Design by Andrew J. Nilsen
You can first tell Johnny Jackson is around by the shopping carts. A path of them leads into Westside Courts, the public housing project in the Western Addition in disrepair and set for eventual demolition. One is overturned beside the fenced-in basketball court. Another, with two brooms sticking from its top, rests on the driveway leading to a central parking lot ringed by the three-story complex. The place has the air of a dreary 1950s motel.
In 2009, the former property manager told Jackson to get his carts off the property. Jackson refused, and that's where his troubles began.
Jackson, 62, calls himself “the Mayor of Westside,” yet a better title would be all-purpose handyman for the derelict building and its worn-down inhabitants, a few of whom have lived there for nearly five decades. A chorus of “Johnn-y!” erupts from people coming outside and needing work done. “Johnny can do anything,” one boy sums up. Jackson finds gas leaks. He washes cars and cleans mold off walls. He drives grannies to get groceries. In the middle of the night, he once shimmied his small, sinewy frame down the garbage chute, Santa-style, to get into the locked garbage room to turn the power back on. No task is too dirty — he'll clean the sewage that backs up in the community room — or too dangerous. When a grandma caught on fire from her stove and ran out of her unit screaming a couple of months back, “he put me out,” she says. Jackson will accept a tip if you're offering, but he doesn't pressure.
Jackson first showed up at Westside Courts after his sister moved there in the 1960s, though he's never been on a lease. He'll crash at various residents' units about three times a week or sleep on the streets with his wife, Angela.
One other thing: He has a crack problem. “I won't lie, I do,” he says. He's been arrested once with a pipe, at least once for possession, and once for sales (he claims he's no dealer, and a former property manager who has a pretty good handle on who was doing what also says he's no drug runner).
One day in August 2009, Jackson was served with a court summons: The San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) was trying to get an injunction to keep him off not just Westside Courts, but all 53 public housing properties in the city. “It says I'm a menace to the neighborhood,” he says, sounding offended. “I help. I don't hurt nobody.”
The Housing Authority's actual phrasing was “public nuisance.” The summons cited his crack arrests, one trespassing arrest, and another time he allegedly broke a window. (Jackson says that may have happened in an argument with another squatter who stole a bag of his clothes and pepper-sprayed him.)
Another type of ban, gang injunctions, has become notorious in San Francisco. The city attorney started filing them in 2007, garnering intense media and public scrutiny for barring alleged gang members from associating with each other or loitering in specific zones.
Yet during the same time, the SFHA — an independent agency funded mostly with federal money — started a wide-ranging ban of its own with hardly anyone noticing. Starting in 2007, the agency began quietly serving dozens of public nuisance injunctions on nontenants who hung out on its properties. These “nuisances” were barred from coming within 150 feet of any Housing Authority property, under the threat of a one-year jail sentence for violating a court order. Housing rights activists say this is among the strictest bans they've seen in the entire country.
Granted, Jackson is on the upstanding end of the people pinned with injunctions — others are accused of robberies, drug sales, gun possessions, and even shootings. Even so, this May, after a fight from the public defender's office and civil rights advocates, a San Francisco judge declared the injunctions against seven people — Jackson included — unconstitutionally broad. The bans still sit on the books for nearly 80 other people, and police say they don't know whether the bans are still being enforced on the others.
The first Jackson heard about the judge's decision was when a police officer drove up to him nearly a month afterward: “He said I beat my case,” he recalls. “But he said they're going to refile on me.”
In the battle for who has rights to be on its property, the Housing Authority hasn't surrendered yet.
Jackson's injunction was likely set in motion by a decision then-Westside property manager Cerealraye Barker now regrets. In 2009, she came in with a mission to fix up the blighted complex. With the SFHA maintenance crews focused on larger properties, Jackson became her go-to guy for timely repairs. “Johnny's like MacGyver,” she says. He'd kill roaches, and measure and replace missing gutters. She had him clean up the place for the federal inspectors after the complex had twice failed its review. (Jackson cleaned; the building passed.)
Still, Barker didn't like Jackson's carts. Along with telling residents they could no longer store bikes on the roof or throw diapers out the window, she demanded that he roll those “doggone carts” off the property. “I done cursed Johnny out,” she says, laughing about it. “He drove me bats with that.” After he refused to move them (he says he won't take government assistance, and recycling is a reliable meal ticket), she told the Housing Authority she wanted to ban him.
