City Hall

Protect the Next Antoinette Brown, Then Worry About Protecting Dogs

I have been reading all of the responses to my column earlier in the week saying the city may need to start shooting stray dogs, including the comments suggesting I’m the one who should be shot, thank you very much. All I can conclude is that a whole lot of people out there are just totally divorced from and oblivious to the reality of life in the part of town where a woman was killed a week and a half ago.

Please. Don’t talk to me about dogs until after you tell me what you’re going to do about the people. I love dogs, but it makes me sick to my stomach to read people going on and on about them, not saying one word about Antoinette Brown, who was mauled by dogs May 2 on Rutledge Street in South Dallas, suffering horrific wounds of which she later died.

Tell me exactly what you intend to do to make sure that another Antoinette Brown never dies of a dog attack, and then we can talk about the dogs.

Let’s put a few honest cards on the table about Brown. Sarah Mervosh of The Dallas Morning News was castigated by readers for reporting in an early online version of her original story  that Brown had an arrest record including prostitution. Those facts were taken out of a later print version of the story. And, yeah, maybe in the old days that first version of the story would have been more suavely edited.

But Mervosh was telling us something important about Brown. What, that she was a bad person? Hell, no, that’s not the point. Brown was a street person, a homeless ghost with mental problems who slept in empty houses. She was also a mother whose daughter wept deeply over her loss. She had served in the military and tried to have a life.

She was a human being, but she was a human being who lived at the very hardest, dirtiest most bitter edge of this city that you and I shared with her. So tell me this, and don’t think about where you live. Think about where she lived:

If a human being is out begging for food as she did, cowering in the rough thickets that have grown over vacant lots during the day, slipping in and out of abandoned houses to sleep, how do you propose to protect her from the marauding packs of escaped dogs that regularly attack people in that neighborhood?

Or, wait? Some of you need to be honest with yourselves and honest with me. Were you about to tell me that she doesn’t deserve protection, that she needs to be a better person and live in a better neighborhood if she wants to be safe?

Are there human beings in your world who deserve to be mauled and killed by dogs, culled from the human herd as weaklings? If so, just say it.

Don’t get me wrong about Rutledge Street, by the way. Plenty of good hard-working people who keep their dogs on leashes and their property intact live in the South Dallas neighborhood all around there.

My wife and I were driving that area yesterday. Just down the street from the vacant lot where Brown was attacked we met James Dean, 20. He had his big black and white tail-wagging dog, Oreo, on a leash. He was walking with his grandmother Dorothy Harrison, 58.

They say Oreo adopted them, not the other way around, camping closer and closer to the house until a granddaughter named him, and then he was family. Now Oreo moves from his dog house at dusk to the front porch where he lies in front of the door all night to growl away mischief.

Ms. Harrison says the same dogs that killed Brown attacked another grandson earlier the same night, but he got away. “I tell my grandchildren to take a big stick with them when they go walking in case a dog comes after them,” she says, “and if the stick don’t stop that dog, I suggest they take a little pocket knife and cut him a little.”

Neither one of them likes my idea of shooting stray dogs when there is no other way to get them off the street. “Nobody deserves to be shot,” Dean says.

A greater challenge than the stray dogs, they tell me, is the stray people. A tumbledown house next to their own property is a hotel for crackheads and other homeless people. “I know they goes in there and smokes and stuff,” she tells me, “and they comes out at night.”

She didn’t know Brown, but when she heard about the attack she knew right away that Brown had to be homeless because Brown was walking the neighborhood in the early morning hours. People who have homes and doors to lock, dogs across the lintel to guard them — they don’t go out at night.

“No, sir,” she says. “Not at that hour.”
What’s most striking about the neighborhood, in fact, is not the forested vacant lots strewn with trash or the rotting houses down on their knees. It’s the pretty houses with close-cropped lawns and fresh paint, stiff-shouldered and proud in spite of the absolute hell-to-pay going on all around them.

Think what kind of resolve and effort that takes, to stake your claim, keep your house and make your life in the midst of marauding dogs, gun-wielding dope dealers and night-shuffling zombies. I think of S.C. Gwynne’s wonderful book Empire of the Summer Moon — the incredible saga of the Texas settlers who stood their ground against the Comanche onslaught. Those tidy houses and tight little churches in South Dallas should fill all our hearts with pride.

But then we also have to think about the very weakest people, the lost people, the human beings like Antoinette Brown who wander frightened and hungry day and night on the outer borders of that tough little world. Are they not still human? Are they literally to be left to the dogs? Why?

Sharon Grigsby, editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News, is a person whose writing I respect and take seriously, and I can tell that she, too, is filled with anguish, as I am, by what happened to Brown and by the stray dog question. But she winds up in the same place many of my own angriest commenters have, insisting that the answer is for city employees to go out and make dog owners behave better:

“I want to hear how the city will make people obey simple laws such as keeping their animals in fences,” she wrote yesterday.

I know that Grigsby knows the city and is not naïve. I, too, would love to hear how city employees are going to solve the dog problem without first solving the problems of total social, moral and economic entropy from which the dog problem springs and of which it is a merely visible and even superficial symptom. I think the city employee who figures that one out needs to be the next president.

I find myself coming back to the same starting point over and over. Tell me first if you think it is our obligation as a city to protect Antoinette Brown from death by dogs. If not, well, you and I are out of business and there’s no reason for us to keep talking. 

But if it is our obligation to protect her, tell me how we do it. Be sure not to forget the part about the total social entropy. Don’t just tell me it’s some city employee’s job. Tell me how the city employee is supposed to do that job.

You can fine people and put liens on their property, if they own it, all day long. If they’re the kind of people who let vicious pit bulls roam among neighborhood children, you will never see a nickel from them.

You want to lock them up? OK. You do know that we have an awful lot of people locked up already, right? But go ahead. And then tell me how that will change their personal culture or their values.

And, by the way, how long will this take? When will the dogs be off the street? You do realize that charges against the people who may have owned the dogs that attacked Brown have not yet been filed because the police are waiting for DNA evidence.

Oh, my God, DNA evidence! Do you know how long that takes or how much it costs?

Do you want to trap all the bad dogs? Yeah, sure, but be sure to hire Davy Crockett, because trapping wild dogs is a lot harder and takes a lot more time than you may think.

If the dogs are out there at four in the morning, and if the police see them running in a pack, and if the police have a report that dogs that look just like these are attacking people in this same vicinity, then why should the police not kill them?

Tell me. Under those circumstances, how do you protect the dogs and why do you want to protect the dogs if you cannot protect Antoinette Brown?

Dean, whom my wife and I met on Rutledge Street, disagrees with me. “I might get me a stick and pop 'em in the face,” he says, “but I wouldn’t want to see them shot.”

I would. The problem needs to be resolved now, fast, and no one has suggested a single other way to do it that has any credibility. Shoot them.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze