August 2, 2008
Bloggers give Becker an earful about crime
If Mayor Gary Becker thought nasty, critical, anonymous bloggers would be civil and friendly in person -- well, he's been disabused of that quaint notion.
About 20 bloggers took up the mayor on his invitation to meet face-to-face at JavaVino downtown on Saturday morning. But they were no less insistent in person -- although at times they left the mayor alone to argue among themselves.
As it is on the blogs, the subject on everyone's mind appears to be crime. Whenever the mayor does anything these days -- the Uptown mosaic mural comes to mind -- the bloggers are quick to denigrate with comments like Anonymous', "Thank God. Crime in this city will finally stop because of this beautiful art!!" The mayor invited bloggers to meet because of comments posted on the JT's website in reaction to a story about the community meeting he hosted at the Martin Luther King Center earlier this week. "How do you go from a community meeting to 'this is a cover-up on crime,' " he wondered.
In person they were somewhat less sarcastic, but no less frustrated. One after another at the JavaVino meeting they said things like:
"People in this town are very, very upset. You know what the cops tell me: 'Hide.' Well, I'm sick of hiding!"
And: "You have to take the fear out of the neighborhoods."
A number of exchanges between blogger and mayor showed a pent-up anger at the police. These residents say they constantly call the police for help, and are blown off.
One woman told him: "The cops are sick of us" who call to report drug dealers. "They don't to hear it. You can see men smoking crack at 11th and College, that whole area. The police are really sick of hearing from people who keep calling them."
BECKER: "The cops should not be dismissing you."
WOMAN: "They busted someone for having a wrench in his car."
BECKER: "I don't believe this happened. Give me the details. I don't believe this is going on."
WOMAN: "This is what happened. It happens every day."
Another man said, "I'm sorry, but it's a mess. Telling us otherwise will not make a difference when I hear gunshots tonight. Once the sun goes down, I don't come out."
BECKER: "Where do you live."
MAN: "On Main Street. I got ticketed for disorderly conduct when they couldn't find the guy I reported. They ticketed me! You've got to go sit on East Park at 3 in the morning..."
BECKER: "I drive through those neighborhoods."
MAN: "You don't live there, sir. We're sick of it, sir."
Another woman -- after decrying the fact that only whites were at the session with the mayor, said: "I see many kids arrested just for being black."
BECKER: "I would argue that on the whole the police don't hassle blacks."
WOMAN: I know it's true. If four kids are on the corner, it's the three blacks who get hassled."
BECKER: "I disagree.... I would say the cops in Racine have a good relationship with the black community. If you go to Milwaukee, cops and the community are not communicating." He illustrated with two fists coming at each other.
He also pointed out that police have executed 130 search warrants this year. But one man complained: "It's obvious to me: I see drug deals going down. If it's obvious to me, it's got to be obvious to the professionals. The drug dealers are on the corner."
BECKER: "I wish we had the right to just shake them down (search them)."
MAN: "You could have a couple of squad cars drive them off."
BECKER: "They'll just move around."
MAN: "Then move with them."
At one point Becker noted that some of those present wanted much stricter police enforcement, but others were concerned about police hassling minorities. "She's telling me we're too tough on these guys. You're telling me we're not tough enough."
WOMAN: "We have to do something, take ownership of the program, not just talk."
An agitated man argued loudly, with profanity: "I'm not going to take my life in my hands. My God, where do you live?"
BECKER: "Settle down."
ANOTHER MAN, to one in a striped shirt: "You've got the stripes, you gotta referee this."
The first man continued swearing and finally stormed out of the coffee shop.
THIRD MAN: "I hope he's not a gun owner."
FOURTH MAN: "I hear his frustration. I get it."
WOMAN: "We need to solve this, get involved with our neighbors. We don't need to be vigilantes."
BECKER: "We've got to have balance."
Drugs and violence dominated the session. The two aldermen present, Greg Helding and Jim Kaplan, added perspectives of their own. Kaplan told of a constituent who brought him a baggie full of spent shells she picked up around her house. "I told her, 'Take them to the police,' but she said, 'We're afraid if we do, they'll be shooting at us the next time." So Kaplan took the bullet casings to the police and filed the complaint himself. Helding offered an analogy about drug sales: "You know all the coffee shops downtown? Well, if we all stopped drinking coffee, they'd close. Same with the drug dealers."
At one point, the mayor was asked, "Do you spend too much time and money on Downtown?" He responded, "We spend very little." Referring to all the events downtown, like First Fridays and Party on the Pavement, put on by merchants and the Downtown Racine Corporation, he said, "We don't do anything except drop off barricades -- and we charge them for that."
The mayor talked about stepped up city inspections -- "Five inspectors work in the ugly neighborhoods, the bad ... and they're on call in the good neighborhoods." -- about the half-dozen bars that have been closed down due to violence, about efforts to tear down boarded up and abandoned houses ("I hate boarded up houses," he said.), and the city's program for helping people buy their own homes. Of one major landlord, said to be trying to sell a large bloc of rental units, "The fear is that he will sell out to someone from out of town, and we'll have nobody here to go after." Becker would much prefer the units to be sold to individual homeowners. Regarding substandard dwelling units, he said: "We will be as aggressive as the law allows us to be."
A teacher said, "Crime is just a symptom. The problem is economic. We need more jobs in the city. Good, well-paying jobs is the solution." Becker said he had met with Dr. James Shaw, the current finalist to be Racine Unified superintendent. "I really hope Dr. Shaw, if he takes the job, can get things done. He really understands the achievement gap.... the community is dying for someone to come into that position and start making decisions."
The session ended after an hour, because Becker was taking his daughter and two of her friends to Chicago to see the Lollapalooza festival. But he also said he was meeting an artist in Chicago -- a potential resident for the Uptown arts district.