sold their trawlers. Shawn took a job at Best Buy, cleaning the store for $11.50 an hour, and eventually moved to Newport, 30 miles southwest, where it was easier to make rent. Billy got paid to fix roofs but soon defaulted on the mortgage for his house on Silver Dollar Road. “One day you good, and the next day you can’t believe it,” he told me.
Roderick kept being charged with trespassing, for walking on the waterfront, and he was racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees. He’d recently renovated his boat — putting in an aluminum gas tank, large spotlights and West Marine speakers — but, without a place to dock, he saw no way to hold on to it. He found work cutting grass and posted his boat on Craigslist. A white man responded. They met at the shore, and, as the man paid, Roderick began to cry. He walked up Silver Dollar Road with his back to the river. He told me, “I just didn’t want to see my boat leave.”
THE REELS BROTHERS were locked in a hopeless clash with the law. One judge who heard their case likened them to the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who attempts to guard his forest against King Arthur. “Even after King Arthur has cut off both of the Black Knight’s arms and legs, he still insists that he will continue to fight and that no one may pass — although he cannot do anything,” the judge wrote, in an appeals-court dissent.
In February, nearly eight years after Melvin and Licurtis went to jail, they stood before a judge in Carteret to request their release. They were now 72 and 61, but they remained defiant. Licurtis said that he would go back on the property “just as soon as I walk out of here.” Melvin said, “I believe that land is mine.” They had hired a new lawyer, who argued that it would cost almost $50,000 to tear down the brothers’ homes. Melvin had less than $4,000 in the bank; Licurtis had nothing. The judge announced that he was releasing them. He warned them, however, that if they returned to their homes they’d “be right back in jail.” He told them, “The jailhouse keys are in your pockets.”
An hour later, the brothers emerged from the sheriff’s department. Melvin surveyed the parking lot, which was crowded with friends and relatives. “About time!” he said, laughing and exchanging hugs. “You stuck with me.” When he spotted Little Melvin, who was now 39, he extended his arm for a handshake. Little Melvin pulled it closer and buried his face in his father’s shoulder, sobbing.
When Licurtis came out, he folded over, as if his breath had been pulled out of him. Mamie wrapped her arms around his neck, led him to her car, and drove him home. When they reached Silver Dollar Road, she honked the horn all the way down the street. “Back on Silver Dollar Road,” Licurtis said, pines flickering by his window. “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”
Melvin spent his first afternoon shopping for silk shirts and brown leather shoes and a cell phone that talked to him. Old acquaintances stopped him — a man who thanked him for his advice about hauling dirt, a DJ who used to spin at Fantasy Island. While in jail, Melvin had been keeping up with his girlfriends, and 11 women called looking for him.
Melvin told me that he’d held on for his family, and for himself, too. But away from the others his weariness showed. He acknowledged that he was worried about what would happen, his voice almost a whisper. “They can’t keep on doing this. There’s got to be an ending somewhere,” he said.
A few days later, Gertrude threw her sons a party, and generations of relatives came. The family squeezed together on her armchairs, eating chili and biscuits and lemon pie. Mamie gave a speech. “We gotta get this water back,” she said, stretching her arms wide. “We gotta unite. A chain’s only as strong as the links in it.” The room answered, “That’s right.” The brothers, who were staying with their mother, kept saying, “Once we get this land stuff sorted out . . .” Relatives who had left talked about coming back, buying boats and go-karts for their kids. It was less a plan than a fantasy — an illusion that their sense of justice could overturn the decision of the law.
The brothers hadn’t stepped onto the waterfront since they’d been back. The tract was 100 feet away but out of reach. Fantasy Island was a shell, the plot around it overgrown. Still, Melvin seemed convinced that he would restore it. “Put me some palm trees in the sand and build some picnic tables,” he said.
After the party wound down, I sat with Licurtis on his mother’s porch as he gazed at his house, which was moldy and gutted, its frame just visible in the purple dusk. He reminisced about the house’s wood-burning heater, the radio that he’d always left playing. He said that he planned to build a second story and raise the house to protect it from floods. He wanted a wraparound deck and big windows. “I’ll pour them walls solid all the way around,” he said. “We’ll bloom again. Ain’t going to be long.”
