In 1987, the leadership of the Tenants’ Council Association along with some individual tenants from the Moxey A.Rigby apartments, a low-income housing project of 100 apartments in three six-story buildings in Freeport, came to see me. The 310 residents, most of them Black, were up in arms. There had been a series of violent incidents, including assaults, shootings, and stabbings of the residents in their apartments, in the common areas of the buildings, and in the areas adjacent to the apartment complex. There was a regular drug business being carried on in their buildings. The tenants and their families were in morbid fear for their lives and wanted to know if anything could be done from a legal standpoint. If they were a white constituency, they believed, the Village and its police would be falling all over themselves to provide security. Could we force the Village to care as much about these defenseless African Americans?
My visit to the First Precinct in Baldwin confirmed the tenants’ sense of the enormity of the violence to which they were subjected; the Moxey A. Rigby Apartment Complex was in competition with an address in Hempstead for the questionable honor of being the most dangerous and lawless area in all of Nassau County! I prepared and served a complaint that stated, among other things, that if the court didn’t come to the tenants’ assistance they would be doomed to continued victimization and fear for their lives, health and safety. We explicitly stated that were it not for the fact that the tenants were Black, the Freeport Housing Authority would have taken appropriate ameliorative actions. The proceeding was brought pursuant to the New York State Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law, and we asked the court to appoint an administrator with the power to receive the rent and apply it, or a portion thereof, for security purposes. Pending further consideration, the court ordered my office to collect rents and to keep appropriate books. Fortunately, my wife came to the rescue and became the bookkeeper for this rent strike.
As soon as all of this made the newspapers, the Freeport Human Relations Commission sent me a letter signed by its executive director, in which he said, “whether they are consciously thinking in terms of race or not,” my statement of complaint was racist. “It is disappointing, however,” he added, “that a person of your standing in the community, with your knowledge of Freeport and of what has been accomplished here over many years, vis a vis race relations, should by such remarks cheapen what is undoubtedly a serious problem — not racism but drug dealing. In doing so, you did a serious disservice to the Freeport Community.” It should be noted that the chairman of this commission was my rabbi, and that, in fact some of the members of the Human Relations Commission were Black. These people had been in such a hurry that they hadn’t even contacted me first to find out the facts of the case.
I responded the same day I received the letter and, in a frankly aggressive manner, argued that the Commission had abdicated its obligations and responsibilities and was trying “to isolate and, by trial in absentia in deference to some higher authority, condemn a single person of standing in the community.” I pointed out that I had been involved in the struggle for racial equality in Freeport for thirty years while persons of “standing” in the community had been absent or reluctant to take a stand. I strongly resented being made a scapegoat, and pointed out that the existence of crime (drug dealing) didn’t mean that racism was not involved. Next I received a phone call from the director saying that they would withdraw their letter if I did the same. Obviously they were ashamed of what they had done.
Mayor Dorothy Storm soon sent a letter to the Tenants’ Council, many individual tenants, the attorney for the Freeport Housing Authority, and some public officials calling for a meeting to seek “reconciliation in the community.” The letter was not sent to me, but I gave the mayor and her office the benefit of the doubt because I couldn’t believe that anyone with half a brain would see it as proper to deal with my clients and have them discuss the issues of a pending lawsuit in the presence of the Housing Authority’s lawyer but without their own counsel. When I showed up for the meeting, however, I discovered that my non-receipt of the letter was no mistake: The mayor and the Village attorney asked me to leave! En masse, my clients got up and left with me, refusing to participate in the meeting without their lawyer. It felt like I was in the deep South, with Black people were being told they couldn’t have their lawyer represent them. There is no doubt in my mind that if these tenants had been white, no one would have had the chutzpah even to suggest this.
Just before my clients and I were about to leave the building, Assemblywoman Earlene Hill showed up, and when I told her what was happening she went into the meeting with the aim of “straightening things out.” Within a few minutes, my clients and I were invited back in, but the meeting really proved to be worthless. Nothing much happened.
In very short order, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development made an application to have the case removed from the Nassau District Court to the Eastern District Federal Court in Brooklyn, and the case was assigned to Judge Jack Weinstein who, of course, had been my law professor and sponsor into the New York State Bar. The Housing Authority made a motion to dismiss, but it was denied. Judge Weinstein ordered that some discovery take place (documents exchanged and sworn testimony taken) so that the court could make a more informed judgment as to whether to dismiss, whether in fact it was the court’s job to order security protection in a housing project.
I don’t recall if Judge Weinstein suggested it, or if I simply decided that I should retain the services of an attorney more experienced than I in federal civil rights matters, but through my friend at Hofstra Law School, David Kadane, I secured the assistance of Professor Leon Friedman, a constitutional law authority. We went over the case, and Professor Friedman prepared a succinct amended complaint covering the areas I already expounded upon and adding that the failure to provide security for the tenants at the Moxey Rigby Apartments was a violation of the Civil Rights Law and the Constitution of the United States. Our hope was to extract a settlement offer from the Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), because we were afraid that if we pushed Judge Weinstein to make a decision as to whether there was any legal merit to our lawsuit we would end up losing the case. Even though our legal position may not have been as strong as we liked, the bad publicity for the respondents proved most helpful, and the Housing Authority and HUD were anxious to cut a deal.
They and the Village of Freeport came up with the money to pay for security, and on April 9, 1992, Leon Friedman and I appeared before a magistrate, advised him of the conditions of the proposed settlement, and agreed to a dismissal of the lawsuit. The clients were energized, having seen what unity and “militancy” could accomplish, and a number of significant improvements were actually made: the Village police provided the apartment complex with a patrol from 8:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon, and a Muslim group was retained to provide security from 4:00 in the afternoon until midnight. Although the apartments didn’t have ’round-the-clock security, the situation was a hell of a lot better than it had been before. In addition, the tenants retained a former Freeport police officer, Julius Pearce, as an advisor.
The locks on the doors leading into the buildings, the intercom system, and the doors leading to the roofs were among items repaired, and the tenants began to breathe more easily in the new secure atmosphere. The Moxey Rigby Apartments were soon no longer in competition for the “honor” of being the number one crime area in Nassau County. We might have lost the battle in that we agreed to a dismissal of the lawsuit, but we won the war by substantially increasing security for our clients.