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Citizens' Anticrime Group Slammed for Tactics

A PROGRAM that has become a national model for fighting crime at the grass-roots level is coming under fire for allegedly targeting African-Americans and setting neighbor against neighbor.

The Oakland, Calif.-based group, Safe Streets Now, has won plaudits for taking to court landlords who allow their buildings to become crack houses. But a number of lawsuits against small property owners, many of them blacks, have some community activists up in arms.

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Ask Charles Mosser about Safe Streets Now founder Molly Wetzel, and he says: ''Molly is great.'' As a landowner, he watched property values fall as a nearby apartment building turned seedy. With Ms. Wetzel's help, he took the building's owner to court and won.

But ask Gwen Hardy, a leader of People United for a Better Oakland, about Wetzel's organization, and one gets a different answer. Safe Streets Now, she says, ''isn't concerned about the community as a whole.''

Big landlords have the resources to clean up their property, Ms. Hardy says, but ''it seems that it's persons of color whose homes are being taken from them because of alleged drug dealing. How much proof'' do they have?

For her part, Wetzel says legal action is the last resort. Of the hundreds of cases her group has taken up, many involve elderly women whose adult children steal their Social Security checks to buy drugs. Before filing suit, Safe Streets Now contacts the owners to request they stop the criminal activity in the building.

''They either get to a rehabilitation center or get out of the neighborhood,'' Wetzel says. The number of requests for police assistance tends to go down, she says, after blocks have evicted such people. Safe Streets Now cooperates with Oakland police and files monthly reports on complaints of alleged drug houses.

Safe Streets Now began in 1989 when Wetzel mobilized neighbors in Berkeley, Calif., to get rid of a drug house on her block. The absentee landlord refused repeated requests to evict the drug-dealing tenants and addicts. So neighbors sued in small claims court and got $2,000 each. The process is much faster than suing in superior court, which can take five years or more before trial.

The California Supreme Court later upheld Safe Streets Now's tactics, rejecting a landlord's argument that such multiple filings in fact constitute a class-action suit that would have to be filed in superior court.

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Out of those early battles, Wetzel formed Safe Streets Now, which has expanded to 18 chapters in five states. Funding sources include foundations, corporations, and individual donors.

The close relationship between Safe Streets Now and police bothers some community activists. Francis Calpotura, codirector of the Center for Third World Organizing in Oakland, says law enforcement now sets the Safe Streets Now agenda. These are the same police that many young people see as responsible for ''misconduct and brutality, particularly aimed at young men of color,'' he says.

Community organizing groups affiliated with his center, including the People United for a Better Oakland, recognize the need to stop street crime, but also take steps to address the root causes of crime. ''We're talking about jobs, after-school programs, and education that will develop their leadership potential,'' Mr. Calpotura says.

''Safe Streets Now has become part of a punishment strategy that victimizes young people of color,'' he says. ''We need to reorient from punishment to prevention.''

Wetzel argues that her group focuses on only one issue and ''doesn't have to be a [social service] empire. If you're upset there's no jobs, then let's get together and march on city hall. But the bottom line is: You can't deal drugs here anymore.''

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