Worried about protecting heirs’ property owners? We made a list of ways that families can protect themselves and describe legislative reforms that experts have proposed.
This story is not subject to our Creative Commons license.
Lizzie Presser covers health and healthcare policy at ProPublica. She previously worked as a contributing writer for The California Sunday Magazine, where she wrote about labor, immigration, and how social policy is experienced.
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, June 3 at 1 p.m., the author will co-host Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation. Sign up and join here.
American cities are in upheaval, awakened by the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy, which has resulted in 40 million people out of work and the spectacle of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Dozens of American cities are experiencing a scale of protests, clashes between police and demonstrators, and National Guard deployments not seen since the “long hot summers” of racial discontent and crisis that characterized much of the 1960s. Sympathy protests in Berlin and London’s Trafalgar Square outside the U.S. Embassy have drawn thousands of demonstrators who not only insist that “Black Lives Matter!” but reflect widespread global resistance against racial injustice manifested in the criminal justice system.
We are witnessing a level of national civil unrest that recalls the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when 125 cities exploded in protest and violence. From peaceful demonstrations to clashes between protesters and Secret Service agents outside the White House, a national racial crisis is unfurling before our very eyes.
The public execution of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police last week has sparked national protests that have, in some instances, evolved into open political rebellion contoured by violent skirmishes between police and demonstrators and the destruction of property. Racial unrest gripping major American cities, against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice.
A national tragedy should be turned into a generational opportunity
The inhumanity of Floyd’s death heaped further indignity on African American communities suffering disproportionately from the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Black folk have been diagnosed with, and died from, COVID-19 at alarming rates. The killing of George Floyd represents a national tragedy that should be turned into a generational opportunity.
Black death at the hands of the police is not new. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in 2014, turning a hashtag commemorating the mounting number of African Americans killed, assaulted, and brutalized by the police and displayed in social media, into a social movement that combined the non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights era with Black Power’s structural critique of white supremacy and anti-Black racism.
BLM activists argued that America’s criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic oppression. The criminalization of poverty has long roots, but the past four decades have institutionalized systems of punishment that have deepened and exacerbated racial inequality. During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence, crime, and poverty raged against the backdrop of the crack cocaine explosion, both Democrats and Republicans competed with each other over how best to criminalize black inner city residents. Ronald Reagan’s tough on crime rhetoric and policies begat George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton and Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare “reforms” that further criminalized black communities and made it virtually impossible to successfully re-enter society by blocking avenues to employment, education, and housing after release.
The eruption of the BLM movement during the second term of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, illustrates how deeply entrenched the issues related to George Floyd’s death are. Donald J. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacists—from Charlottesville, Virginia’s 2017 demonstrations that left one woman dead to anti-government militias that marched to the Michigan state house in defiance of shelter-in-place orders armed with semi-automatic weapons—has fanned the flames of racial intolerance, police violence against black communities, and racially inflammatory.
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history, from the 1928 “Master Plan” that institutionalized racial segregation as citywide policy, to the decades-long efforts to fully integrate the University of Texas, to the gentrification of the historic East Side neighborhood at the cost of longstanding black residents, businesses, and communities. Racial integration in Austin has since proceeded in fits and starts, with segregated public schools and neighborhoods remaining the comfortable norm. Gentrification along the city’s East Side has largely displaced Austin’s historic black residents who find themselves compelled to depart neighborhoods just as they are flooded with the kind of investment that attracts white families, creates high achieving schools, increases home owner values, and thriving communities.
As if to acknowledge this history, activists blocked Interstate-35 on Saturday, the highway serving as a barrier between black and white Austin by design, locking Austin’s African American communities from access to white spaces, properties, and power.
The problems of racial segregation, poverty, and criminal justice that have scarred Minneapolis are national, impact Austin and other major cities around the country and, indeed, the world.
Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing, wealthiest, and well positioned urban cities, has a unique opportunity to emerge as a national leader on the issue of racial justice.
