While Allentown geared up for its street festival, police held their own block party on the lower West Side
By Matt Taibbi
They stopped traffic in part of Allentown last weekend. Some of you might have noticed. For about a block in every direction at the intersection of Allen and Elmwood last Sunday, the streets were closed off for nine hours while the Artvoice festival played itself out. There were dozens of bands, heavy sales of crafts and trinkets, lots of licensed food and beverage vendor activity, not a whiff of unfriendliness or ugly behavior… in short, it was exactly the sort of polite, carefully run, business-friendly event that passes for a rollicking cultural celebration among upper-middle-class white people these days. Although I cannot count myself among them, I heard that there were many people in attendance who enjoyed themselves that day.
Probably very few of those people, however, were aware that there had been another block party of sorts in that same area just a few days before. On the morning of Wednesday, June 27, in the heart of a predominantly Hispanic section of the lower West side, police blocked off traffic on West Avenue between Maryland and Virginia for the surprise launch of a new city initiative called Operation Clean Sweep.
There were a lot of people on West Avenue that morning, but none of them were dancing or selling pottery. Mainly they were city, state, and federal officials, although a few television reporters were also there. The list of attendees was actually quite long. It included the Buffalo Police, Parole Officers, U.S. Marshals, the Fire Department, Social Services representatives, Animal Control, Building inspectors, and representatives of a number of public utilities, including Niagara Mohawk and Adelphia cable.
“There were so many people that I got blinded,” said Gladys Polidura, 43, who lives on the block.
“I can’t even tell you how many of them there were,” said her neighbor, Alicia Perez, 33. “I couldn’t count them. There were that many.”
Alicia Perez said her daughter was frightened by all the visitors Perez wasn’t talking about the people on the street. She was talking about the ones who were in her house. Operation Clean Sweep, modeled after a similar program in Rochester called Project Uplift, is a door-to-door “outreach” program, ostensibly designed to help improve the “quality of life” in what are generally referred to euphemistically as “troubled” or “blighted” neighborhoods.
The way it works is that a police officer knocks on every door on the block, identifies himself, explains that he is accompanied by a variety of agencies that are there to answer questions and help improve the quality of life in the neighborhood, and then ultimately asks if one or more of the helpers might come in.
The city claims that the agencies were there solely to assist people–to answer safety questions, to fix faulty gas lines, to install new sprinklers, clear debris, cut grass, and to listen to complaints about delinquent landlords and building repair problems.
Were they there for any other reason? The city says no.
Most of the residents of West Avenue think they city’s lying about that.
In describing what happened last Wednesday, they say that it’s hard not to conclude that if Operation Clean Sweep is not first and foremost a law enforcement fishing expedition, and an elaborate attempt to get around search and seizure laws, then it is doing a very poor job of not looking like either or both.
What is Clean Sweep? On television, it looked like a ribbon-cutting; it even had the Mayor there to kick things off and shake a few hands.
It looked a little different from the business end of it.
* * *
WEST AVENUE between Maryland and Virginia is located squarely in the middle of what is generally considered a somewhat nasty part of the lower West Side. You can drive through the intersection of Maryland and West at almost any hour and see some fairly obvious (if low-key) drug-dealing going on. Just this past February, there was a shooting at the corner of Maryland and West, in the second of three broken-down yellow tenement houses on the east side of the street at the end of the block.
The “three yellow houses,” which many of the people who live on the block believe were the real target of Clean Sweep, have a notorious reputation in the neighborhood–apparently a deserved one, as even some of the people who actually live in those houses told me.
“These houses should be burned to the ground,” said a tenant in the third house, who asked not to be named. “They’re total rat holes.” He took me into his apartment and showed me around, and he was right; the walls were literally rotting in there. It was hard to imagine anyone actually living there for any length of time, and one could imagine any responsible building inspector reasonably wanting to check the place out.
A man named Pete who not long ago moved into the second house said that his new home had recently been the site of drug-dealing on a scale he’d never seen before. “It was like McDonald’s,” he said, pointing out the door and around the corner. “They used to just line up here. Over 20 billion served, you know.”
