The Right to Security in the Home Becomes a Constitutional Abstraction

April 18, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — The tenants of Chicago's massive Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, victims of a vicious springtime outbreak of gang-related gunfire, are pleading for random gun searches to cleanse their buildings of the weapons of death.

President Clinton has expressed sympathy with the tenants' plight. The mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, is on their side. So is the Chicago Housing Authority's highly regarded chief, Vince Lane. But a federal judge, acting on action brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, is saying ''no'' to the preventive door-to-door sweeps of apartments.

U.S. District Judge Wayne Anderson's rulings have the effect of making the Fourth Amendment, with its guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure, more important than residents' very lives.

The tenants' grounds for terror are real. Innocent bystanders, among them young children at play or on their way to school, are being caught in the deadly cross-fire. ''Bloody Friday'' was the way residents described March 25, the day after a landmark Anderson ruling against the weapons sweeps. That weekend 13 Chicagoans died violently, three of them in the 13,320-tenant Robert Taylor Homes complex. More than 300 separate gunfire incidents were reported to police.

On April 7 Judge Anderson again forbade the sweeps except in what he defined as such ''emergency'' situations as conditions of persistent gunfire, or armed gang members occupying part of a housing-authority project.

That means, says a CHA spokesperson, that in the event of a few stray gunshots it would be necessary ''to run to the judge's chamber, get a warrant and them come back to look for the shooter.''

By what twisted logic have we let the Constitution be used to leave a community needlessly exposed to random gunfire by street gangs? Is this Bosnia, Somalia -- or the United States of America?

''We must not allow criminals to find shelter in the public-housing community they terrorize,'' President Clinton said after the judge's latest ruling. He directed Attorney General Janet Reno and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros to develop a constitutionally permissible and effective search policy for public housing.

Public-housing residents have begun to organize against the ACLU's position. Spearheading that effort has been the Rev. George Clements, a priest who for 30 years fought for civil rights and economic empowerment on Chicago's South Side as pastor of Holy Angels Church. Father Clements is now working with the xTC Washington-based American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, a group founded to help communities defend themselves against crime and disorder and to counteract the ACLU.

In short order, Father Clements signed up 22 of the 23 elected representatives of the Chicago Housing Authority's Central Tenant Council.

Recruited as pro bono counsel on the tenants' behalf was Tom Fox, a nationally known trial lawyer and former U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois. When Mr. Fox showed up in court with the Tenant Council and a motion to intervene, accompanied by 5,000 signatures in support, the ACLU objected, stating that it alone should be considered the representative of the city's 144,000 public-housing tenants. The ACLU had four public-housing residents listed in its class-action suit to bar housing-authority sweeps.

Judge Anderson on April 7 decertified the ACLU as sole representative of Chicago's public-housing tenants. Roger Connor, executive director of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, says there's immense irony in this: ''The ACLU helped empower poor minority communities to give them political power. Now that these groups are exercising political power on their own behalf, asking for government relief, the ACLU is the very organization trying to shift the decision into court, and out of their hands.''

In the long run, of course, no degree of apartment sweeps, or metal detectors in the lobbies, or security checks of visitors -- all advocated by the Chicago Housing Authority, all resisted by the ACLU -- will solve the root problems of these terrorized neighborhoods.

The huge garrison-like public-housing structures, monuments to segregation politics, must be demolished, and their residents provided safe shelter elsewhere. Society must support hundreds of neighborhood self-help activities for the affected families. And without radically improved schools and prospects of real jobs at decent wages, youths will continue being lured into gangs.

But ameliorative work will take decades. In the meantime, residents of public housing must be guaranteed fundamental physical safety. The Constitution not only sought to protect homes against search; it called, in its Preamble, for ''domestic tranquility.'' We need more of that right now.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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