The University of Texas at Austin, with the motto that “what happens here changes the world,” can be a major part of the city’s much needed transition from its current status as an enviable hub of technology, education, venture capital, and music into a national incubator of social justice, equity, inclusion, and full citizenship for all Austinites.
On this score the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, a center devoted to research, study, and social policy impact at the intersection of civil rights, race, and democracy, will be sponsoring an event designed to build community, forge networks, and problem-solve around issues of racial injustice that reverberate from Minneapolis to Austin and beyond. Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation will feature Mayor Steve Adler, Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, Councilwoman Alison Alter and be moderated by myself and Jeremi Suri, my colleague at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
The protests erupting around the nation attest to a dearth of national leadership on race matters and the very meaning of American democracy. In times of national crisis—from the Great Depression to the Second World War to Civil Rights and 9-11—we come to better understand ourselves as Americans.
The fact that George Floyd could outlive the COVID-19 pandemic only to run into the even deadlier virus of white supremacy is both a national tragedy and a generational opportunity.
An opportunity to confront deep-seated racial inequities plaguing Austin
All of us can and must do more. From civil rights and faith communities to education, political, and business leaders, we must seize the combined tragedies of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and the tragedy of another unjustified killing of a black person at the hands of our justice system as an opportunity to finally confront deep-seated racial inequities that plague this city as much as any other.
Austin can turn this national moment of grief and mourning into a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal, with the knowledge that our city led the way in recognizing that a full commitment to anti-racist public policy and racial justice would allow us to achieve the community and nation we dream about.
How does an anti-racist Austin look? We can start by acknowledging the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in our city’s public schools and neighborhoods, a fact that amplifies opportunity gaps in education, employment, and housing and helps to create a feedback loop of racial disparities in rates of poverty, treatment before the criminal justice system, access to electoral politics, small business loans, venture capital and so much more. We must identify and understand negative disparities as part of systemic racism rather than behavior deficiencies in black people. We must root out injustice and inequities based on race in our policies, forging a community where racial equity centers our public conversation about the larger political good. So many Austinites of good will recognize aspects of the problem, but are unsure of where to begin, what organization to join, what would be the best use of their resources.
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s Justice and Equity event is the first step in what we hope will be a socially impactful, politically relevant, and politically transformative movement in Austin to not only redress past mistakes but to acknowledge, repair, and build a future Austin worthy of our citizens.
Peniel E. Joseph is an American scholar, teacher, and leading public voice on race issues who holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
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Outrage is justified. And anyone who is not outraged in today’s America should be.
“Everybody knows, no matter what they do not know, that they wouldn’t like to be a Black man in this country,” Baldwin said in 1968. The ills he spoke of remain; some have even worsened. Stark income and wealth gaps persist along racial lines, failing schools and paltry social services put a giant foot on the scale against Black youth, biased judges and juries disproportionately imprison Black men, and the severe health disparities suffered by Black Americans now include a higher death rate from COVID-19. But the most poignant picture of racial injustice in America is repainted in blood whenever a police officer, armed and sanctioned by the state and wearing the uniform of the law, kills a Black citizen with impunity. With the video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, Black Americans once again relive a brutal nightmare that dates back to the country’s founding. Their lives are deemed dispensable, even and sometimes especially by those whose job it is to enforce the law.
And on Tuesday, the day after the incident, it took civil unrest in the streets to spur his arrest and murder charges on Friday. The three officers who helped him during the arrest, who either held George Floyd down or stood by as he said he could not breathe and cried out for his mother, have not faced charges. The camera footage shows a group of officers who acted as if they knew they would not be punished.
It is a form of Baldwin’s “willful ignorance” that the country’s politicians, policy makers, prosecutors, and police departments have not done more to prevent and punish acts of violence against Black people on the part of police and it is a form of willful ignorance that more citizens are not outraged. Piecemeal reforms to diversify police forces, train officers to de-escalate conflict, and require body cameras have fallen abysmally short in protecting Black people from errant law enforcement officers. Derek Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him and had opened fire on two people before he knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Across the country, there is still too little accountability for police, including here in Boston, where the city has stopped releasing stop-and-frisk data.
