FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Burned at the Stake for Being Poor

by RON JACOBS

One of the places I lived at in Berkeley, California in the 1970s was owned by the biggest landlord in the part of California known as the Eastbay.  He owned buildings in the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, El Cerrito and Albany.  In addition, his property management company was responsible for hundreds more buildings.  While my friends and I lived in this particular apartment, the citizens of Berkeley passed a Rent Control Ordinance that was fiercely opposed by the landlords in the city, especially ours.  In response to the new law that prevented landlords from raising rents without approval from the Rent Control Board (where tenants and tenant activists had the majority), our landlord stopped making repairs on many of his properties.  In response, the tenants in our building began withholding rent.  This was also one of the law’s provisions.  This went on for more than six months.  Meanwhile, properties that were in worse shape than ours was came awfully close to being uninhabitable.  In Oakland, where there was no rent control ordinance, a small child whose family rented an apartment from our landlord died in a fire related to this state of disrepair.  Despite efforts by some church and community groups in Oakland, no charges were filed against the landlord.  In addition, the child’s family lost their place to live.

I remembered this incident while reading Joe Allen’s newest book People Wasn’t Made To Burn.    The story therein is of a man, James Hickman, who loses two of his children in a fire that was almost certainly set by his landlord as a means of chasing the tenants from the building so that he could increase his income.  At the time of the fire, the living conditions were already unsafe and unhealthy, yet greed compelled by the desire to increase profit rendered any concerns about this irrelevant.  His children’s deaths eventually drove Mr. Hickman into such depths of depression that he killed the landlord.  After seeing justice for his children’s death denied by the system, Hickman saw no other course but to administer his own.  The murder of the landlord inspired a movement to defend Mr. Hickman and change the nature of rental housing in Chicago.  Allen takes this tragic story and renders it into a chilling narrative that reads like a novel.  Simultaneously, Allen’s description of the efforts undertaken by socialists and others in Hickman’s defense read like an organizing primer.

It was the presence of socialists and other like-minded folks that made sure that the movement against the prosecution of Hickman was bigger than Hickman or his act.  Under the direction of these activists, the movement around Hickman’s defense became an indictment of a system that let slumlords get away with murder. During the period that this story takes place there were  so-called covenant laws that forbade blacks from renting in certain neighborhoods, thereby allowing unscrupulous landlords to charge exorbitant rents for buildings they did not even attempt to maintain.  This aspect of legal institutional racism endangered the poor, especially African-Americans.

Furthermore, it was the system of profit that encouraged landlords to let their properties slip into dangerous disrepair while overcharging their tenants. It was also the system of profit that encouraged corruption amongst the very officials hired to guarantee safe living conditions. As labor leader Willoughby Abner told a rally on the opening day of Hickman?s trial: “The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures.”  Indeed, it is that system that continues to insure that abuses like this continue to this day.

Allen has written a masterpiece of historical narrative.  The story of James Hickman and his family is an emotionally wrought story on its own. Allen’s retelling leaves none of that emotion out.  Although it is history he is writing down, the manner of the telling makes that history as current as the latest breaking news.  The book is further enhanced by the inclusion of artist Ben Shahn’s illustrations reprinted from a 1947 Harper’s magazine feature about the Hickman case.  Allen ends his story with a description of a 2010 fire in Cicero, Illinois, which is right outside of Chicago.  There were no fire escapes in the building and it was overcrowded.  The people who lived there were violating occupancy laws because they could not afford separate apartments.  That fire killed seven people and was found to be deliberately set by the landlord and his maintenance man.  This time around the authorities were able to get an  indictment of the men responsible for the deaths.  In fact, the prosecution intends to seek the death penalty.  However, the system that Willoughby Abner said “failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans” continues to force people to live in unsafe living conditions while making it likely that unscrupulous landlords will continue to choose profits over the safety of those who rent from them.  Indeed, it will continue to make it likely that certain landlords would rather burn their properties than take care of them.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

 

 

 

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up (Bad News for Keystone XL)
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
Rob Urie
Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
Ben Debney
Outrage From the Imperial Playbook
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Michael J. Sainato
Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor Shreds Trumponomics
Lawrence Davidson
Moral Failure at the UN
Pete Dolack
World Bank Declares Itself Above the Law
Nicola Perugini - Neve Gordon
Israel’s Human Rights Spies
Patrick Cockburn
From Paris to London: Another City, Another Attack
Ralph Nader
Reason and Justice Address Realities
Ramzy Baroud
‘Decolonizing the Mind’: Using Hollywood Celebrities to Validate Islam
Colin Todhunter
Monsanto in India: The Sacred and the Profane
Louisa Willcox
Grizzlies Under the Endangered Species Act: How Have They Fared?
Norman Pollack
Militarization of American Fascism: Trump the Usurper
Pepe Escobar
North Korea: The Real Serious Options on the Table
Brian Cloughley
“These Things Are Done”: Eavesdropping on Trump
Sheldon Richman
You Can’t Blame Trump’s Military Budget on NATO
Carol Wolman
Trump vs the People: a Psychiatrist’s Analysis
Stanley L. Cohen
The White House . . . Denial and Cover-ups
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises
Farhang Jahanpour
America’s Woes, Europe’s Responsibilities
Joseph Natoli
March Madness Outside the Basketball Court
Bill Willers
Volunteerism; Charisma; the Ivy League Stranglehold: a Very Brief Trilogy
Bruce Mastron
Slaughtered Arabs Don’t Count
Ayesha Khan
The Headscarf is Not an Islamic Compulsion
Pauline Murphy
Unburied Truth: Exposing the Church’s Iron Chains on Ireland
Ron Jacobs
Music is Love, Music is Politics
Christopher Brauchli
Prisoners as Captive Customers
Robert Koehler
The Mosque That Disappeared
Franklin Lamb
Update from Madaya
Dan Bacher
Federal Scientists Find Delta Tunnels Plan Will Devastate Salmon
Barbara Nimri Aziz
The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?
Louis Proyect
What Caused the Holodomor?
Max Mastellone
Seeking Left Unity Through a Definition of Progressivism
Charles R. Larson
Review: David Bellos’s “Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables”
David Yearsley
Ear of Darkness: the Soundtracks of Steve Bannon’s Films
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail