Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Burned at the Stake for Being Poor


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:




Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 20, 2016
Eric Draitser
Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Extreme Unction: Illusions of Democracy in Vegas
Binoy Kampmark
Digital Information Warfare: WikiLeaks, Assange and the US Presidential Elections
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Bogus History Lesson
Bruce Mastron
Killing the Messenger, Again
Anthony DiMaggio
Lesser Evil Voting and Prospects for a Progressive Third Party
Ramzy Baroud
The Many ‘Truths’ on Syria: How Our Rivalry Has Destroyed a Country
David Rosen
Was Bill Clinton the Most Sexist President?
Laura Carlsen
Plan Colombia, Permanent War and the No Vote
Aidan O'Brien
Mao: Monster or Model?
David Swanson
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Less Than Two Weeks
Victor Grossman
Suicides and Hopes and Fears
October 19, 2016
Dan Schiller – Shinjoung Yeo
The Silicon Valley Candidate
Mike Whitney
Trump Unchained
Paul Buhle
Criminalizing the Struggle: Incarceration and the Rise of the Neoliberal State
Linn Washington Jr.
Abusing the Abused: Philly Police Abuse Case Typifies All-Too-Common Misconduct by US Prosecutors
Terry Tempest Williams - Brooke Williams
Rejected by the BLM
Binoy Kampmark
Neither War Nor Peace: Shimon Peres, Israel and History
Patrick Cockburn
This Battle for Mosul Will Not Be the Last
Joyce Nelson
Trudeau Bullying on Trade Deal
Thomas Mountain
Revolutionary Islam and Regime Change in Ethiopia
Serge Halimi – Benoît Bréville
The Limits of Eloquence: the Failures of Barack Obama
Mel Gurtov
America’s Dangerous Moment
Jerry Kroth
Questions for Obama Before Leaving Office
Michael Garrity
America is a Nation of Laws: Collaboration and Its Discontents
October 18, 2016
Srećko Horvat
The Cyber-War on Wikileaks
Zoltan Grossman
Stop the Next President From Waging the Next War
Jim Kavanagh
Hillary’s Hide-and-Seek
Robert Fisk
After Mosul Falls, ISIS will Flee to Syria. Then What?
Ted Rall
The 4 Things Hillary Could Do To Close the Deal Against Trump
Pepe Escobar
Why Hillary Clinton is a Bigger Concern for China than Donald Trump
Colin Todhunter
World Wide Fund for Nature: Stop Greenwashing Capitalism, Start Holding Corporations to Account
David Macaray
Whiskey Workers Go on Strike: I’ll Drink to That
James A Haught
After the Election, Back to Important Things
Arturo Desimone
How a Selective Boycott Can Boost External Support for Palestinians
Russell Mokhiber
If Chris Wallace Asks About Street Crime He Should Also Ask About Corporate Crime
Mark Kernan
Moloch in Paris: on the Anniversary of COP21
Carol Dansereau
The Hillary Push: Manipulation You Can Believe In
Andre Vltchek
Will They Really Try to Kill the President of the Philippines?
Sean Joseph Clancy
The Wreckage of Matthew: Cuba and Haiti
October 17, 2016
Paul Street
Pick Your Poison? Presidential Politics and Planetary Prospects
Patrick Cockburn
US Allies are Funding ISIS (and Hillary Knew All Along)
David Swanson
What Hillary Clinton Privately Told Goldman Sachs
Fran Shor
A Rigged System?