The three yellow houses are the black eye of the block; ask anyone in the neighborhood, and you’ll hear stories of crack and heroin addicts roaming the backs of the houses at night, tricking going on in various floors, all kinds of sordid stuff. A beat cop working his very first day in the neighborhood could figure out pretty quickly that the yellow houses were the problem spot on the block, and it probably wouldn’t take very long to find probable cause to get into one or all of them.
As reasonable a target of police attention the three yellow houses might appear to be, the rest of the block appears that unlikely a target. There’s a well-maintained, cool-looking clothing store called JT’s Inner-City Sportswear across the street from the yellow houses, whose owner, Juan Morrero, maintains that the street is a decent-enough place to do business. If anything, Morrero said, it’s the police that scare his customers away.
“I had a guy come down here from uptown just to check out my store,” he said. “He comes in here, buys a couple hundred dollars worth of clothes, and the instant he gets out of the store, the cops stop him, search his car, find a bag of weed, and take him to jail for the night.” He laughed. “The guy told me it was nothing personal, but he’s never coming back here again.”
After the clothing store, the rest of that side of the block is lined from one end to another with family-occupied houses, most of which are owner-occupied and in decent enough repair. The majority of the people I spoke to on the street were middle-class, had jobs and appeared to take care of their properties.
That’s not to say that the block doesn’t have certain striking geographical features. The family houses on the West side of the street are nearly all occupied and owned by Hispanics. On the east side, after the yellow houses, there is a vacant lot and then there are two more homes, both of which are occupied by white tenants. The tension between the two sides of the street is obvious and palpable, and admitted readily by residents on both sides.
“They don’t like the way we live,” said Carlos Velasquez, owner of 88 West, a house located directly opposite the two white-occupied houses. He pointed across the street. “It’s because we’re out here on the porch all the time. But that’s Puerto Rican culture, man. We like to be out on the porch.”
Valerie Niederhoffer, a white woman who lives in one of those houses Velasquez was pointing to, explained her view on the matter when asked why she thought the city had chosen this particular block to launch Operation Clean Sweep. “I think they wanted to send a message,” she said. “They wanted to send a message that these people live in a city, that this is Buffalo, not some third world area, some zone protected by…”
“Poverty,” she concluded, taking a moment to choose the right word. All of these tensions would come to the surface when the Clean Sweep circus showed up last week, as both sides of the street differed sharply on what the city was doing there, why they had come, and, most notably, who was responsible for bringing the official parade to this particular spot.
* * *
IT DOESN’T TAKE a lot of digging to conclude that Clean Sweep’s official mandate does not make a whole lot of sense. It is being sold to the public a nothing more than an outreach program, designed to help clean up neighborhoods and assist residents with problems of home upkeep. But everywhere you look, you find the roots of the program in city and federal anti-drug operations.
The program was originally conceived by an organization called Save Our Streets, whose coordinator, Tiffany Perry, describes her agency as “a task force comprised of city, county, and federal agencies” whose “primary function is to deal with drug-dealing on residential properties.” Although she stopped short of calling Save our Streets a law enforcement task force, she conceded that law enforcement makes up a large part of the organization, and that it includes participation from the Buffalo Police, the Sheriff’s department, Parole and Probation officers, the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the District Attorney’s office.
It goes without saying that this is a strange collection of people to be worried about poor plumbing, unmowed laws, and building code violations.
I asked Perry why West Avenue in particular was chosen as the inaugural site for Clean Sweep.
“Well,” she said. “There’ve been a lot of complaints on that block.” About what?
“Well,” she said. “I deal with drugs. There have been a lot of complaints about drugs. And other complaints…”
I pointed out the apparent contradiction; you choose a place because there are complaints about drugs, and then you say you’re there to clean up yards and do fix-it work.
“Well,” she said. “That’s what we deal with. We deal with drugs. I get involved with other issues, but drugs are prevalent.”
A few minutes later, Perry backtracked, and insisted that there had been other complaints on the block, among other things concerns about the decrepit state of the vacant lot on the east side of the street. And when I asked her directly if it was reasonable to conclude that an operation launched by an organization whose primary mandate is about drug-dealing in homes, responding primarily to complaints about drug-dealing in homes, was in fact acting with the primary aim of doing something about drug-dealing in homes, she insisted that I had the wrong idea.