Barker later changed her mind after talking with Jackson: “He felt he paid his way to bring those carts.” She told the Housing Authority's attorney she didn't want to move forward with the injunction — she did continue with two others for people “who were causing a lot of drama” — but apparently the Housing Authority proceeded anyway, getting a declaration from the property manager who succeeded her.
For all Barker's regrets, Jackson suspects the injunction is partly retaliation from a certain cop who has been asking him for years to snitch on who has drugs or weapons at Westside. Jackson refuses. “It's like betraying my own kids,” he says. “He said if I can't help him, I shouldn't be around.” Police officers who patrol public housing identify troublemakers to the SFHA, SFPD Cmdr. Mikail Ali says, and it often follows up with evictions for tenants or injunctions for nontenants. (SF Weekly was unable to contact the officer Jackson claims said this.)
The concept of banning people from properties is nothing new. Convicted thieves will often be temporarily barred with stayaway orders from the store they stole from. The difference between those bans and the Housing Authority's version is the scope. Even if someone has only been charged with — not convicted of — crimes on or near one property, he or she is banned from all 53. In one case, the Housing Authority offered its rationale in the form of a declaration from a police officer: If drug dealers are banned at one housing project, they'll simply set up shop at another. While even the gang injunctions have an “opt-out” procedure for those who can prove they've gotten out of gang life, the SFHA injunctions ban people “perpetually” — forever. The housing authority in Annapolis, Md., won similarly restrictive bans, but settled a court challenge last year by agreeing to allow residents to add most banned visitors to an “invited guest” list, and created a procedure for the banned people to get rid of their injunction.
At first, Jackson attempted to obey. He moved to his sister's in Sacramento for two weeks. “I tried to for a while, but then it's like you get homesick,” he says on a recent day in between errands. When he returned, he avoided the front of the complex near the property manager's office. “That's like disrespecting her,” he says. “She's the big cheese over there.” But he set up shop in the back parking lot just the same.
The officers who knew Jackson from multiple drug and trespassing arrests would arrest him four times on the misdemeanor charge of contempt of a court order. Usually, Jackson says, they let him go after booking him at the station. Meanwhile, two women Barker recommended for (and who eventually received) injunctions have never been arrested for violating the orders — though residents say they come around all the time.
Jackson might have avoided all the trouble if he'd just fought the ban. Since the injunctions are filed in civil court, defendants don't have a right to a public defender as they would in the criminal system. To contest an injunction, they must file a written response “in proper legal form” with the court — something a layperson couldn't easily do without help from an attorney.
“They're low-income, racial minority residents of San Francisco who usually didn't show up to court because they didn't know what this weird civil summons was all about,” says attorney Meredith Desautels of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which helped with the constitutional challenge. “So it's not surprising that for three years, the public defender's office and civil rights organizations had no idea this was happening.” Indeed, according to a list compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), civil judges and commissioners usually awarded the injunctions in “default”— meaning the defendants had not submitted answers to the Housing Authority's complaint.
Did the injunctions work? It depends on whom you ask. Police say the injunctions are part of a multipronged collaboration with the Housing Authority that has curbed chronic crime in the projects. Commander Ali points to the slight drop in crime in the city's largest housing project, Sunnydale, along the flank of McLaren Park. Serious crimes decreased from 533 in 2006 to 471 in 2007; homicides fell from nine in 2007 to two last year.
Other efforts have included more frequent patrols, increased narcotics enforcement, and eviction of problem tenants — sometimes the grandmas and moms who allow their problematic relatives to crash. “You have people who don't live at the properties who hang out on people's front porches, and the residents feel powerless,” says David Mauroff, the Northern California manager of McCormack Baron Ragan, a for-profit company that manages three Housing Authority properties. In San Francisco, where black flight has caused the black population to drop to just 6 percent of city dwellers in the 2010 Census, Mauroff believes, “it's our responsibility to support low-income communities, particularly African American communities, to try to create a positive place to live.”
Meanwhile, Pastor Jeffrey Branner Sr. at St. Andrew's Missionary Baptist Church in the Western Addition knows several people with injunctions. He argues that the bans send the opposite message — that blacks are unwanted, straining the already fraught relationship between cops and residents of the projects. “It's just a way of asking police to harass people of color,” he says. “People should be able to do as they please as long as they don't violate the law.”
According to the ACLU list, the SFHA has sought 126 injunctions, of which nearly 80 are in effect. The difference largely consisted of people the Housing Authority could never find to serve with papers. One case was dismissed after a defendant moved to Sacramento, another when a defendant was killed. Then there's the handful of people who fought the injunctions — and won.
