My biggest issue with Chief Moore is that he keeps talking about crime being a perception—so is leadership. Leadership is a perception!
I told him no one perceives you as a leader; everybody perceives you as a bureaucrat. You need to get as angry as they are. I said, for instance, you told the council two days after the Captain D's shootout that you knew who the people were. I told the Chief, "Chief, you should have gotten on all three TV stations and said, I know who the guy is and we are going to get him. He can go anywhere he wants to, save communist China, and we are going to get him.'" If you told the people that, then once they caught him, the people would have said, "Boy, what a tough cop he is.: But the guys that captured him got very little fanfare when it came down to it. If people are going to sit here and believe statistics when they are bad, they ought to be man enough to believe statistics when they are good. Now, the statistics show that things are getting better. As soon as you print that, I'm going to get 15 calls from people getting victimized today, and I understand what they are saying. I get along well with him, we have had several good meetings, and we had a rocky start because he misinterpreted SafeCity Watch. We are on good terms. He does not have my leadership style, I do not like the way he leads, but he is comfortable with it, and he seems to be getting the job done as far as statistics are concerned.
Were there mistakes made with SafeCity Watch?
Absolutely not. Because of SafeCity Watch you know we have—they can color it anyway they want to—the five-point plan. It was announced after SafeCity Watch, after all these meetings, SafeCity Watch demanded that crime statistics be published. A lot of the stuff that has happened has been the brain child of SafeCity Watch. You look at the judges now, Judge Yerger and the rest of the judges, they have gone to Jim Smith's Supreme Court to get judicial help with extra judges. Guess who birthed that idea. That is in their mission statement and in their bylines. If you look at our first meetings, many things that are happening today are a mirror of SafeCity watch. Am I saying it is because of SafeCity Watch? No, but I am saying that SafeCity Watch, I believe and will always believe, had something to do with some of the focuses being put on some of this area. I don't believe crime statistics would have been publicized if SafeCity Watch hadn't raised hell about it.
What do you think should be done to get the guns off the streets?
My ultra right-wing conservative co-host, Larry Nesbit, believes in licensing and registering all handguns. I believe in this country today that if I've got a 16-year-old son that cannot hunt if he hasn't passed a hunting safety course that every person in the state should have to pass a gun safety course in order to carry a gun. I think it's preposterous that you have people on one side of the fence, people in the gun lobby—they are the reason that there are hunter safety courses for hunters out in the woods. So why is it OK to kill animals like that, but you are not supposed to pass any kind of safety course, nothing at all to carry a gun?
Let me give you a scenario: You are in downtown Jackson, you walk out of a restaurant, coming around the corner, you hear a real loud car, playing real loud music, the windows are tinted, it's belching smoke, you look inside, and you see four individuals there, drinking beer, smoking marijuana with a cocked, loaded, Glock (semiautomatic handgun) on the seat. What of that scene is legal? The gun. It's insane.
Reasonable people want reasonable laws regarding guns. For instance, it is not reasonable for someone to want to buy a bullet where the only purpose in that bullet's manufacture is to go through a bullet-proof vest. But there are those of certain organizations that believe if they stop production of that bullet that will pierce a bulletproof vest, then that means a slippery slope is started. The next thing we know, they are going to make guns and we won't be able to hunt. There has got to be some reason within this talk. Kids today are getting thrown out of school for flashing guns at each other at nightclubs. Football players are losing scholarships. Now, outlawing guns is not the answer, but honestly I do believe that you should be required to pass a gun safety test. You shouldn't be able to go buy a gun and say, "OK, here is my gun, bam bam." It's just like a driver's license: You can't jump in a car and drive, you can't fly a plane, and you cannot even go on the dad-gum lake driving a boat without some type of restrictions and requirements. It doesn't mean I am some anti-gun nut; it just means what we've got now is not working.
Are you a member of any gun organizations?