That more and more Americans are refusing to accept the violence against Black Americans presents political leaders and law enforcement agencies around the nation with an imperative to act. State and federal lawmakers must use this moment to enact bolder policy reforms than those to date to reduce sentencing disparities, raise juvenile justice ages to keep young people out of the prison system, reform civil service laws that make it hard to hold cops accountable for wrongdoing, and strengthen civilian police-oversight boards. Police departments across the nation should press for the authority to remove officers who have any history of racial violence or aggression toward citizens; police chiefs should show that they have zero tolerance for such acts. They must send a loud and clear message that the era of sanctioned police violence against Black citizens is over.
With so many Americans moved by the death of Floyd and the callousness of Chauvin, this could be the country’s watershed moment for finally addressing police violence and racial injustice. But even after the fires stop burning, Americans of all races must be unwilling to accept the loss of Black lives.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.
A Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of an African-American man named George Floyd for several minutes on Monday, as Floyd begged the officer to stop, said, “I can’t breathe,” and eventually lost consciousness. Floyd, who was forty-six, was pronounced dead at a hospital that evening. After video footage of Floyd’s asphyxiation, which was taken by bystanders, circulated online, the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, announced on Tuesday that the four officers who had been at the scene had been fired. “This is the right call,” Frey said on Twitter. “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.” The police had responded to a call that Floyd had used a forged check at a nearby deli and, in their first statement about the incident, noted only that he appeared to be “suffering medical distress.”
On Tuesday, the F.B.I. joined Minnesota’s criminal investigation of the incident, as Floyd’s family called for the four officers to be charged with murder. That afternoon, thousands of people gathered for protests in the streets of Minneapolis, which were followed that evening by clashes between riot police and protesters outside a precinct station. Protesters chanted “I can’t breathe,” which became a Black Lives Matter slogan after the death of Eric Garner, in New York, in 2014. The Minneapolis area has been the site of several contested police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests—most notably, after Philando Castile was pulled over and fatally shot by police in a suburb of Saint Paul, in 2016. The officer who killed Castile was fired from the police department but acquitted of manslaughter.
On Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Leslie Redmond, who, at twenty-eight, is an attorney and the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we talked about racial inequities in Minneapolis, how activists are thinking about protests in the midst of a pandemic, and what steps she wants authorities to take regarding Floyd’s death.
What have the past couple days been like in the Minneapolis area?
It has been crazy. People on the ground are very upset and sad and disheartened, and rightfully so. I think about our young people, and how hard they are taking this. If people put it into perspective, for young people, they have grown up their entire lives watching black bodies murdered on social media, in real time, with no grief counsellors, with no therapy, with no one to help them make sense of it. And, to be honest, I don’t even know if we could make sense of it if we wanted to, because we are all just outraged and trying to figure it out.
What I have also seen, though, is black leaders coming together, and I am super thankful for Medaria Arradondo, who is the first African-American police chief we have ever had in Minneapolis. The way that he stepped up and brought us together during this time is just so honorable, and I know we wouldn’t be having the progress we are having if he wasn’t the police chief. And I think about five years ago—in the fall before Philando Castile, there was Jamar Clark, who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. We had a completely different police chief, a woman named Janeé Harteau, and it was horrible. It was a completely different response. You didn’t see any action or accountability. [The Minneapolis Police Department conducted an internal investigation of Clark’s shooting and determined that the officers had not violated its use-of-force policy.] So for Chief Arradondo to do the right thing and fire all four of those officers, and for the mayor to support him, was a major step in the right direction. It doesn’t take away from the pain and hurt people are feeling on the ground, but it moves us in the right direction of getting some justice for Mr. Floyd.
What is your level of trust in the mayor on these issues?
I am thankful for Mayor Frey. I think he has been showing good leadership. But it is not just about what happens in this specific situation and this moment. It is about what follows it. Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. I tell people that even before covid-19 we were in a state of emergency, and then that put us into a state of emergency times two. And now imagine having to deal with a black man being murdered by the government, by police officers, during this global pandemic. And so the burden has just been added to African-American communities, but the resources and the support have not been added. There has been no big lump sum that was poured into the community for us to pour into ourselves. And so that’s what I mean about it not just being about this moment—it’s about the moment that will follow, and the resources and communication that will follow this moment.
