Don't sweep on me: unheard voices of the CHA | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Don't sweep on me: unheard voices of the CHA 

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From most of the media coverage, it'd be easy to conclude that the only opposition to the CHA sweeps comes from some white guy named Grossman.

You know the debate: the ACLU argues that the CHA's warrantless public-housing searches violate the Constitution, and the CHA counters that such constitutional niceties have little meaning to innocent residents terrorized by thugs. ACLU attorney Harvey Grossman is the person most often quoted in opposition to the CHA; generally left out of the debate are people like Mark Pratt, one of four named plaintiffs in the case against warrantless CHA searches.

"I'm the plaintiff, Harvey's my lawyer, but it's funny how the papers and TV chose to focus on Harvey," says Pratt. "It's not an ego thing, I don't have to have my name in the paper. But the public should know the real story. To read the papers you'd think that all CHA residents favor the sweeps, and that's not true."

For the record, 27-year-old Pratt is very much a resident of Cabrini-Green. He's lived there all of his life. His mother, Jacqueline Pratt, still lives there, as does his brother, a member of the legendary Jesse White Tumblers. He works as a youth counselor at Cabrini's Lower North Youth Center, and he edits a monthly paper called Voices of Cabrini. He says he loves Cabrini and that he'd rather live there than anyplace else.

And he's adamantly against the sweeps.

"Until it's happened to you, you don't know how degrading these sweeps are," he says. "People always put you on the defensive. They say 'Oh, you're against the sweeps, then you must be for crime.' That's bull. There are other ways to deal with crime and gangs and drugs then harassing innocent people."

Pratt's first encounter with the sweeps was in October 1992, after seven-year-old Cabrini resident Dantrell Davis was killed by sniper fire while walking to school. "After Dantrell was killed, I had a feeling the sweeps were coming to Cabrini," says Pratt. "There had been sweeps at other CHA complexes in the past. They never make any serious attempt to come up with a good policy for fighting crime. When things get hot, they bring in the TV crews and start sweeping."

In anticipation Pratt contacted the ACLU to "see what our rights are." He discovered that the first warrantless searches were conducted in 1988, as part of Operation Clean Sweep, CHA president Vince Lane's crusade against drugs, violence, vandalism, and vagrancy. Without warning or warrants, police officers swept through apartments, booting out people not on the lease and herding the rest to other buildings, where they were issued new ID cards.

The ACLU, representing several CHA tenants, went to court to block future sweeps. Eventually the CHA signed a consent decree agreeing, among other things, to conduct only housing inspections without warrants. But after the Davis murder, public passions were inflamed. And the CHA sent police into Cabrini to conduct "housing inspections" that included pat-down searches.

"The police surrounded our building at about 9:30 in the morning, and then they came in," says Pratt. "I knew they were coming; I could see and hear them. It's not a big secret. They bring all the media in town, which is why this is so stupid, by the way. 'Cause everyone they're looking for has already left.

"So I knew there were certain things I had to do. I wore sweatpants 'cause I knew I was in for a frisk. And I left the front door open--my attitude was, hey, when they get here come in and do what they had to do. They came into my apartment and told me to go to the next building and get an ID. I stepped out in the hallway and I was searched. In my whole life that was the first time I was ever searched. And I wasn't just patted down. I was seriously frisked. They looked in my underwear. They pulled the band back. I was searched and frisked that way nine times that day. Some of the cops were black and some of the cops were white. I didn't say anything to them--I didn't dare. Let's be honest: I'm in Cabrini and I'm male. There's already an assumption that I must be guilty of something."

Pratt thinks the search violated the consent decree. "They were supposed to have a warrant, which they didn't. Without a warrant, they were supposed to ask if they could come in and search my house, which they didn't. They don't have the right to look down my pants. I'm no criminal; they had no reason to think I committed a crime. The consent decree says they can come into my apartment to do a housing inspection. They didn't even do that. There was this woman from the CHA who accompanied the police, and I asked her "What about the cabinets and what about the sink?' And she said, "Someone will be back later to handle that.' Well guess what? No one ever came back."

