Mayor Carl Officer

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Mayor Carl Officer

 

City's ship is coming in

                        ...and it's a gambling ship

 

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Mayor Carl Officer sees himself as a black Winston Churchill

defending his island against the 'Nazi Democratic Party'

 

Despite his slim athletic body and his tender 37 years, Mayor Carl Officer sees himself as a black. Winston Churchill, a bulldog if you will, defending his island against the Nazis. The Nazis in his mind's eye, are the St. Clair County Democratic Party and the lawyers who support it.

There even is an Afrika Korps, he said, comprising the Democratic precinct committeemen that are part of the "Nazi Democratic Party," and the Korps has a Rommel; "Their Rommel is Oliver Hendricks (chairman pro-tem of the East St. Louis City Council), only he isn't the desert fox, he's the desert rat."

Having said all that, and more, Officer claims that for the last two years he has been more careful about what he says.

Things are going to change. The city's ship is going to come in - and it's a gambling ship, with the city's share of the take coming off the top. It will bring with it, in Officer's vision, in addition to $4 million to $7 million a year in gaming revenue, tourism and spinoff jobs, and the poor blacks won't have to go to their precinct committeemen for their five or ten dollars on election day. And the city will be able to provide better services to citizens.

"The party's going to be over, and the boys in Belleville know it. They have consistently maintained control by keeping people on general assistance rolls. By keeping these staunch cutthroats called Democratic committeemen ... the majority of them can't read or write past the second grade level ... they are some of the biggest bunch of cheesy hustlers I've ever seen in my life." Officer said that in three elections he never had dealt with the committeemen and won without them, because the people do not respect them.

Mayor Officer sees himself as the people's champion against racism and old-time politics that he said are responsible for the city's bonded debts. And he sees himself fighting against immense odds but sees some signs that he could be winning the battle. The most hopeful sign, he says, is that well-educated affluent middle age and younger black people are moving back to East St. Louis. There is some reversal of the black flight for a variety for reasons. Some come back to make a statement about their city and their unwillingness to give up, some because they think they can make a difference, some to take care of parents or businesses. Some because they are tired of the stress of coping with racism in a few integrated communities, with the schools, police, city officials, or with crosses burned in their yards; but racism doesn't have to be all that overt to be felt, to be experienced.

There are those who would have you believe that the people of East St. Louis have lost heart, have accepted things as they are as the best they can be, and are determined to live with the situation. "I think they have miscalculated two things: my leadership and the will and desire of the people. The people in East St. Louis don't have any false images about Mayor Officer. They know he's just as human as anybody else. They don't mind beating up on me, but they sure as hell don't like somebody else coming from outside beating up on me. I think that is what they miscalculated on. I also believe the people do not and will not accept mediocrity and things remaining the way they are. They will demand change, they have a firm resolve."

At the time of this interview, Officer still was opposing demands of the state for a state-appointed fiscal officer reporting to a state-appointed committee as the price tag for a $34 million state bailout.

"This bailout plan ... I've heard only two persons tell me 'Take the deal,' and those two are Sen. (Kenneth) Hall and chairman pro-tem of the council, Oliver Hendricks.". He said he had met with 45 leading pastors of churches and every head of every civic and social clubs in two public hearings, a total of 110 people, and, videotaped the sessions to prove they were not orchestrated. And Officer said they told him, "We haven't supported you on everything in the past, but on this one, don't give away the city."

Lashing out at Hendricks and Hall for supporting the bailout, he said "The difference between Kenny Hall and Oliver Hendricks and Judas is Judas did his betrayal of Christ out of love, he didn't want Him to be harmed when he turned Him over to the Romans. Kenny Hall and Oliver Hendricks are leading us as some of the merchants on the Ivory Coast did, sending their brothers to ships bound for the New World, and they knew what was going to happen to them."

(Eventually Mayor Officer supported the bill, with assurances that the city would be free to manage its own day-to-day finances.)

What is the general image of the city? What can Officer say to whites who fled the city and look back at their former property and ask, "What have they done to my city, my property?"

