I’m sitting here Tuesday night in my South Berkeley home contemplating Andrea Pritchett’s venomous Oct. 25 commentary, “No Simple Solutions for Berkeley’s Drug Problems,” when six gunshots ring out close by. I instantly call 911 and report the number of shots, and estimate direction and distance. The scariest part about it was that this is a completely ordinary part of life here—counting the shots and praying they don’t come in your window.
One of my neighbors told me the other night that when she plays with her kid at our local playground, she always keeps him near the low cement wall, because if shooting starts she wants to be able to grab him and use the wall for cover. Another drills her kid in hitting the floor when the shooting starts. My own 2-year old recently brought me a hypodermic needle someone had tossed into our backyard, asking what it was.
I am the lead plaintiff for the group of 14 South Berkeley neighbors—white and black--who are suing Lenora Moore in small claims court for allowing her home at 1610 Oregon St. to serve as a drug supermarket. Many others would have joined, but were too frightened to do so. Why? At the successful conclusion of a similar neighborhood suit in 1992, a firebomb was thrown at the house of its lead plaintiff. The intended message from the drug thugs was sent and received.
We haven’t even concluded this case yet, but already Moore’s supporters are tossing around the equally incendiary charge of racism. Leo Stegman, Moore’s legal advisor from the East Bay Community Law Center, checks out the skin color of everyone in the court (Commentary, Oct. 21) and concludes that because there’s more melanin on one side than the other that racism must be involved. In her commentary, Pritchett writes that “Newly arrived white neighbors are often offended by the conditions they find in these neighborhoods.” I’ve got news for you, Andrea: It’s not just the white folks. There are many African-American families in South Berkeley, both newcomers and old-timers, who are doing their best to give their kids an alternative to the thug life. There are also plenty of Japanese- and Chinese- and Tibetan- and Yemeni-Americans who are offended by the gunplay and drug dealing as well. We’ve been working together for years to try to make this a better neighborhood and a safe place for kids to grow up. Pritchett and Stegman’s aim is to use race to divide us, for which they ought to be deeply ashamed.
Pritchett has never spoken to us, never come to our well-attended neighborhood meetings, never helped pick up the liquor bottles and used condoms and crack baggies. She was not present at our first court hearing, and apparently has not read the very large volume of evidence we presented to the court and to Ms. Moore. She writes, for example, that “the neighborhood group bases much of its analysis on observations made from afar and based on hearsay and generalizations.” My wife and I live next door, and have watched eight years of drug transactions at 1610 while Lenora Moore placidly comes and goes, studiously oblivious to the dealing around her. All of the plaintiffs, in fact, lived within two blocks during the period covered by the suit, and most still do. In our suit, we cite a long history of specific incidents of dealing directly connected to 1610 Oregon, backed up by a very extensive record of arrests and calls for service from the Berkeley Police Department.
Even Pritchett has to admit the inconvenient fact of the October 2004 raid that found cocaine, heroin, and a semi-automatic handgun in the house. Yet she and other defenders portray Ms. Moore as a perpetual hapless bystander. By their account she is to be held responsible for good works in the community, yet has no responsibility whatsoever for the criminal activities that take place at the house she owns. Yes, she did take out temporary restraining orders on six family members—but only after we filed our suit. Moore’s defenders try to present these orders both as evidence of her determination to do something about the problem and as some kind of proof that she is the victim of elder abuse. Contrary to what Osha Neumann claims, no court has ever ruled that she is the victim of such abuse, and she has presented no evidence of any abuse in court.
Ms. Moore’s negligence enables the drug trade in our part of South Berkeley. Berkeley police officers testified in court that her home is a “safe house” for local dealers, who are free to come and go. Even after she was under a supposed stay-away order, Moore’s adult daughter was dealing down the street at Oregon and California, and sending back up to 1610 for a bowl of gumbo—“with extra crab.” A 15 year-old grandson who is under her guardianship also deals at the corner, and also gets meals delivered to him from 1610. By her own admission, Moore has never tried to enforce any of the restraining orders. Instead, she has turned a blind eye to the criminal activities of her children, grandchildren, and their many associates. Now we’re in court asking her to take responsibility.
One final point: Moore’s defenders keep talking as though going to court were the neighbors’ first recourse. It was not. We worked with the city and the Police Department for six years to try to find a solution, including bringing in Adult Protective Services, whose services Ms. Moore rejected. We went to mediation with her at East Bay Community Mediation, but failed to reach an agreement. Just this week we offered to try mediation again, but were rebuffed. We have literally tried everything we can think of to remedy a very long-running and ugly situation. Going to court was truly our last resort.
Where, on the other hand, have Moore’s defenders been all these years? They’ve never come to our neighborhood meetings, never come forward to help this supposedly helpless woman chase away the dealers from her property. They only show up now to smear good people as racists for standing up to the drug thugs who control our streets. Into a community already poisoned by crack and heroin they’re trying to inject racial division. Makes a firebomb look kind of benign by comparison.
Paul Rauber is an editor at Sierra Magazine and a former columnist for East Bay Express.