There were some demonstrations last night, but how do you think about organizing and marching and protests when there is a pandemic going on?
Protests are essential, and they have always been a part of the strategy. They are a tactic. But we are protesting to build power, and that is what people have to understand. A lot of people don’t really understand what goes on before and after. Black leadership was in communication with Chief Arradondo and in physical meetings with Chief Arradondo since 10 a.m. that morning. The protests didn’t start until 5 p.m. And so there was a lot of work being done before and after.
At the protests, for people who were on the ground originally, there was a really good effort and intent to push people back. And not only did most of the people in the crowd have masks on, but there were community organizations passing out masks, as they were already doing because of covid-19. People asked why I didn’t have one on. Because of the tear gas, a lot of us had to remove our masks, but it wasn’t people blatantly trying to not social-distance and protect themselves.
Protesting feels generally like a much harder thing to do, with so many additional complications now.
It’s very complicated, and the reality of the situation is that we shouldn’t be in it. That is the biggest issue here. Had even one of these officers stepped up to say, “Hey, this man is in handcuffs already. He is down on the ground. He doesn’t need officers on his neck and back for over three minutes, with bystanders pleading, and telling you he is bleeding and that he can’t breathe.”
And, you know, Isaac, one of my biggest things is that this is not just a civil-rights issue—this is a human-rights issue, and the fact is that black people’s humanity is being denied constantly. And I worry about the humanity of individuals, and not just the police, because we know a lot of black people are dying at the hands of non-police officers. But specifically police officers—how can they turn off their humanity and kill black people in cold blood for what a lot of the time seems like nothing? It reminds you of much of the history of lynching in America. And now we are just being lynched without the ropes.
The old African-American aphorism “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia” has a new, morbid twist: when white America catches the novel coronavirus, black Americans die.
Thousands of white Americans have also died from the virus, but the pace at which African-Americans are dying has transformed this public-health crisis into an object lesson in racial and class inequality. According to a Reuters report, African-Americans are more likely to die of covid-19 than any other group in the U.S. It is still early in the course of the pandemic, and the demographic data is incomplete, but the partial view is enough to prompt a sober reflection on this bitter harvest of American racism.
Louisiana, with more than twenty-one thousand reported infections, has the largest number of coronavirus cases outside of the Northeast and the Midwest. When the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, announced recently that it would begin to provide data about the racial and ethnic breakdowns of those who have died, he included the grim acknowledgement that African-Americans, thirty-three per cent of Louisiana’s population, comprise seventy per cent of the dead.
The small city of Albany, Georgia, two hundred miles south of Atlanta, was the site of a heroic civil-rights standoff between the city’s black residents and its white police chief in the early nineteen-sixties. Today, more than twelve hundred people in the county have confirmedcovid-19 cases, and at least seventy-eight people have died. According to earlier reports, eighty-one per cent of the dead are African-American.
In Michigan, African-Americans make up fourteen per cent of the state’s population, but, currently, they account for thirty-three per cent of its reported infections and forty per cent of its deaths. Twenty-six per cent of the state’s infections and twenty-five per cent of deaths are in Detroit, a city that is seventy-nine per cent African-American. covid-19 is also ravaging the city’s suburbs that have large black populations.
The virus has shaken African-Americans in Chicago, who account for fifty-two per cent of the city’s confirmed cases and a startling seventy-two per cent of deaths—far outpacing their proportion of the city’s population.
As many have already noted, this macabre roll call reflects the fact that African-Americans are more likely to have preëxisting health conditions that make the coronavirus particularly deadly. This is certainly true. These conditions—diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and obesity—are critical factors, and they point to the persistence of racial discrimination, which has long heightened black vulnerability to premature death, as the scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore has said for years. Racism in the shadow of American slavery has diminished almost all of the life chances of African-Americans. Black people are poorer, more likely to be underemployed, condemned to substandard housing, and given inferior health care because of their race. These factors explain why African-Americans are sixty per cent more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than white Americans, and why black women are sixty per cent more likely to have high blood pressure than white women. Such health disparities are as much markers of racial inequality as mass incarceration or housing discrimination.