A false image was portrayed by 60 Minutes in the TV program's presentation on East St. Louis. "They didn't show anything that wasn't true," Officer said. "But they boiled down 4-1/2 weeks of filming into an approximately 13-minute piece. They gave the impression that all the people of East St. Louis were capable of doing was producing young men who could play football. Nothing else positive was presented."

East St. Louis High School had a proud football heritage when segregation was in force and no blacks were at the high school, he recalled.

On the other hand, the East Side chess team is a state master team; it and academic and artistic achievements are overlooked.

Officer stressed the close relationship of his family with the Kruta's Bakery family. The bakery used to be on north Ninth Street. He talked about how he liked to go into the bakery early in the morning and enjoy all the aromas of fresh baked goods. "I'm sure they wonder what happened to their neighborhood."

A variety of things happened, he said. The school system began to deteriorate in a lot of different ways. "In 1970, May 26, I graduated from high school. The assessed valuation of East St. Louis then was $169 million. It was still predominantly white. In 1979, May 6, I became mayor, and the assessed valuation was $38 million, and the town overwhelmingly black."

The white flight was followed by a black flight. The city dropped in population from about 86,000 to 40,000. Some people worked hard to maintain their property. "But with the highest tax rate in the state and high insurance costs, for many it was all they could do to hold onto their property, much less maintain it as they should. There were vacant buildings, burn-outs, coming from the social changes that any urban area experiences when there is a flight of jobs."

In some cases, he said, residents were victimized by local government in programs such as weatherization of homes. He said he discharged employees who used "rehab dollars" for friends and relatives and who accepted kickbacks from contractors. "And I am sure these things go on in the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department and in St. Louis and other places."

He said that the white flight was accompanied by a flight of industry to the Sunbelt and the closing of obsolete heavy industry. He estimated that 25,000 Jobs were lost in the East St. Louis area (between about 1945 and 1975.) He cited the railroads, National Stock Yards and its packing plants, industry in and around East St. Louis such as Obear Nester Glass Co., American Steel, Aluminum Ore, two breweries at 18th and Broadway...

Then there is the sewer system. The surface water system handles all the runoff from as far away as Highland, and including Fairview Heights and Belleville. "Water runs downhill. Every time they put in a parking lot or a new complex, more water runs into our system. Not only are we charged with handling it, but it erodes."

For 76 years blood, hair and other debris from the packinghouses in National City ran through part of the city's sewer system. There were tremendous amounts of chemicals from Pfizer or truck cleaning, and from E. J. Dougherty flushing through a system 90 years old. " It was not flushed when the packing plants closed. The city sewer maps are inadequate and sewers are not where they are thought to be. And it is documented that there was no maintenance of the Army Corps of Engineers levees for 35 years. On Oct. 8, 1986 that came home to roost when the pumps completely collapsed and a third of the city was under water. "That wasn't a flood, it was a man made disaster." Flood relief was refused, and a third of our city was under water, people's lives overturned."

Mayor Officer was interrupted by a dozen phone calls as he ate at his lunch during this interview. One call was from State Rep. Wyvetter Younge from the House floor; she put someone else on to talk about financing a project. Officer said he had some entrepreneurs eager to finance it, and they sounded better than the Southwestern Development Authority; "I call that the Ku Klux Man Development Authority."

A park commissioner was introduced, and we were told that water would be turned on in the Jones Park swimming pool June 22. The city alternates between the Lincoln Park Pool, which had water last year, and Jones Park, Officer said, because the water bill is $200,000 a year. (Actually, because of needed repairs, only the Lincoln Park pool is filled. See Leonard Johnston interview.)

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What about the old buildings awaiting demolition? Even the new city hall is surrounded by the vacant old police headquarters, two buildings formerly used for city halls and the old election board offices. The Southern Illinois National Bank and the Union Electric Co. buildings now stand empty with broken windows. What image do they portray? How can you project the image of a successful city among the signs of decay'?

"I would not dispute what your eyes see," Officer said. It's like the old saying about the pessimist and the optimist, whether you see a glass half empty or half full. When he drives to work he sees the new addition to the back of the old federal building, and he thinks about the 17 months it took to get it there. He thinks about what it took to get the new city hall finished five years ago (and adds candidly it will look like the old city hall in two years if maintenance isn't improved). He thinks about the miles and miles of streets that he fought to get funding to renew, and declares that the state is illegally witholding motor fuel tax funds until it recoups funds it says were illegally diverted.

