Hollow victory

Just off Sylvan Avenue along Muncie Avenue is the West Dallas neighborhood of used-to-be. Looking at it today gives some glimpses of its very recent past.

There was a time when the neighborhood had the trappings of community. Houses were fixed up, painted in the bright colors of the African-American diaspora. There were murals on fences, animals in pens, and a sense of belonging that was cultivated like a patch of green among concrete.

It's gone now. The murals are peeling or covered with graffiti. The once-rehabilitated houses are dilapidated. Weeds have reclaimed the yards.

"I don't have anything now," says Carlos Jackson. "The houses are all falling down; they have been vandalized. It's all gone now."

Jackson, 34, and his wife, Dana, 27, tried to revitalize this tiny neighborhood, creating an Afrocentric village called The Compound. For their efforts, they incurred the wrath of city code inspectors and police officers for four years.

The couple sued, asking that the city stop its discriminatory treatment of them. In September, more than a year after they filed suit, a judge gave them what they wanted.

Chief U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer ruled that the city was guilty of bad faith and discriminatory prosecution against the Jacksons. In an opinion handed down September 22, Buchmeyer wrote that the city's concerted efforts to cite the couple amounted to a paper pogrom.

"This court specifically finds...that there has been an orchestrated, concerted effort to use the city processes to maliciously injure the Jacksons and drive them out of the neighborhood," Buchmeyer wrote. "The evidence also establishes that the wrongful prosecutions of the Jacksons were due to bad faith or discrimination, not mistakes."

Buchmeyer enjoined the city from prosecuting any other cases pending against Jackson in municipal court and from conducting further harassment. The Jacksons also are entitled to restitution of all fines and costs they have paid over the years and the elimination of those citations from city records.

City Attorney Sam Lindsay disagrees with Buchmeyer's opinion. He says that the city acted well within its rights in pursuing the Jacksons.

"You can take the facts and read what you want to," Lindsay says.
When the city was wrong, his office did drop cases against Jackson, Lindsay explains. But in the majority of cases, the city was doing what it was supposed to do.

"One thing the record fails to reveal is that when I visited with [Jackson's] counsel...we dismissed a number of cases when the evidence was insufficient at that time."

According to court records, the city filed 108 separate municipal court cases against Carlos Jackson between 1993 and the trial in 1997. These citations ranged from mundane offenses--such as keeping a peacock or not having visible house numbers--to the absurd, such as having a dead horse on the property (which turned out to be unfounded) and citations for property that did not even exist. Of those 108 cases, the city received only five guilty verdicts; 62 were dismissed (five were dismissed more than once, the judge notes). Jackson pleaded no contest to 10 cases, and in one he was acquitted. The 30 cases still pending against Jackson the judge ordered dismissed.

Buchmeyer says the Jacksons were singled out for prosecution. The Jacksons, who are black, were often given mere hours to fix code violations, while many of the absentee landlords in the neighborhood, who are white, would be given months to fix violations. In fact, while conditions similar to those Jackson was cited for existed on other properties, none of those landowners was subjected to the systematic harassment the Jacksons were, Buchmeyer wrote.

"There is no legitimate reason for the difference in treatment the city accorded to the Jacksons and to the white property-owners in the area," Buchmeyer wrote.

The ordeal started in 1993 when the Jacksons began to turn their little neighborhood into an Afrocentric village. They asked for and received permission from an absentee landlord, Alan Goodstein, to rehabilitate some of his properties in exchange for use of them. The couple got others in the neighborhood interested in the cleanup. Weekends would find neighbors outside painting, picking up trash, and working.

The Jacksons kept a small menagerie of animals in a vacant lot nearby; at one point it included six horses, a peacock, and a few goats. Jackson says he always got permission from the landowners to use their properties. The goal, the couple said at the time, was to build a self-sufficient village.

"We were just expressing ourselves," Jackson says. "We had our culture everywhere."

That culture caught the attention of city code inspectors, particularly John Dale, who testified that he was assigned to the Jackson properties by the police department. The police had a zero-tolerance campaign against Jackson. In fact, one police officer wrote on a code enforcement citation that Jackson was "a known drug dealer." At the time, Jackson was facing a felony charge for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana.

"The city's attempt to justify its treatment of Carlos Jackson by trying to characterize him as a 'suspected drug dealer' borders on the ridiculous," Buchmeyer wrote. "Although the city did not explicitly argue that the suspicions of its police officers that Jackson was a drug dealer justified the treatment accorded to Jackson, it certainly attempted to smear Jackson as a criminal."

Jackson says it was after his plight was reported by the Dallas Observer in June 1995 ["Can't go home again"] that he and his wife decided to take legal action. Up until then, he hadn't realized that, for example, he was being prosecuted two and three times for offenses that had been dismissed earlier.

"I was going to court over and over again for the same cases, only I didn't realize it," Jackson says. "Here is a system you think someone would do right by you, and they weren't."

Buchmeyer's opinion singled out code inspector Dale particularly. He characterized Dale as a liar whose incomplete and shoddy citations were the underpinning of the city's harassment of Jackson. In court, Dale admitted that he lied about a number of the citations he brought against Jackson, including nine charges of Jackson being the owner of certain properties, the number of animals the couple kept, and the amount of time he gave Jackson to fix his defects. Dale, who no longer works for the city, could not be reached for comment.

Buchmeyer wrote that many of the citations Dale issued against Jackson show "frivolous and nonsensical statements as well as the conspicuous absence of vital information." One example cited was a complaint alleging that Jackson had a fence that exceeded "blank feet above grade." Another complaint said Jackson "did knowingly permit litter to wit: insufficient info to draft a complaint..."

"[N]umerous complaints filed against Jackson were groundless," Buchmeyer wrote, "because there could be no possible probable cause--such as complaints involving nonexistent addresses and nonsensical allegations..."

Lindsay says the city will appeal Buchmeyer's decision.
"I think the city has to appeal," he says. "This is not the first time this court has ruled adversely against the city and has had to be corrected later. That's all I really need to say on this."

Jackson finds his victory without sweetness. While it is nice that someone within the system acknowledges that the couple has been unnecessarily singled out, the city still won, he says. The Afrocentric village is gone, along with Jackson's will to fight.

"They did break my spirit," Jackson says. "I didn't win any money or anything. I'm still out the money for the houses I fixed up. All that I've gone through, and where it is today? I feel bad. I feel empty. I feel betrayed.


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