Pratt decided to join three other CHA residents in a lawsuit against the CHA. Their case was still in litigation when Lane, in the wake of heavy gang gunfire at the Taylor Homes, asked U.S. Judge Wayne Anderson to lift his restraining order against warrantless sweeps; Anderson denied Lane's request. In the media uproar, the ACLU and its lawyers were depicted as empty-headed do-gooders despised by average Joes of all races.

"I was the only one in Cabrini who would allow my name to be used in that lawsuit, but that doesn't mean residents here favor warrantless searches," says Pratt. "Residents think of the CHA as an overlord rather than a landlord. They say, "If I get involved, the CHA will search my records to find any old excuse to kick me out, and then where can I go?' It's bad to have a perception like that, but I understand it. I'll tell you this: no one gave me a hard time for the suit. People came up and patted me on the back.

"And while I'm on the subject, let me tell you about how unfairly the press is treating Harvey. The stuff they write about him is bullshit. I've had some role models that have got me out of trouble--people like police officer Pat Hill, who sat me down years ago and talked me out of gangs. Well, I consider Harvey another role model. If it wasn't for him, poor people like me wouldn't be heard. And I'll tell you another thing about Harvey: he's spent more time in CHA housing than Vince Lane or any of Vince Lane's lawyers. And when Harvey comes out here he's not surrounded by a bunch of cops like Lane is. Harvey may not live here, but he's been out here. And he's been out here more than most of the people who write about him, that's for damn sure."

Many of Pratt's comments are echoed by others writing in Voices of Cabrini. The paper was founded a year ago as a result of efforts by Involvement Advocacy, a not-for-profit organization that forged a curious coalition between residents of Cabrini-Green and residents of Winnetka. "We help people in the community do things for themselves," says Peter Benkendorf, Involvement Advocacy's executive director. "After the Dantrell Davis shooting I wanted to build a sister-neighborhood program between Winnetka and [the Cabrini] community. I think people in both places can learn from each other." A friendship developed between Geri French and Cynthia Gehrie, who run a community paper in Winnetka, and Henrietta Thompson of Cabrini. Out of that friendship came Voices.

Voices mixes news articles, motivational pieces, poems, a personals page called "Shout Out," and "Come and Get It!," a recipe column by Godfrey Bey featuring such old family favorites as "French Quarter Bean Soup" and "Spaghetti Conquistador With Buttermilk/Sour Cream Corn Bread."

"I am looking forward to a lot of wonderful dishes coming from you (hopefully, Henrietta Thompson will share her Pineapple Ribs recipe)," Bey recently wrote. "And if you see me out on the street, don't be shy. Let's talk food and brotherhood."

Perhaps the most pungent voice in the paper belongs to a white rapper named K-SO, who writes a column on hip-hop from his Galesburg jail cell. "I guess as Rock-N-Roll once stood out in the clutches of society we too must voice our opinions," K-SO recently wrote. "As picky reporters attack us, finicky news journalists debate us, as envious news critics critique us, and as the networks and media try to mold us, we will stand and we will Rise."

"K-SO lived in Cabrini-Green until he was incarcerated," says Pratt. "I don't know why he's in prison. He's very serious about his column. He does his own illustrations, and he never misses a deadline."

Pratt would like to see similar papers in other CHA communities. "I say to Vince Lane, if you're so concerned about the good people of CHA, then work with us," says Pratt. "Let's be honest: I'm not the kind of person who gets respect from Vince Lane. He goes on television and portrays us as lowlifes on public aid. Yes, my mother raised me on public aid. And yes, I live in Cabrini. But, no I didn't turn out so bad. We got a lot to be proud of. Don't keep fighting us, Vince Lane--work with us to make it even better."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Loren Santow.

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