Nope. I have been a lifetime member of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation for 25 years. I am not a member of the NRA, I'm not putting down the NRA, but it's just not something I am interesting in joining. I probably own 25 guns. I have taken a safety course; the army was a big safety course. I keep guns for protection. I keep shotguns and 22s at home. I have two boys and me; we all need guns to hunt.
I shot a gun at a guy one time. The guy broke into my office with an axe. I was sitting in my office on Levy Drive on a Saturday afternoon and this guy named Jerry Miles broke into my office with an axe, and I just happened to be there. I was fumbling around and I could someone coming through my door with an axe. So, I go running out and grab my shotgun. I was screaming, "Come out, Come out!" I was scared to death, I was freaking out. Anyway, so he comes running out his eyes get that big, and he runs back into the building. Then, I thought if there are more than one of those guys, I am about to die. So, I ran in and dialed 911. When I came back out, he was jumping over the fence, and I popped one off in the air to scare him.
The time I got carjacked if I had a gun I'd been dead.
What do you think about the youth curfew law?
I don't support it. The curfew law started off when the Junior League put in a truancy deal: for 18 months the sheriff's office, the mayor's office, the police department, met on this truancy deal. We finally got the truancy deal down; it was going to be a curfew on kids during school hours. Frank Melton had it set up at the YMCA where they could drop kids off and parents could pick them up. It was a way to keep up with kids. But, when that fell apart, we had a revived emphasis on the curfew ordinance. That is where what I said before that the best thing about the law is that it is applied equally on all instances and the worst thing about the law is that it is applied equally in all instances. You can ask any police officer down there, with the curfew right now if they are stopped a stoplight and they see beside them two 16-year-old boys, unless they commit a crime, they can't stop them. With the truancy law policeman could ask kids what they are doing out of school.
Do you think that people would be as outraged if it had been a black girl from Kenny Stokes' ward? (The family of a white teenage girl is suing the city due to her being stopped and detained for speeding and violating the curfew.)
Yes, I think so. I think you get more accustomed to horror stories from the black community than the white community. Because we don't get many from the white community. So, yes, there is outrage, but I don't know if it was because she was white, it was because it happened. It was a white cop who did it to a white girl. If it was a white cop who did it to a black girl or a black cop who did it to a white girl, then you would bring in the stuff that shouldn't matter. But in some parts of the world it does.
Kenneth Stokes says the curfew law is needed to help get kids off the streets in his ward before they get in trouble. How do you reconcile between doing something and doing nothing on the curfew issue?
Here is how you reconcile it: Make a law that works. The way it stands now, a kid can be out after curfew, but the police cannot arrest him or her if they aren't breaking the law. For instance, if a kid bangs someone over the head with a bottle, they get in trouble, and he is underage and is breaking curfew, so now he's really in trouble. Do you see what I'm saying? Ask Chief Moore, if they don't have probable cause to arrest then they're not. The worry about (racial) profiling is the reason why policeman don't stop kids (violating curfew) without probable cause. The opportunities for profiling are why they can't stop solely on curfew. Because there will be an instance where there is a yahoo cop because there are yahoo cops, yahoo yearbook people, yahoo reporters and those are the people who set the precedent for the whole world. Let me give you an example, a police officer can see me staggering to my car but they cannot stop me unless he has probable cause to think that I have been drinking. That is just another reason I didn't support it: I wouldn't have voted for it anyway.
What prompted you to propose the apartment moratorium?
