Lisa Lehr, a resident of New York City’s historically liberal Upper West Side, became a community activist when a mentally ill street person known as the “Wild Man of 96th Street” smashed a marble bench through the windshield of her car. On the other side of the city, Dianne Jackson joined the ranks of the new civic activists when drug dealers sprayed the windows of her public housing project apartment with semi-automatic rifle fire.
Prompted by their experiences, both women have become part of a new wave of community leaders across New York and the country who are organizing, agitating, petitioning, and protesting for social justice for their neighborhoods. Their tactics are borrowed from the late Saul Alinsky, the patron saint of grassroots community activism. But more often than not, Lehr, Jackson, and the other new activists find that their opponents in the fight to reclaim their communities are not the corporate interests that Alinsky did battle against, but rather the “public interest” lawyers who view themselves as Alinsky’s ideological heirs. And until recently the new activists found little support in the not-for-profit world for their own “politically incorrect” efforts to curb drug dealing and maintain safe, civil, and livable communities.
Increasingly over the past few years, however, a feisty new brand of public interest group has been giving voice to this new citizen activism, and taking on the self-appointed representatives of the poor. In the courtroom and on the street corner, groups like the Center for the Community Interest (CCI) have emerged as leading nonprofit advocates for common-sense policies on quality of life and public safety issues [another is Herman Wrice’s Turn Around America]
In New York City, CCI has scored two impressive victories for citizens against the vigorous opposition of their self-appointed representatives. The first has its roots in a 1994 court case in which the New York Housing Authority asked a federal court to modify the terms of a 25-year-old consent decree that blocked the expedited removal of drug dealers from the city’s public housing projects. The request was opposed by the Legal Services Corporation and the Legal Aid Society, which argued that the change was unnecessary because “the incidence of drug-related crime is not significantly different today than it was in 1971,” when the consent degree was enacted.
This argument shocked Dianne Jackson and other members of the Interim Council of Presidents (ICOP), the organization of elected tenant leaders from public housing projects across the city. They knew all too well what had happened to life in the projects over the past twenty years. They knew because they were the ones too terrified to visit friends in their own buildings after dark, who routinely swept crack vials out of their hallways, who had to teach their kids to drop to the floor at the sound of gunfire. When Legal Services and Legal Aid claimed to be opposing the Housing Authority on behalf of all public housing tenants, the tenant leaders of ICOP seethed, but felt powerless to make themselves heard.
Until they were contacted by CCI, which offered to intervene in court on their behalf. CCI recruited a prominent law firm to represent the tenant leaders pro bono, and their motion to intervene in the case was granted. Thus, while Legal Services and Legal Aid were technically the “class representatives” for all housing project tenants in the litigation (because they had brought the original case that led to the consent decree a quarter century ago), the tenants’ actual elected representatives were on the other side. After presenting numerous affidavits from tenants who described in detail how the violence, desperation, and filth caused by drugs had made their lives intolerable, in April 1996, CCI and the tenants prevailed. U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska ruled that conditions in the projects had indeed changed sufficiently since 1971 to justify modification of the consent decree. The Housing Authority has since used the expedited procedures to bring dozens of cases to evict drug pushers from public housing.
In a very different part of New York, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, residents have also been victimized by a similar ideological rigidity on the part of the public interest legal establishment. A homeless crack addict named Larry Hogue, the aforementioned “Wild Man of 96th Street,” terrorized residents there from 1986 until 1993. When Hogue first appeared in the neighborhood, the traditionally progressive residents fed him and gave him blankets. But his violent and destructive behavior soon became impossible to ignore. Smashing the windshield of Lisa Lehr’s car was hardly the worst of it. He chased and threatened neighborhood children who declined to give him money. He caused $10,000 in damage to a landmark church by hurling cinder blocks through its stained-glass windows. Most ominously, he pushed a 16-year-old girl into the path of an oncoming truck. (Fortunately, she was not hurt.)
It may seem obvious that Hogue belonged in a mental hospital, both for his own good and for that of the residents of the West Side. And under New York State law, a mentally ill person can be involuntarily committed to an institution if he is a “present danger” to himself or others. Yet, every time Larry Hogue committed an offense and was carried away from West 96th Street, he was back on the block within days. Lawyers from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Mental Hygiene Legal Services, and other public interest “advocates” for the rights of the mentally ill had managed to convince the courts and the mental health care bureaucracy that to be considered “presently dangerous” under the New York commitment law, a patient must be dangerous at the very moment he wishes to leave the hospital. So on each of the forty occasions that Hogue was brought in from the street, the crack would take a few hours to pass through his system, and when it did he was no longer “presently” dangerous and had to be released to begin the cycle all over again.
Finally having had enough, Lisa Lehr and her neighbors in the West 90s/West 100s Neighborhood Coalition set out to change the law (or the courts’ interpretation of it) and sought CCI’s help in doing so. They used the case of Francis Stuart, another anti-social, mentally ill drug addict whom the courts had found, like Hogue, could not be committed because he was not “presently dangerous” when sober.
The decision was appealed to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. CCI filed a brief on behalf of Lehr’s Neighborhood Coalition and New York’s Citizens’ Union, arguing that any sensible analysis of whether a patient is “presently dangerous” must take into account his past conduct and psychiatric predictions of his behavior upon release. The Court of Appeals agreed, reversing the lower court’s ruling. In its opinion, the court noted that the contrary rule urged by Mental Hygiene Legal Services “would lead to the absurd conclusion that a defendant in a straightjacket, surrounded by armed guards, is not currently dangerous under the statute.”
Looking back, Lehr remains irritated by the opposition she and her neighbors had to overcome. “The whole experience was eye-opening,” she reports. “I have always considered myself a liberal, and I used to think of the Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services as groups that fought for justice. After hearing them argue that a man who is too sick to know he needs help has a right to be on the street smoking crack and hurting people, I no longer do. Thank God for CCI.”
The rigidly orthodox version of civil libertarian ideology that has come to dominate our legal institutions is ripe for overthrow by a new wave of citizen activists demanding common sense and consideration of the common good. The time has come for a new kind of public interest group that will give voice to the frustrations of people like Genie Lamb, one of the tenant leaders in the public housing eviction case. “They’re supposed to be the advocates for poor people but sometimes you would think they were the adversary, ” says Lamb of the public interest legal establishment. “You want to say to them , ‘Did you completely lose sight of your mission here to serve all poor folks and not just the few who hurt everyone else?’”