It is easy to simply point to the prevalence of these health conditions among African-Americans as the most important explanation for their rising death rates. But it is also important to acknowledge that black vulnerability is especially heightened by the continued ineptitude of the federal government in response to the coronavirus. The mounting carnage in Trump’s America did not have to happen to the extent that it has. covid-19 testing remains maddeningly inconsistent and unavailable, with access breaking down along the predictable lines. In Philadelphia, a scientist at Drexel University found that, in Zip Codes with a “lower proportion of minorities and higher incomes,” a higher number of tests were administered. In Zip Codes with a higher number of unemployed and uninsured residents, there were fewer tests. Taken together, testing in higher-income neighborhoods is six times greater than it is in poorer neighborhoods.
Inconsistent testing, in combination with steadfast denials from the White House about the threat of the virus, exacerbated the appalling lack of preparation for this catastrophe. With more early coördination, hospitals might have procured the necessary equipment and staffed up properly, potentially avoiding the onslaught that has occurred. The consequences are devastating. In the Detroit area, where the disease is surging, about fifteen hundred hospital workers, including five hundred nurses at Beaumont Health, Michigan’s largest hospital system, are off of the job with symptoms of covid-19. Early in the crisis, at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, nurses were reduced to wearing garbage bags for their protection. Across the country, health-care providers are being asked to ration face masks and shields, dramatically raising the potential of their own infection, and thereby increasing the strain on the already overextended hospitals.
The early wave of disproportionate black deaths was hastened by Trumpian malfeasance, but the deaths to come are the predictable outcome of decades of disinvestment and institutional neglect. In mid-March, Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board in Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, lamented the covid-19 crisis and proclaimed that “we are all in this together,” but, weeks later, she closed the emergency room of the public Provident Hospital in the predominantly black South Side. Preckwinkle claimed that the closure would last for a month and was a response to a single health-care worker becoming infected with the virus. Leave aside the fact that nurses, doctors, and other health-care workers have been testing positive for covid-19 across the country, and their facilities have not been shuttered. It is a decision that simply could not have been made, in the midst of a historic pandemic, in any of the city’s wealthy, white neighborhoods on the North Side.
Meanwhile, in Cook County Jail, three hundred and twenty-three inmates and a hundred and ninety-six correctional officers have tested positive for covid-19. Not only have officials not closed the county jail as a result but they also have yet to release a significant number of jailed people, even though the facility has the highest density of covid-19 cases in Chicago. These are the kinds of decisions that explain why there is a thirty-year difference in life expectancy—in the same city—between the black neighborhood of Englewood and the white neighborhood of Streeterville. They are also just the latest examples of the ways that racism is the ultimate result of the decisions that government officials make, regardless of their intentions. Preckwinkle is African-American, and the chairperson of the Cook County Democratic Party, but her decisions regarding Provident Hospital and Cook County Jail will still deeply wound African-Americans across Chicago.
The rapidity with which the pandemic has consumed black communities is shocking, but it also provides an unvarnished look into the dynamics of race and class that existed long before it emerged. The most futile conversation in the U.S. is the argument about whether race or class is the main impediment to African-American social mobility. In reality, they cannot be separated from each other. African-Americans are suffering through this crisis not only because of racism but also because of how racial discrimination has tied them to the bottom of the U.S. class hierarchy . . .
No insurance. 64 years old. Alone, along with all the other black people at the bottom of the pandemic.
By LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant
Dr. Manigault-Bryant is an associate professor of Africana studies at Williams College.
My mother is dying a painful death, and it has everything and nothing to do with Covid-19.
In a piece for The Atlantic detailing the ways in which the coronavirus seems to be hitting black people the hardest, Ibram X. Kendi wrote: “Sometimes racial data tell us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.” My mother is a living example of what we already know about race, class and suffering.
She is not in an elder-care facility, nor a hospital. She has not been, and most likely will not be, tested for the virus or receive a diagnosis of having it.