Damone Smith, as we'll call him, was one of the first to attend a free legal clinic set up by the Bar Association of San Francisco at the Bayview Branch Library. Smith, who grew up in Hunters Point, had been sentenced to prison on weapons charges 10 and six years earlier. As with the other injunction, the SFHA's complaint lists other arrests as fact, even if the charges were eventually dropped.
Hali Reiskin, the attorney in charge of the clinic, says it was hard to get attorneys interested in defending the clients because of their criminal records: “There wasn't a big rally around this cause at all.”
Smith first filed an answer to his injunction with the clinic's help, but then got a pro bono defense attorney, Jimmy McBirney, who was fresh out of law school. McBirney filed arguments calling the injunction a “breathtaking perversion of California nuisance law,” and argued that civil nuisance law allows only the district and city attorney — not the housing authority — the right to label someone a “public nuisance.” The SFHA's attorney responded with a complaint alleging Smith was also a “private nuisance” and a member of 2 Rock, an alleged gang operating at the Alice Griffith housing projects. When McBirney challenged the gang claim, the SFHA dismissed the case.
McBirney calls the case “absolutely nuts.” He says, “I think frankly when someone had a lawyer that could make these basic legal arguments, the [SFHA] said we'll drop this one and go on with the next because we don't want a bad appellate decision.” Indeed, to date, the Housing Authority has dropped cases in response to at least three challenges.
The SFHA denies disparate treatment for those who had attorneys and those who didn't. “The Authority evaluates each case on its own merits,” SFHA spokeswoman Rose Dennis wrote in an e-mail. “There is not a correlation between cases where clients had representation and those who did not.”
Yet, facing challenges, the Housing Authority tweaked its own method. Eight injunctions filed in July 2010 banned people from only one or two properties, not all 53. “Upon further evaluation of the cases, the Authority determined that the scope of injunction filings should be limited,” Dennis admits. Despite the changes, the injunctions in place were about to see their biggest challenge yet.
Some of the people served with the injunctions did, in fact, stay away. Some are now incarcerated on other charges. But still others decided to play cat-and-mouse with the cops.
Marcus Johnson was walking to a corner store in 2009 when he was served with an injunction by a police officer. At the time, the lanky, laid-back 24-year-old was on parole for having sold weed to an undercover cop in 2006, and later violated his probation at Yerba Buena Plaza East housing project in the Western Addition. Johnson grew up in Plaza East, and still had a roll call of his family and friends there: aunts, uncles, cousins, a half-sister, and now his girlfriend of more than four years, Ebony Penny, and their two children, as well as another child of Penny's who Johnson treats as his own.
Johnson says he stayed out of gang life — he isn't on the Eddy Rock gang injunction that covers the site — yet he couldn't completely isolate himself from the hood's criminal lures. The complaint lists other charges that were later dismissed; his only two convictions were the marijuana sales and a misdemeanor conviction after he was arrested for riding a getaway bike with a laptop another man had stolen from a Hayes Street cafe in December 2006. Despite Johnson's scrapes with the law, he has a good reputation among many of the project's dwellers, and had been volunteering at the project's food bank before he was nailed with the injunction. “I known this boy since he was first born, and he's not a bad person,” says Patricia, an older woman who stops to greet him on the sidewalk. “He's not gonna hurt nobody. His bark is worse than his bite.”
After the injunction went into effect, Johnson was stuck: Paroled to San Francisco, he had to stay in the city. Yet with no job prospects, he couldn't afford rent, and was barred from the housing projects where his children lived. “My kids are more important to me than my freedom,” he says on a recent day in Penny's living room. “I just knew I wasn't going to be like [my dad]. I was going to be in their life and not out.”
With Penny working for her disabled mother during the day, Johnson created a schedule to take care of his kids while avoiding the cops. He'd take his son to school in the morning and run a couple of errands, but duck back in the apartment by 9:30 a.m., when he says the patrol officers who knew him came on duty. He'd mostly stay inside playing videogames with the kids until after 11 p.m. “I couldn't take them to the park; that really sucked.” If he had to go out, he says, he'd sometimes walk through people's backyards to avoid detection, or go down streets where he knew there were fewer patrol cars.
