Is white State Senator Adam Kline a tool of The Man? Is he unequipped to represent the 37th district, where minorities outnumber whites two-to-one? These were big questions during his Senate campaign last fall against African American Dawn Mason. With Kline's recent sponsorship of a proposed "Gang and Abatement of Homes Law," his critics think their predictions have been confirmed. Kline now says he is taking his name off the bill although he "believes in it and will defend it to the death."
The proposed bill would allow courts to close homes and businesses where gang activity has been found to occur. It comes in the wake of the much-loathed Drug and Abatement of Homes Act, known as drug abatement law, which allows police to seize homes and businesses where drug trafficking has occurred. The drug abatement law resulted in the shutdown of a couple of bona fide crack houses in Tacoma, but it was also used to run little old ladies out of their homes and close down functioning black businesses in Seattle. As Seattle Times columnist Michelle Malkin demonstrated in her December 29, 1998 op-ed, the law has clearly been used disproportionately against blacks.
Lawyer David Osgood said he was "very shocked to see Adam Kline sponsoring the [gang abatement] law. His district was the hardest hit under the drug nuisance laws, and this bill is textually identical to it."
The proposed legislation "does not punish gang members or criminal activity. It punishes people who are being threatened by gang members," Osgood notes. He wonders how it's possible to know everything about someone who patronizes your business or lives in your building, and asks how an average citizen is supposed go about evicting someone they know to be armed and dangerous.
"The bill absolves the police of responsibility. It puts the burden of policing on those least able to afford it or do anything about it," he said.
Similar abatement laws in other cities are being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. Challenges are based on charges that these laws punish criminals without benefit of the safeguards of criminal process--such as adequate proof of guilt, and a fair trial.
Kline believes this shortcut around lengthy bureaucratic paperwork is exactly what residents of his district need. He said he jumped on the bill after complaints from constituents who lived in a neighborhood with a crack house and two prostitution houses in a two-block radius. He said, "Asians, whites, and blacks have identified these houses as places where criminal activity went on, and the landlord refused to evict them. That landlord doesn't have to live in the neighborhood."
Kline said that when he saw the gang abatement legislation, he thought that while it "had evil-looking language about gangs, it had a core about empowering neighbors to act."
Kline wrote an amendment to the law removing any mention of gangs--replacing it with "criminal activity"--and removed police involvement from the law. "It's enforced by the neighbors, not by having state or city or county be big daddy."
Kline thinks the gang abatement bill will give extra leverage to minority communities which find themselves taken over by criminals. History shows that the most strident enemies of "clean up the streets" legislation don't live on streets with sex clubs, syringes, or public urination.
But his question, "Why should we assume that blacks will be complained against instead of making the complaints?" seems a bit naive.
It's no news that laws like this are subject to selective enforcement--scads of documented and anecdotal evidence support that. Eddie Rye, the head of the Black Chamber of Commerce, cites two recent incidents of questionable police brutality nationwide, one local incident, and a study which found that blacks compose five percent of New Jersey's population, but 72 percent of random police stops.
Rye asks, "Is it surprising that we don't feel very comfortable allowing or encouraging the police to have more leeway?" He is irate about Kline's work on the bill: "Being a Senator from this ethnically diverse district and supporting this bill is just mind-boggling. He called himself a civil rights attorney in the election--he is promoting something tantamount to setting up a police state."
Backing off of his sponsorship of the bill, Kline said, "I'm not going to proceed with it because it hasn't been met with understanding. When I spotted the bill, I thought maybe this is a vehicle to get that neighborhood what they want, but it's turned into a vehicle for people who want to paint me as a racist."