Community organizer Stephanie Fox mingled with neighbors on Othello Park's basketball court last Saturday morning, waiting for the mayor to show up. Mayor Greg Nickels, neighbors learned, would be visiting to pick up litter, spread mulch, and yank out blackberry bushes in the eight-acre Southeast Seattle park a few blocks east of Martin Luther King Boulevard. But Fox--handing out flyers and wearing a T-shirt from her activist organization, ACORN --had a different agenda. She and the neighbors planned to demand that the mayor make the working-class neighborhood safer, not just tidier, in the wake of a deadly March 12 shooting at the park.

In fact, ACORN reps had visited the mayor's office just a few days earlier, on behalf of neighbors, to deliver a list of community demands. Neighbors around Othello Park--many of whom live in homes their families have owned for decades--want things like increased police patrols through the park and better response time to 911 calls, security cameras and more lighting, locks on the bathrooms at night, and block-watch funding. "It's ridiculous," said longtime neighborhood resident Gwendolyn Sanders, an older woman dressed for the mayor in a red coat adorned with a glittering pin. "We definitely need some action around here."

Since the March 12 shooting, neighbors have been frustrated that the city hasn't adequately responded to their public-safety demands. Neighbors, along with ACORN organizers like Fox, hoped the mayor would show up on Saturday morning so they could push him for commitments.

But Mayor Nickels wasn't about to be outmaneuvered by a lefty community organizer. Instead of responding to ACORN's demands, the mayor's political machine went into action. The day before the park event, a Department of Neighborhoods staffer called a handful of park neighbors and organized a small private session of their own--with the mayor and police chief. An hour before the cleanup, Nickels was sitting in a living room four doors down from Othello Park talking about the public-safety problems, while Fox and her neighborhood troops waited unwittingly in the park, their ambush undermined.

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On March 12 just after 7:00 p.m., a gunfight erupted in the park--witnesses counted around 30 shots, at least one of which killed a 22-year-old man from Federal Way. This was not new for neighbors, who've gotten used to calling 911 for drug dealing, assaults, and pit-bull fighting. The night of the shooting, neighbors say they called the cops in the early evening once they sensed that a fight was probably going to break out among a dozen young men who'd gathered near the playground. They called again after shots were fired; police didn't arrive for over 10 minutes.

Cops and neighbors have been at odds over what actually happened in the park that night: whether police patrolled the park earlier in the evening, when neighbors called the police, if the guys who gathered were gang members or just playing basketball. The police--at meetings and in an April 6 community newsletter--have insisted that beefed-up patrols "are not going to make Othello park safer." Instead, adding insult to injury, the cops' newsletter blamed neighbors, directing them to "go and use the parkā€¦ You have to get out of your doors and get involved."

After a March 26 neighborhood rally, followed by ACORN's visit to the mayor's office, neighbors hadn't heard an official peep out of Nickels. Instead, neighbors were shocked at the mayor's audacity to host an upbeat Saturday morning cleanup, and not add their public-safety concerns to the agenda, Fox said. "People think he's been trying to avoid the issue. It's amazing that the mayor wouldn't change the topic to address what people are concerned about," she said.

But Nickels had his own plan, and it seemed to work. When Nickels' private early meeting let out, and the small gang of neighbors returned to the park, they had good news to report. Ron Momoda, the neighborhood activist who hosted, thought the meeting went well, and other attendees were "encouraged" by the sit-down. The neighbors were able to vent about the police newsletter, Momoda said, and the mayor and police chief listened to their concerns and said they'd increase police patrols. "I think we got a commitment," he said. News of the positive meeting quickly spread among neighbors in the park--as they stuffed litter into yellow garbage bags--and diffused much of their frustration.

But not everyone was taken in by the mayor's well-orchestrated charms. A group of older women, including Sanders, who'd spent the morning sipping coffee and chatting with ACORN's Fox, still pounced on the mayor. "We want some changes, and we want it now," their de facto spokeswoman, Sanders, told Nickels, who nodded. The women, along with most of their neighbors, are now counting on another community meeting to make their point. On April 13, neighbors are meeting at the Holly Park Community Church (across the street from Othello Park) to discuss the issue. "It's a wait and see," Fox says.

amy@thestranger.com