Johnson says one cop promised not to bother him if he stayed in the house. Yet he says other officers arrested him eight or so times. Heading back to the apartment one day, he spotted a patrol car. Johnson dashed inside, and says the cops pounded on the door. Penny answered and says they rushed past her up the stairs to the third-story bedroom to arrest him for violating the court order.
In effect, Johnson was still being punished for his old crimes, the reason other cities have shied away from such injunctions. “People often change their lives and do things and become very responsible members of the community, and we wouldn't want to ostracize people in that way,” says Greer McVay, spokeswoman for the Oakland Housing Authority.
Johnson pleaded guilty to one contempt of a court order charge in August 2010, so he could get out of jail. The district attorney charged Johnson with four more counts in seven months. Public defender Anne Irwin says when she read his injunction, “I almost fell on the floor.” She got him released from jail while he waited for one case to go forward, but soon afterward, she found he was in jail again on another charge. “So I walked into the tank, very angry with him,” Irwin recalls. “I said, 'Marcus, I'm not going to be able to get the judge to release you again and again. You've got to stop violating the injunction.' He said, 'What am I supposed to do? … Where am I supposed to stay?' … That's when I understood his predicament.”
Irwin asked public defenders to gather other cases of injunction violations, and called the ACLU and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights to challenge the injunction on a constitutional basis. The attorneys gathered seven defendants charged with violating their court orders, and argued in court filings that the injunction barred them from places of worship and even the federal courthouse, which falls within 150 feet of a public housing property. They also argue that it stepped on people's right to travel and to maintain intimate associations with family.
“If the Housing Authority truly wants to help the people of Plaza East, can't you see the best thing for this community is for [Johnson] to be there with his kids?” Irwin says. “It's so shortsighted.”
The D.A. backed off in April. “We had some concerns about the cases that had been presented, about the cases being a bit overbroad,” spokeswoman Erica Derryck concedes.
In late May, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer Jr. threw out the contempt charges against Johnson and the other six defendants. In his ruling, he wrote that trying to avoid 53 properties in a compact city “erects significant barriers to Johnson's ability to work, worship, eat, associate with family and friends, in short, to exist in San Francisco.” He noted that Johnson had not committed a crime in four years: “At a time when too many fathers fail to be involved in their children's lives, Johnson is apparently trying to fulfill this important role.”
Johnson sat in Penny's living room on a recent day after the ruling was announced. A “Baby Girl” balloon from the birth of their daughter three months ago hovered above the TV. (Penny had to postpone the date of her C-section because Johnson was in jail for violating the injunction.) Their 5-year-old son danced to “Smooth Criminal” on a blaring Michael Jackson videogame. Their toddler son ran around in a diaper, sliding down the stairs that just last year the cops were running up to arrest Johnson.
All that is over. With no new arrests, Johnson is set to get off parole this month. When he saw the officers who used to arrest him after the judge's ruling came down, “I cussed them out,” he says.
It's still unclear who will have the final word. SFHA commission president Amos Brown opposes Ulmer's ruling. “In Mississippi, where I come from, they say your freedom ends where my nose begins,” he says. “These people are out there causing problems, the police know who they are, and they should be curtailed.”
The ACLU says it is attempting to get the word out about the ruling to those with injunctions, though they are difficult to track. Northern California director Alan Schlosser suspects many have moved out of the city. “We'd like to see the Housing Authority get out of the injunction business,” he says.
Instead, the Housing Authority is plotting a rematch.
We are in the process of seeking additional legal counsel on how we will move forward to continue to reduce and prevent crime on our sites,” says Rose Dennis, adding that one possibility would be “narrowing the sites down.”
Civil rights advocates say even cutting the number of sites and reducing the duration isn't enough. “You still have concerns about intimate association and constitutionally protected non-nuisance activities,” says Desautels of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. The one property where someone has been a nuisance is also likely the property where he or she probably has the most familial connections.
On a recent afternoon, Jackson explains the injunction to Fred Wallace, a middle-aged white man watering plants in front of his house across the street from Westside Courts. Wallace has known Jackson for more than 20 years; Jackson had helped him rearrange his planters the day before. Wallace is incredulous. “What really needs to happen, instead of him being booted out, he needs to have a place over there,” he says. “That would make sense.”
Indeed, there are nearly a dozen empty units in Westside Courts that are boarded up after tenants have moved out or been evicted. They now sit empty with promises of needed repairs — repairs Jackson could likely handle.
Yet with his history, he likely would not be a prime candidate for a unit in public housing. For now, the Mayor of Westside must remain a squatter.