Still, hers is the body of all the black people at the bottom of the pandemic. No insurance, though not for lack of trying. Medicaid applications denied for reasons we don’t understand. Inconsistent care at a local public clinic meant hard-to-come-by appointments and checkups only at moments deemed most critical. It wasn’t enough.
Now, she’s dying from end-stage liver disease and kidney failure, diagnosed too late to save her. This has nothing to do with Covid-19.
She is not even that old (64, and thus Medicare ineligible), but FaceTime tells no lies, and she is wasting away before us. What’s worse, even as I’m exactly four hours and three minutes away — geographically closer than I’ve been in over a decade — I can’t be near her, touch her, cook for her, kiss her or tell her all of the things that I don’t yet know I need to say. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
On the occasion she’s strong enough to answer the phone, holding the phone for FaceTime proves too much. Calls come too late, even as time is too short. The grandchildren who live close by cannot get close to her — the idea of transmitting anything to her, as she’s so obviously immune-compromised, is terrifying. The underlying conditions would amplify an already-certain death. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
My brother, who lives exactly six minutes and 24 seconds away from Mommy, risks seeing her because someone needs to make sure she’s still breathing. That check-in is thus essential. He scrubs himself clean after work with all manner of chemicals — he’s a waste management truck driver, an essential employee. This is an effort to protect her. He’s close to her. This is an effort to protect us. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
He tries to get her to eat something other than her single meal of applesauce and Vienna sausages. This has nothing to do with Covid-19.
It’s officially power-of-attorney and health-proxy time. Getting my mother to the lawyer — a four-minute drive — is a thing. My brother and I spend hours strategizing transportation. The errand feels like it takes an eternity. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
My mother is going to die soon, and my process isn’t pretty. I laugh and remember, rage and weep, and I lament time lost, never to be regained. When she has enough energy to speak, she rushes me off the phone, invoking busyness. She’s busy getting ready to die, and it doesn’t seem like it’s on her own terms. Is it ever? I want more time. This has nothing to do with Covid-19.
Like so many, countless others, my family and I are going to be left with the unsettling weight of her death. My mother is going to die soon, and it will most likely be alone. I am afraid. I am one of many grieving, forever-changed faces. No repast. No low-country songs sung graveside. No sending up our timber for her. We cannot grieve properly. Lots of regret. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
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HARTFORD, Conn. — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon last June, Crystal Carter took a deep breath as she walked toward the red “for rent” sign.
Shaded by tall oak trees, the three-story duplex looked cozy. The first floor siding was painted yellow, with white railings leading to the front door. The windows appeared new, the lawn freshly cut.
Although the property was in Barry Square, on the edge of a struggling area in southern Hartford, the family outside buoyed Carter’s spirits. Four children giggled in a recliner in the front yard, singing along to the radio while their father packed a moving truck. Across the street were Trinity College’s dignified brick pillars, the entry to the elite school’s 100-acre campus.
Carter tried to tamp down her excitement, but this looked like the kind of place the 48-year-old single mother so desperately wanted for her five kids: no mouse traps, no chipped paint trying to camouflage mold.
He put down a crate and offered her a tour of the first-floor, four-bedroom unit. Inside, she marveled at the modern kitchen, finished hardwood floors and large closets.
“This is a lot of space. When are you putting this on the market?” she asked.
“It’s ready, if you want to do the application,” he told her. Rent was $1,500 a month.
“I’ll be paying with a Section 8 voucher,” she said.
“Yeah,” the man shot back. “I don’t do Section 8.”
Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 rent subsidies were supposed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor communities. But, for the better part of a year, Carter had found the opposite. This was easily the 50th place she had toured since her landlord sold her last apartment and evicted her. Nearly all of them were in poor areas. They had holes in the wall, uncovered electrical outlets, even roaches and mice. When she hit upon something clean, she learned not to ask too many questions. She complimented the landlord, talked about her children and emphasized that she didn’t smoke. None of it seemed to matter, though, once she uttered two words: Section 8.
Now, as Carter showed herself out of the first-floor rental, she felt panic welling within. “There really are no doors open for people that have a voucher,” she said afterward. “It makes you feel ashamed to even have one.” Typically, vouchers come with a time limit to find housing, and Carter had already won three extensions. She wasn’t sure she’d get another.
