Lawndale is not supposed to be Alan Keyes Country. According to a recent Tribune/WGN TV poll, Keyes is getting just 3 percent of Illinois' African-American vote in his Senate race against Barack Obama. But last Friday afternoon a crowd milled around the mother-and-child statue at the corner of Kedzie and Douglas, waving Keyes placards and getting ready to board a charter bus with the candidate's name on the side.
The bus was scheduled to take them to Lawndale Manor, the crumbling low-income housing project overseen by Cecil Butler, a contributor to Obama's campaign. It never got that far. It ended up instead at the 11th District police station, where the Republican candidate found himself on the wrong side of the law.
Keyes was invited to Lawndale by members of V.O.T.E. 4 Hip Holitics, an inner-city political action group founded by ex-cons who are fed up with the Democratic Party. (V.O.T.E. stands for Voice of the Ex-Offender.) For the last 40 years, they say, blacks have been voting almost unanimously for the Democrats, yet Lawndale is still a slum: the houses are collapsing, the streets are unsafe, and the young men are going to prison in greater numbers than ever.
To V.O.T.E.'s 31-year-old spokesman, Mark Carter, Obama is a tool of Mayor Daley and the rest of the City Hall fat cats who've ignored Lawndale. "Barack Obama is so much entrenched in the status quo in the city of Chicago that he does not support the issues of the black community, especially our generation," said Carter, who did time in the 90s. "Joblessness, homelessness, police brutality. We don't have to vote the same way our grandmothers did. When you look at the numbers supporting the Democrats, it's the civil rights generation. The younger generation, the hip-hop generation, we're more open."
Many of the Keyes supporters were incensed about Lawndale Restoration, which operates 1,200 units of federally subsidized housing, including Lawndale Manor. One of the buildings collapsed when a car backed into it last month. After that incident city inspectors swept through, declaring more than 100 of the units uninhabitable. Cecil Butler, the project's general partner, was given a $51 million state-backed loan to refurbish low-income housing in Lawndale. Since 1997 he has taken in $84 million in rent, mostly through federal subsidies. Over the past four years the city has sued Butler and his various entities 50 times for not keeping Lawndale Restoration properties up to code. Butler has, however, given $4,000 to Obama's campaigns over the past five years. Some of the crowd wondered if that puts Obama in Butler's pocket. "It's like being paid under the table," said neighborhood resident Lawona Fitzpatrick, who held a Keyes sign.
About a hundred people waited by the statue--Lawndale Manor tenants, single moms, V.O.T.E. members, young boys dressed in the green jerseys of the Eagles, a youth football team that plays in Douglas Park. At three o'clock, Keyes stepped out of his campaign car, dressed in a tan windbreaker and black pants. CNN was in town that week, broadcasting American Morning and covering the Senate campaign. Keyes headed immediately for the network's camera, which had been set up in a vacant lot.
"I think it's about time to stop giving in to the lie that money is being spent when it never gets to the community," he shouted, promising an investigation as his supporters waved signs. "It's time that we stop being used and abused for the power of others and get some of that power into our own hands."
If you've seen Keyes debate, you know that he can only talk so long without bringing up abortion. "Many black folks have been dying because of violence, drugs, heart disease, cancer, and AIDS," he said. "But do you know what the biggest cause of death among blacks is? Abortion! The scourge of abortion has been pushed on us by a leadership that is ready to see our extermination as a people. By the middle of the century there will only be a vestigial population of blacks if we don't do something to end this genocide!"
"Keyes is our man!" someone shouted. "No more Obamanation!"
The bus filled up for a short trip to Lawndale Plaza, the neighborhood's new shopping center, which has a Dominick's, a ten-screen movie theater, and a bank, where Keyes planned to hold a press conference denouncing slum housing. Keyes sat in the front row, next to the Reverend M.G. Hunter of New Jerusalem 133rd Psalm Missionary Baptist Church, a well-fed preacher in a purple suit. Carter followed the bus, standing next to a sound system on the bed of a truck. The bus arrived first. Hunter, who's been handing out CDs of a Keyes interview at his church's restaurant, Bethlehem-Judea Soul Food, climbed down into the parking lot.
"Alan Keyes supports the moral issues I support," Hunter said. "I preach every Sunday that God is against murder. How can it be OK to kill babies and say God is against murder? He also talked about the wrongness of same-sex unions."
As Hunter spoke, there was a sudden commotion. Everyone rushed toward the corner of Roosevelt and Homan. The flatbed truck had been pulled over by the police, and Carter was being handcuffed.
"Look at those bureaucrats," shouted a burly Keyes backer. "They workin' for Barack Obama. Y'all see how those Democrats treat us when we don't go along with they stuff? They lock us up! We want to get rid of this machine. That's Chicago politics."
Reverend Hunter grabbed a megaphone and announced a change in the itinerary. "We need to descend on the police station and tell them they can't take our citizens off the streets," he said. "This is not Russia. Why do we live like this when so many of America's dollars have come to this community? This stuff has to end, and it can end with your vote."
Hunter led the flock, including the candidate, back onto the bus. Ten minutes later everyone was in the lobby of the 11th District police station at Kedzie and Harrison, demanding Carter's release. On the other side of the desk, the police looked bemused and bewildered. Hunter spoke quietly with the shift commander, while Keyes stood beside his press secretary, Connie Hair, who was taping the confrontation with a video camera.
"This is a strange state in which to do politics," Keyes said.
After the cops ordered the crowd onto the sidewalk, I asked Keyes whether he thought his campaign was being hassled.
"I'm here through the community people, in an effort to get us to take an interest in their community," he said. "It is their perception that they've encountered this many times before when they've tried to challenge the powers that be. Most of the time my campaigning doesn't end up at the police station, but this is Chicago."
Carter was released on his own recognizance at 2:30 in the morning. He believes his arrest was part of a plot by the Daley-Obama machine.
"It was definitely politically motivated," he said. "We were getting ready to have a rally in the lot when we pulled up in the truck. The male police officer stopped the truck. He asked to see the driver's CDL license. The female police officer was makin' all kinds of accusations that Barack Obama was going to beat Alan Keyes. She said, 'Obama gonna whip Keyes's ass anyway. He ain't nothin' but a gay basher.' I basically said to her that 'OK, you support Barack Obama and I support Alan Keyes.' After that she just exploded. She told the male officer to lock me up."
Corinne Tobin, a Keyes volunteer from Minneapolis, watched the police lead Carter away. "The truck pulled up and they were playing music," she said. "[Carter] shut it off and they came up and handcuffed him."
According to the Chicago Police Department's office of news affairs, Carter was arrested for disorderly conduct and breach of the peace. He is due in court December 15.
The rally never made it to Lawndale Manor. Keyes had to be back downtown by 5:45, so everyone climbed back on the bus and rode to the corner of Douglas and Kedzie, where they'd started.
Hunter was already planning a leafleting campaign for the weekend. "This is a clannish community," he said. "He got a lot of votes today. It just made me mad enough to go door-to-door, floor to floor. If they don't vote for him, it won't be because they don't know him."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Connie Hair.