I'm proud of the apartment moratorium. I am the single councilman who caught more grief from my ward about than anybody else, and I had to look (the critics) right in the eye and say if this tickles your fancy you are just going to have to scratch it because I am for the apartment moratorium and I am going to get this straight. In my ward, I haven't got a problem; we have clear zoning laws. In Marshand's ward, and in parts of the inner city, the bottom line is this: We've got a zoning nightmare in this city. Developers tell you that there are only X number of places that can have apartments anymore. I will tell you, fine, quit bringing to us rezoning requests such as the one Bettye Cook got in South Jackson to rezone to have apartments. Now what has happened is you take neighborhoods, particularly the Raymond Road and Wingfield area, and look at a zoning map; it is awful. When the long-range plan came out in 1972, it was zoned for apartments but everything around it grew to be single family and then an apartment complex goes and jumped in there. The residents didn't like it, and it's not good for the city. Further exacerbating this, and the reason that we wanted a moratorium and totally contrary and in conflict with what Councilman Stokes says, is we are doing the apartment moratorium to help the inner city, not to hurt it. Here's why: the Mississippi Homes Corp. has set some rules that are given to them by the City. Tax credits are given by the state of Mississippi, and you can get them from the federal government where a developer, if he meets certain guidelines, gets a tax credit for developing a complex. Now, most developers don't need the tax credits, so they sell these tax credits to pick a company, to Enron, Exxon, whomever for cash. It is a legal transaction. Listen, when I first heard about this, I thought this is not what this rule was meant to do. This is true. This rule was not supposed to be this way. They sell these credits for discounts and cash money. So they are able to build apartment complexes for less money, 1.5 million mortgages rather than 2 million mortgages. So it takes less money to service the debt. The way this has been done in the past is that these tax credits were emphasized on new construction. So, what happens in the inner city is that is where the credits start. Then those apartments get dilapidated, and then they build new apartments a little further out, then those get dilapidated, they develop some a little further out and that's why when you drive in the inner city and you have junky places. But if you look around the country, and you see progressive cities what they are doing is putting a tax credit on what those of us supporting the apartment moratorium think that it should be for. You take that same tax credit and give it to those same developers to redevelop old apartments, and every one of the developers we talked to said they would be glad to do that.
So, is the tax credit for redevelopment in the works?
Here is where we are. City staff has been required and requested by the City Council to craft a landlord-tenant ordinance document that requires landlords to do certain things and landlords can require tenants to do certain things in exchange for rent payments such as making sure with city inspectors that pest control services work, all fire alarms work, and that the water runs. Many states require that when you rent your apartment, before the next tenant comes in, you are required by law to paint it, to clean it up; it has to pass a city inspection to look a certain way. So you prevent areas from becoming havens for slums. I can take you right now to 15 or 20 old apartments—I have a couple in my ward—where developers have just left.
And we give the tax incentives to these developers to simply build new apartments, what are they going to do? They are going to build new apartments. Don't let them sell you on how pretty and new they look. When I first got married, the first place I lived was Grove Apartments. In 1974, they were state of the art, they were the nicest and coolest places to live, and they called it "the Groovy Grove." There was a waiting list from here to Carthage to live in the Grove. Look what has happened in 30 years. This is what happens if you don't have requirements. We've go to get this landlord-tenant ordinance with teeth in it.
Jackson is a strange city as compared to rest of the state: It's big, where nobody else is. But many cities, including the Gulf Coast, have said, "Hey, we need to give you guys a break." We need for there to be an emphasis on tax credits for urban renewal projects. We also have talked to developers and they have all said on the record a tax credit is a tax credit. The way it looks like it is going to go, if the refurbishing project costs 50 percent or more than the project itself costs, then it will qualify for a tax credit. So, if you go buy an apartment complex that is run down its worth to 200,000 dollars and when you are finished refurbishing it will be worth $2 million, you qualify for the tax credit. Now, of that $2 million (the tax credit) might make it a $1.25 million dollar, but now you have a redone deal with lower rent that people have to qualify, an adjusted income situation.
We want to run slumlords out of business; I'm not just saying this to sound good. It is not right. The local government is best government. We are going to have an ordinance that doesn't fly in the face of federal government; it says if you rent a unit to somebody, there are certain criteria that you must do or you will be in violation of city code. Now they can't go out to every location and check them but that is why we have community improvement. Right now, we let the market bear whatever it'll bear. Anybody that says, "Ben, you're getting into big government can kiss my grits." This is what government is supposed to be about. If you let the market determine everything, let them eat cake situation, there are things in this country that will not happen. Sometimes you have to have regulations. That is why we have speed limits; if everybody just wouldn't drive fast we wouldn't have them. This is where government helps. I'm for making money, I am for free enterprise, and I have not met a crook or a thug among these developers. They're just doing what the rules are. So, we as government change the rules. And they said we'll work with you we would love to do it, just get the rules changed. So that is what we are trying to do. Think about it: Catalina, Lincoln Gardens is the perfect example of what should be condemned and a local, established developer could come in, use the tax credit, redevelop and start renting them out.