What really is happening here, Officer said, is that the city has been denied any help from St. Clair County. There is a county park department, a county health department, and the county clerk administers elections, but there also is an East St. Louis Board of Elections, an East St. Louis Park District, an East Side Health District. East St. Louisans pay taxes to the county but have to run their own departments under antiquated laws, he said. "They should abolish the East Side Health District, the East St. Louis Board of Elections that is my point. We have not come together to get this burden off of us and ask for professionalism in terms of services." (See John Baricevic article for agreement.)

Officer cited traffic problems and accidents, and said he asked for state police help in patrolling East St. Louis. The city gets 135,000 cars a day across the bridges, he said, and easily could average 14-15 accidents per 24-hour period. The city has more interstates than any other city in the state outside Chicago. An accident on the interstate requires the courtesy truck and at least three policemen, not counting those used for traffic diversion on ramps. "To keep our policemen on the interstate would just lock us up," he said. Normally 10 policemen can handle all the other calls the city receives. But when six or seven are diverted for an accident... He queried the police dispatcher using a speaker phone. She responded that as of June 14 the city had received 15,046 calls.

The city has 66 policemen, "still more than the sheriff's department." In addition to the city's population they must deal with the through traffic, 14,000 commuters who work in the city, and on Friday and Saturday, 11,000 in the entertainment districts, he said. The policemen work under difficult circumstances. "The council talks about hiring more policemen, more firemen, but there's no money - let's get back to who really runs St. Clair County's Democratic Nazi party, the lawyers. Shakespeare was absolutely right when he said to kill all the lawyers.

"In 1986, the city collected $475,000 in traffic fines. Last year we collected $48,000. So far this year (in June) I have only $8,000." Officer said he didn't think traffic offenses had decreased, but rather the judges are "giving credit for time served in the East St. Louis jail" against fines, and that no one spends more than an hour or two before he is taken to court. "The officers get out and write tickets, and the judge dismisses 25 cases. They get frustrated and wonder why they should bother making arrests."

This fine money is used for police overtime, for other departments, to buy tickets to the pool for the most underprivileged children, sending kids to camp.

When East St. Louis blacks get outside the socalled safe boundaries of their own town, they feel harassed by police. But when arrests are made here, they are thrown out. He showed a report that a black East St. Louis woman was arrested in Belleville for failure to have a driver's license. She should have been arrested, but the policeman didn't know she didn't have a license until after he stopped her. She was delivering lunch to her mother who has a day job. The policeman said she resisted arrest and kicked him with both feet. She was eight months pregnant and had her hands handcuffed behind her back at the time. "Not many pregnant women can kick with both feet with their hands handcuffed," he asserted, charging that the woman was beaten.

What about the bars on the windows and doors throughout the city? Are they because of drugs? Youth gangs?

Drugs, I think, are overstated. East St. Louis has always been a community of crime. That's a reality going back to the days when there was Bloody Island where the duels were fought.

"Our drug problem comes primarily from Detroit. We've been fortunate not to have a major influence by Bloods and Crips. We've got Disciples and Park Avenue Players, and they are a result of the juvenile system sending our youth to St. Charles instead of the youth camp near Alton for the last nine years. To survive at St. Charles, you have to join a gang. The biggest fear that I have is the Haitians and Jamaicans. They make the Bloods and the Crips look like school children in their enforcement of their territory, much more horrifying than what we are familiar with.

"Drugs account for, I would say, 30 per cent of our crime problem. But poverty and a low educational level in some areas account for a considerable amount of crime.

"With nine or 10 active detectives who have about 53 active cases every day, they're solving the hell out of them. Inspector Lester Henderson has been in charge of the division for about a year and a half. Those so-called child murders we experienced last year, they were not the act of some crazed person. We solved every one of them without outside help."

Again, he attacked the lack of support from judges and the state's attorneys.

"Take the Woodcock case, the one who got murdered at the convenience store in Fairview Heights by those two heathens from East St. Louis. Those boys will probably never see daylight again. I had a personal friend who was killed by her husband at Christmas time and buried in the basement of her home in Loisel Hills. Her husband was back on the streets of East St. Louis in just three years. That's the problem we have. Black crime against blacks is not considered important.

