Last week I got into a flame war on the blogs with Rudy Bush and Tod Robberson. They are editorial writers for The Dallas Morning News. We were arguing about the very controversial Jim's Car Wash in South Dallas, target of legislative investigations, police mobilizations and endless City Hall politics for more than a decade.
When I caught my breath, it occurred to me that Bush, Robberson and I were all probably having a pretty good time. Mud rasslin' is what we're paid to do, after all. It also occurred to me that something very important gets lost when the mud rasslers are busy putting on their show. I thought of Tomekia Jones.
I first met Jones, who is 33, and her mother, Wanda Joyce James, who is 55, a year ago when I was working on a story about people in South Dallas considered "not in the labor force" by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS says they are not technically unemployed, because they haven't had a regular job in a long time and are not looking for one. But they don't have jobs. They work, though.
Most of the people I interviewed who were in that status had criminal records that made it impossible for them to be hired by most companies. Companies say they can't get workplace insurance if they knowingly hire ex-cons. It's a trap that leaves millions of Americans fenced out of mainstream society for life just as effectively as if they were still in prison. Many of them return to crime.
Tomekia Jones declined to discuss her personal history with me when I met her. She was one of dozens of tough hearty souls I met on the streets of South Dallas who were making it anyway, finding a way to get income without breaking the law. She and her mother were doing it by putting in hard seven-day weeks at Jim's Car Wash cleaning other people's cars.
She told me: "Speaking for myself, and I can speak for some of these others as well, we are out here trying to work and make an honest living. We don't have to steal. We don't have to rob. We are out here working."
Her mother said, "I got everything to pay, food and everything. But I'm blessed. God blessed me with everything that I need, and I thank God for it. I don't suffer from nothing. I thank God for what he give me, and that's the miracle of being alive."
Last Sunday as I was leaving the car wash after reporting on a story there, Jones and I spotted each other in traffic. She backed up and rolled her window down. I wanted to know if she was one of the car washers targeted recently by police. She said yes. She agreed to return to the car wash with me to talk.
This is the real heart of what Bush, Robberson and I were flaming each other about. The car wash is a kind of social center where people who live in South Dallas gather, especially on weekends, to wash cars, eat barbecue, show off rims and generally have a good time. Black people. There are no white people at these events except for the owner of the car wash, Dale Davenport.
The mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings, has been frank with me in describing the car wash as a place that he thinks is frightening for people who use Martin Luther King Boulevard as the main approach to Fair Park and events held there. He believes there is a better and higher use for the property. He has been working through community leadership in South Dallas to find that use and a new owner.
Davenport and his father, Freddy Davenport, don't want to sell. They say the car wash is profitable for them. As the only white people along that whole stretch of MLK, they have no connections among black elected officials, but they are personally popular with the black, mainly poor populace who live nearby.
Initially Rawlings considered the use of eminent domain to get the land away from the Davenports, but he backed off quickly when he realized eminent domain is political poison in South Dallas. He told me he had been advised by the city attorney he could accomplish the same outcome through use of the city's nuisance ordinances.
That requires establishing a record of infractions to show that the car wash is a nuisance. Under the ordinance, once the city can deem the property a nuisance it can withdraw the car wash's zoning and shut down the Davenports' business.
That is what was going on that Sunday afternoon. It is what has been going on for months. Bush and Robberson are under the impression that repeated massive police mobilizations, including the barricading of the whole property, are aimed at routing out drug trafficking. But there have been only three drug arrests on the property in six years.
Meanwhile the mayor told me at the beginning of all this that he had asked Police Chief David Brown to mount a massive undercover operation at the car wash, and he said Brown had declined, explaining to him that there is not enough drug activity at the car wash to justify that use of resources.
So what have the cops been doing down there all this time, with enough police cars, wagons, dogs and other equipment to quell a major riot? They have been writing tickets charging people like Tomekia Jones with the crime of "solicitation" for washing people's cars for money.
Police cite a specific city ordinance forbidding solicitation at a car wash as justification for their campaign. The ordinance defines solicitation as "to ask, beg, solicit, or plead, whether orally or in a written or printed manner, for the purpose of receiving contributions, alms, charity, or gifts of items of value for oneself or another person."
I ran this definition by Joseph P. Berra, an attorney with the respected Civil Rights Project in Austin, and explained to him the ticketing at the car wash. He said, "That definition does not include offering services or labor for sale. The purpose of 'solicitation' is to receive 'contributions, alms, charity or gifts ...'
"If you pay me to wash your car," Berra said, "that is not a gift, alm, charity or contribution. That's the same as paying me to mow your lawn, clean your house or perform any other service. Hiring yourself out to wash the car is not solicitation under this definition."
There is another even more pointed problem with the tickets. Even if a person is begging, not offering to do labor, the Dallas ordinance states that it's not against the law to beg at a car wash if the car wash owner gives the beggar permission. The Davenports not only give the people who come to wash cars at their car wash permission to do so, they encourage them, because the car washers are what draws in the traffic.
City Attorney Warren Ernst last week ignored my request for clarification on use of the ordinance against car washers. I have not been able to determine yet whether anyone actually winds up paying a fine for one of these tickets, which can be as high as $500. These are very poor people who do not have access to lawyers. Some of them have told me there is a program at the Martin Luther King Community Center where they are allowed to work off their fines with street labor for the city.
No one who could afford a lawyer would pay a dime or do a minute's labor for the city for one of these tickets. The tickets are toilet paper. But the people who get them don't know that. They just know it's cops. It's city paper. It's trouble.
Tomekia Jones climbed out of her tidy late-model car and listened to my question. She said that she had received two tickets for solicitation at the car wash while washing cars there. She said she was extremely worried about possible fines, which she thought could be between $200 and $400. But she said the worst part was just getting the ticket.
"That lady [police officer] said, 'Sit on this curb' [pointing to the curb along MLK]. She had me sit on this curb right here, traffic going and coming. This was very embarrassing. I'm serious, because I know quite a few people. It was like I was in the news."
While she talked to me Jones rummaged through her car for the latest ticket. "She had me here for probably about 45 minutes to an hour," she said. "There were four or five others. It was not just me.
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"Finally she said, 'Miss Jones, I'm going to give you a ticket.' I said, 'For what?' She said, 'Soliciting at a car wash.'"
At this point Jones found the ticket and waved it at me, reading it with tears in her eyes: "It says, 'asking for money at a self service car wash.' At no time did one of them police see me ask anybody for money."
That's the bite of it for Jones. She and her mother stand in the broiling sun at the car wash and wash cars seven days a week so that they will never have to beg for money or, worse, steal money, get caught and have their dignity stripped from them in jail. Washing cars, working, is dignity. She works hard for her dignity. What brings tears to the eyes of this very tough lady is having a cop call her a beggar.
That's what gets lost in all of the show-off flaming on the blogs, my own included. That is what should bring tears of shame to all of our eyes — that poor, strong people striving for the dignity of work get chewed up and spat out by the monstrous teeth of our greed and our vanity.