“This is a community outreach program. That’s all,” she said.
Then there was the other question. If this was not a law enforcement operation, why did it need to be a surprise?
“It has to be a surprise because…” she began. “If people know about it ahead of time, they…” She paused. “Well, it just works better as a surprise,” she concluded finally.
Then there is the question of the personnel makeup. It is obviously very difficult to understand the presence of U.S. Marshals and parole officers in terms of “community outreach.” When I asked Common Councilman Brian Davis, whose Ellicott district includes the West Ave. block, why there needed to be parole officers involved in the operation there, he appeared uncomfortable.
Davis, a black Council member who has only been in office for six months, seems in interviews to be a genuinely nice and well-meaning man who approves of the program on the whole, while being embarrassed by certain aspects of it. On the parole officer issue, Davis’s explanation was that the officers were there “to see if there were any of their…clients were there, and to ask them if they had any questions.”
It seems to me that if you have questions for your parole officer, you can ask them in your meetings with him–which, of course, if you are on parole, you have to go to.
When I asked Perry why parole officers and U.S. Marshals (whose normal law enforcement mandate in neighborhoods like this is usually confined to helping serve eviction notices and locating fugitives) had to be involved, she replied that they were there “to assist with security. These workers don’t know what they’re getting into in these neighborhoods.”
But if Buffalo police are already there, why do you need U.S. Marshals for security?
Perry answered that U.S. Marshals, being part of the task force, were unusually positioned to provide security for the operation as it continues in different regions of the city. The Buffalo police, on the other hand, are broken down into individual precincts, which makes it harder for the same officers to participate in the operation in different areas. In order to have officers with experience involved, she explained, it was convenient to make use of U.S. Marshals.
No fewer than six Hispanic West Ave residents that I relayed this explanation to had the same one-word response: “Bullshit.”
Beyond the holes in the official explanation for the operation, there was the actual operation itself, which resulted in a series of incidents that a majority of the street’s residents said were impossible to explain as “helping” and “assistance.” Among them:
- At 77 West Ave., Raul Hernandez said that police and inspectors entered his mother’s home even after his mother, who does not speak English, expressly told a Clean Sweep translator she did not want them to enter.
- Just across the street, Maria Avilez said that police asked her if she was planning to move, and asked her for the exact address of the location she was planning to move to.
- Jessica Ramirez said that police came to her door and asked for her by name, and then asked her to produce identification.
- Alicia Peres and Wilson Velasquez said that after inspectors entered their house on the pretext of checking the gas and power connections, they looked inside but never went into the basement, where the gas lines and the meters were located.
- Ten residents had their cable cut by Adelphia representatives, who were “helping out” by searching for illegal cable hookups.
There were other stories. According to Avilez, police chided her about what kind of food she was feeding her two and a half year-old child.
“They were like, hey, why are you feeding your kid an egg?” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean, who are these people to come in and tell me what to feed my children?”
Her neighbor, 19-year-old Erian Rivera, laughed at the story. “I don’t know what they eat in the suburbs, man, but we eat different food,” he said. “We eat red beans and rice. I don’t know what they want us to eat.”
Nearly everybody on the Hispanic side of the street had the same answer when asked what Clean Sweep was all about.
“They were looking for something,” said Rivera.
“They were looking for drugs or something,” said Gladys Polidura.
Oliveras: “They do this because they know Hispanic people have no power.” “They just wanted to take a look around, it’s all about the complaints from the other side of the street,” said Carlos Velasquez.
“They do this,” said 19-year-old Juan Olivera, “because Hispanic people don’t have a lot of power, and they know we can’t do much about it.”
Erian Rivera, left, and Juan Oliveras, right.
I told several people about Niederhoffer’s remark that the police were trying to send a message that this was “not the third world.”
“If this isn’t the third world,” said Jessica Ramirez, “then why are you violating my rights? This is America. You can’t do things like this. They say they’re helping people, they’re cutting cable and gas, and looking in people’s houses. It’s not right.”
* * *
AS IS OFTEN the case in stories like this, the gravest insult came not in the operation itself, but in the press coverage that followed it.
A day after the operation was concluded, The Buffalo News ran a story on the front page of the Metro section. Written by reporter Brian Meyer, the piece was entitled, amazingly, “Residents Praise Clean Sweep.” Here is the lead to that piece:
“Residents of the Lower West Side are praising a new program that aims to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods by attacking blight, housing violations, and other nuisances.”
After reading the piece carefully, I called Meyer with a question. I asked him if he had actually interviewed anyone at all who lived on the block that was the subject of Clean Sweep.
Meyer, who on the phone sounds like a dental hygienist, answered in a nasal voice that he had, indeed, interviewed a West side resident named Lucy Lopez. I’d already asked people on West about this Lucy Lopez. The typical response: “Who the fuck is Lucy Lopez?”
So I asked Meyer who Lucy Lopez was. As it turned out, she didn’t live on that block. She was just a resident of the area–not the street that had been visited.
After a painful five-minute conversation, Meyer eventually admitted that he had not interviewed a single person who actually lived on West Avenue, between Maryland and Virginia, or had been visited by police during Clean Sweep.
Most of the residents of the neighborhood, who sensibly do not read The Buffalo News as a rule, had not seen the article. But when I showed them Meyer’s piece, they were nearly all incredulous.
“It says what?” asked Sean Gonzalez.
I showed him the article. “Just read the headline. ‘Residents Praise Clean Sweep.’”
Gonzalez shook his head. “Lying-ass motherfucker,” he said.
The News never interviewed any “Residents” on West Ave.
I told him I’d compose a letter to the editor of The News on the neighborhood’s behalf, which would state that it might have been nice if the paper had actually interviewed any residents that had been subjects of Clean Sweep before concluding that they praised it. The next day, he and twelve others–everyone I could find on the West side of the street–signed it. Carlos Velasquez even added his social security number next to his signature. “Tell them that they can check up on me if they like,” he said.
* * *
CLEAN SWEEP might very well be legal, and fall short of the usual definition of an improper search. But one doesn’t need a lawyer to see that this is, to use the language of the neighborhood, some seriously fucked-up shit–and that the primary offense here was psychological, not legal.
Ask yourself how you’d feel if you woke up one morning, looked out the window, and saw an army of cops, marshals, dogcatchers, representatives of the utilities whose bills you might be late in paying, fire inspectors, parole officers, even the goddamn Mayor loitering outside your house. Then think about how you’d feel if one of them knocked on the door, and asked to come inside.
Even Councilman Davis admits that part of the purpose of Clean Sweep is to leave residents with lasting memories of this visually impressive spectacle.
“It gives folks something to think about,” he said. “If they are criminal-minded, criminal-elemented [sic], some of the individuals, I think it will make them think twice, because they don’t know when this is going to come.”
That’s “help”? That’s “assistance”? They have another name for it in most countries.
I asked Davis if he was aware that there have been other “Operation Clean Sweeps” in American history. One was a helicopter search-and-destroy mission in the Hau Nghia province of Vietnam in 1966; in that one, American pilots provided
cover while South Vietnamese troops bulldozed rural villages. Then there was the Indonesian Operation Clean Sweep of 1999, in which U.S.-trained members of the elite Kopassus unit of the Indonesian military entered regions of East Timor in disguise, and massacred sympathizers of the East Timor independence movement.
Not exactly the kinds of associations you want people to have when you’re talking about surprise visits by government officials with armed escorts into poor neighborhoods.
The original “Operation
“No kidding,” Davis said. “Maybe we should have called it ‘Clean Up.’ ” Maybe.
Everyone knows that there are problems in inner-city neighborhoods that need to be fixed. It’s how you go about fixing them that’s the issue.
Here’s how the city tried to fix economic depression downtown: it offered millions to help Adelphia cable build a new skyscraper.
Operation Clean Sweep is what they’ve thought up for poor neighborhoods. I’d be angry, too.