"I can take you on the street and show you a drug deal going down. The dealer will take a package he has been holding in his hand and drop it on the pavement. We can have an assistant state's attorney ride with us and see it, and the state's attorney still won't issue us a warrant. How can we combat it?

"I can document guys we have arrested with bunches of drugs and weapons and money, the judge makes us give the f---ing guns back, and the money! You know why, they say? So they can pay their lawyer! That's what I call the Democratic Nazi Party, damn it! I can give you names, dates and places. Tell me why in the hell we should give these guys their guns back. All they (the court) kept was the drugs, and I'm not so damn sure they're not using them or selling them to dealers."

Officer talked in a controlled voice, choosing his words slowly, if not always carefully. But as he talked about the courts, he raised his voice, almost shouting in the intensity of his anger.

Blacks have been known to pretend ignorance, to put on a sham of being a "dumb nigger" in the white folks' eyes, to test the "honkies." Officer has been known to make some pretty wild statements. Was he playing that game?

"I've been known to do that," he said smiling. In his early and younger days as mayor, he left the running of the city up to a crony and experienced politician, Virgil Calvert. Virgil never changed, he just got better at what he did," Officer said, smiling again, except that city services were not being sold. Then Virgil died, and about the same time Ruby Ivory Woods, a 31-year veteran in the East St. Louis City Hall, sought to run for the Democratic nomination to succeed Tom Elliott as county recorder. But Jerry Costello wanted his brother Mike to have the job. Kenny Hall and Clyde Jordan said they were supporting Michael Costello. Officer was very angry and felt betrayed. A split began that never healed. This, Officer said, was when his political maturity began. "For the last two years I have really watched what I have said."

How about that speech at SIU-E?

"It was designed to stir the controversy. I didn't call anybody else a name, I called myself a nigger. I did that to draw attention. (SIU-E President) Earl Lazerson called my office the next day. I was in Alabama. He was furious. But then some of his own people began to tell the truth. Only 48 black males graduated in the last 10 years out of some 3,000 males who enrolled for a four-year degree - SIU-E only graduated 48 in 10 years! I probably will make a statement like this again before my career is done."

Officer smiled. "Sometimes I feel brilliant." The governor called him about the bailout, he said, and "I told the governor as long as he wants to treat the city as a city according to the constitution of 1972, then I will treat him with respect as the governor, but if he wants to treat East St. Louis as a colony in the state of Illinois with disrespect for the elected representative of the city, then I'll treat him like any other asshole I deal with.

"He didn't like that very much.

"I think he has been a good governor in a lot of ways, but he has failed us in other ways. What he's trying to do right now is deliver for the Missouri Athletic Club boys who have been good to him over the years...he's pushing as hard as he can to deliver for what I call the VP crowd before he leaves that office. I went to the Missouri Athletic Club one time during the first year and a half I was in office, and they wanted me to form a commission for the development of the East St. Louis riverfront. I could have been taken care of from then on.

"I know, and the forces of evil, as I call them, know there's not much difference between Thompson and the Democratic Nazi party. He's like Stalin, has that kind of alliance with the Democratic Party here. Here's this son of a gun hooked in with Costello and the other bloodsuckers up here and the Republicans can't even get into the governor's office. This helped him retain his stronghold on this area for the last 10 years."

He said riverfrontgambling is a reality. The campaign for it began for casino gambling, and Officer said he still can't believe Chicago is not going to get it too. The Saugets "have tried to go through us and around us," he said. The Saugets tried to have the county sponsor a casino boat in Sauget. "I can see there are people, forces outside trying to paint an image of me and the city that we can't handle the riverboat gambling. Bull shit!" he said, choosing the words carefully.

Gambling trips will be just four hours long, and for 1,200 people. The city will receive a cut off the top, not counting property taxes, sales taxes, utility taxes and taxes on service-related industries. "You're talking hotels, restaurants, and one developer has plans for a major theme park. These are not fly-by-night operations, we're talking about major major dollars," he said.

Dollars Officer sees as setting his people free.

 

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