She had just 40 days left to find a place to live.
As the federal government retreated from building new public housing in the 1970s, it envisioned Section 8 vouchers as a more efficient way of subsidizing housing for the poor in the private market. They now constitute the largest rental assistance program in the country, providing almost $23 billion in aid each year to 2.2 million households. Local housing authorities administer the program with an annual budget from Washington and are given wide latitude on how many vouchers they hand out and how much each is worth. The bulk of the vouchers are reserved for families who make 30% or less of an area’s median income. That is $30,300 or less for a family of four in Hartford.
For years, researchers and policymakers have lamented the program’s failure to achieve one of its key goals: giving families a chance at living in safer communities with better schools. Low-income people across the country struggle to use their vouchers outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.
In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states.
The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas. As the Mirror and ProPublica reported in November, state authorities have done little to challenge those practices, instead steering taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities.
Dozens of voucher holders in Connecticut say this concentration has left them with few housing options. Local housing authorities often provide a blue booklet of Section 8-friendly properties, but many of the ones listed are complexes that have a reputation for being rundown and are in struggling communities or have long waitlists. Many recipients call it the “Black Book” because “you are going to the dark side, for real. The apartments in that black book are nasty and disgusting,” said Janieka Lewis, a Hartford resident whose home is infested with mice.
Josh Serrano also lives in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. After landing a voucher in 2018, he tried to find a place in the middle-class town of West Hartford, where his son lives part time with his mother. He also looked in nearby Manchester and Simsbury. At each stop, the rent was higher than his voucher’s value or the landlord wouldn’t take a voucher.
“There is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are poor and particularly have black or brown skin like myself,” he said. “No community wanted me and my son.”
Nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are black or Hispanic and half have children. Their average income is $17,200 a year and the average amount they pay in rent out of pocket is $413 a month.
The federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to ensuring the Section 8 program is working as it was originally intended. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically leaves it up to each housing authority to determine how much a voucher is worth, which essentially determines the type of neighborhood a voucher holder can afford. And when HUD assesses the work of housing authorities — to decide whether to increase federal oversight — only a tiny fraction is based on whether local officials are “expanding housing opportunities … outside areas of poverty or minority concentration.” (And even at that, nearly all housing authorities receive full credit.)
Moreover, federal law does not make it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective tenant if they plan to pay with a voucher, so HUD does not investigate complaints of landlords who won’t accept Section 8 vouchers.
Connecticut goes further. It is one of 14 states where it’s illegal to deny someone housing because they plan to use a Section 8 voucher. And the state allocated more than $820,000 in the last fiscal year to help pay for 10 investigators to look into complaints of all types of housing discrimination and provide legal assistance. “There has been an effort to try to change” housing segregation, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing.
But those efforts have done little to prevent landlords from continuing to reject voucher holders. The groups charged with investigating housing complaints say they lack the resources to be proactive and believe they are only seeing a fraction of what’s really going on.
“Housing providers keep coming up with ways to rent to who they want to rent and find ways around housing discrimination laws,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which investigates complaints. “There is a lot more discrimination going on than what we are investigating.”
In 2018, fewer than 75 complaints were made that accused the landlord or owner of refusing to accept a voucher or some other legal source of income, such as Social Security. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center said that figure isn’t low because discrimination is scarce but rather because prospective tenants are fearful that complaining could hurt them and know that it will do nothing to help them with their immediate needs; investigations can take longer than the time they have to find a house with their vouchers.
“In order to make it a real priority and address the real effects of discrimination in society, the government should dedicate more resources to ferreting it out,” said Greg Kirschner, the group’s legal director.
A Hartford native, Carter reluctantly moved back to her hometown in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. She had delayed relocating, she said, because she worried she’d be taking her children from a quiet neighborhood in Florida to a “war zone” in Connecticut.
“They not from the streets. Their heart is trying to be goofy-cool,” she said of her three sons, now 10, 17 and 18, and two daughters, ages 13 and 14. “They don’t have that fight in them. I do.” (Worried about her children’s privacy, Carter asked that they not be named in this story.)