Activists Seek To Show Inequities In The City
November 25, 2005
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
While Hartford sat down to a Thanksgiving meal, a handful of community activists settled into the battered lobby of a troubled building on Vine Street to fast for a day and call attention to inequity in the city.
"A lot of people have a lot to be thankful for," said the Rev. Cornell Lewis, founder of the Men of Color Initiative. He and others planned to be in the lobby through the night until 9 a.m. today. "We're saying that on this day when people are sitting around waxing eloquent, there are some people who don't have anything to be thankful for because their quality of life is being eroded."
That would be people like Elaine Hightower, who came to the lobby in her housedress down a stairwell decorated with graffiti like "Murda" and "Ho-style" to thank the activists.
"I really appreciate you all being here," she said, as she waved children and grandchildren up the stairs to her apartment. "They sit here and smoke in the hallway. I hate it. I hate whoever invented it. I'd like to choke them with my hands."
In addition to members of the Men of Color, participants in the 24-hour fast included people from St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church, and the newly formed Task Force for Race, Class and Social Justice. That last group, which includes, among others, Frank O'Gorman, of People of Faith for Gay Civil Rights, and Jerimarie Liesegang, director of Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition, is as recent as Hurricane Katrina. After that catastrophe hit the Gulf Coast, members of various area social justice groups began to talk about working together. The members acknowledge that it is an unusual - and fruitful - commingling. As O'Gorman said Thursday in the building's lobby, the groups share a concern for social justice.
"Many of our problems are very similar," agreed Francis Davila, who Thursday was wearing the distinctive yellow down jacket of the Men of Color.
Their numbers thinned and swelled through the night, anywhere from two to 12.
The fasters - including Andrew Woods, executive director of Hartford Communities That Care - made a point of talking to the residents as they passed through the lobby.
"You going to stay all night?" a resident named Roy asked Lewis, who was seated in a cloth lawn chair.
"I got my sleeping bag right there," Lewis said, pointing to a corner. The group also had heat - first a propane heater that put out too many fumes, which was replaced by a space heater connected to a generator running outside.
Lewis asked Roy, "Do you know why we're here?" Roy didn't. When Lewis explained, Roy said, "And when you leave, they're going to come right back." But he offered to help patrol the neighborhood, later.
Early on Thursday's vigil, after Lewis distributed a sheet about the 1981 Irish Republican hunger strikers (memorialized with a statue on Maple Avenue), he listened to one building resident describe the trouble-makers: "They are like roaches," the man said. "You turn the light on, the roaches scatter. They are watching and waiting for you to go."
Outside and throughout the day and night, one or two police cruisers sat idling. But Hightower and others said criminal activity decreases most when community groups are visible. Lewis said he hoped neighborhood residents would take the initiative and not wait for task forces or organizations to appear before they report criminal activity, and confront those who would commit crime in their lobbies and hallways.
They all agree that not everyone can be Mama Hattie. Mama Hattie - Hattie Harris - lives a few buildings down from where the activists set up. At 70, she confronts drug dealers and gang bangers in her hallway. She's been threatened, but she insists she's not scared. (Men of Color members carry walkie-talkies, and alert one another as to their location when they're on a vigil.)
It's risky, but the difference between Harris' building and the activists' target building is obvious. Harris' lobby is heated; the glass panes are not only in place, they're clean, and smells from Thanksgiving cooking fill the hall. In the building where the group gathered, what might be a bullet hole had punctured the front door. It's cold.
To get through the night, Lewis brought books - one on nonviolence, and the other on the life of Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader who died in the War of 1812. As a young woman walked by with a foil-covered pot, Lewis asked her what was her kitchen specialty.
"Everything," she said. "I can cook everything."
Lewis smiled and asked her to bring ham when the fast ends this morning, and then he sought reassurance that she'd know how to prepare it. "Don't be using me for no guinea pig!" he called out, and the young woman laughed.
But another woman walked into the lobby and barely acknowledged Lewis when he asked if she cooked for the day. She looked out the front door, then walked back into the building, where a door slammed.
"I think she's angry that we're here," Lewis said.