It sounds like you and Stokes have some of the same goals.
Well, we do. It probably would have helped if he'd just come to one of the apartment moratorium meetings; he might have know what we are trying to do. We didn't have but 50.
How do you feel about Councilman Stokes' proposal to add 25 cents to the parking meters downtown to support tearing down abandoned properties?
I think his heart is in right place. We are not sure we can do that legally. As it sits, I don't think that is the answer. I am not criticizing Kenneth Stokes because he's got issues in his ward that he feels every single day. I know what he is trying to do, and he is right: abandoned properties are killing us. It is the old broken windows theory. I don't think that is the answer: you got legal issues, the state enters into this, and you can't just do things sometimes. If you said, "Ben, we've got to add 25 cents on parking meters or nothing is going to change," I'd say, yes, I'd vote for it. But I don't think that is the answer.
I don't want to just tear a bunch of buildings down; I want tax credits for developers to put something there. I used to visit one group of apartments in the inner city; if you go there you will meet people who have the nicest, cleanest dumps you can imagine. They have roof leaks, exposed electrical wires, and they are paying rent for this stuff. What really gets me as Republican is that most of them are on rent assistance, and they may not be paying but 40 bucks but the federal government is paying $360 for them to live in this place; that ain't right. That's where I think that we, and this is where I split sheets with my Republican cohorts, have a role to get involved and get something done. They can bitch and moan all they want, but you are going to have federal involvements, grants and loans. Richard Nixon began community development block grants: all that money we give away, Richard Millhouse Nixon in 1970 or '71, they came out with that program because they were tired of the Democrats having all that power and getting all those grants and beating the Republicans up so they came out with community development program where they could have a line item, yada, yada, yada… So these are with us forever, but it is up to government because they are here to make sure they are utilized in the best way, and that sometimes isn't being done.
How can politicians and community leaders target young voters and entice young people to become more involved in their community?
I'm probably a little different than most people. I'm not one of these people that prescribe to wanting everyone to vote. If they aren't educated on the issues, I don't want them to vote. If they are not interested enough to understand and they can't clearly see: I wish everybody had gone through Vietnam, just like my Daddy wishes everyone had gone through World War II, and my grandfather wishes everyone had gone through a Depression, so they could appreciate what they have got in this country. If a kid is so goofy, so lazy and so apathetic that they won't register to vote, I'm not going to run out to high schools, get kids to hop on a bus and take them to vote. I think an 18-year-old should be allowed to vote. If they go down to the circuit clerk's office and register to vote, they should vote. I am not one of those people who get on a loud speaker trying to register people to vote.
The fortunate thing about what I do, and the unfortunate thing about what I do is that all I do is call on kids. My day is filled with going to schools. Kids I call on are sharp, connected kids. It frustrates me when I'm around all these sharp kids, then I see yo-yos who are totally apathetic.
September 11 was awful; I was doing my show. The Friday before, I was doing a whole show about the apathetic youth of America. Then I saw everyone all balled up in prayer groups and support for our country. I pulled up to a Shell Station on the 12th day of September and a young man gets out of his car, a typical rap car with the wheels all blown up and the black windows, music playing, his pants down low and his cap turned around. I was sitting there pumping my gas thinking, "Man, that guy needs to get a job yada, yada, yada. He goes in and oh man, this guy looked like a thug, and this guy went into the station, came out and taped an American flag to his antenna. I wanted to beat myself up.
People have got it too easy. We have got the richest poor folks in the world. Think about it. I went out to a business site today, and they are about three weeks ahead of construction because they have had good weather and have got about 40 more Mexicans here from Mexico to work. They work hard, they send their money home. Now, Mexicans are not born biologically any different from a Jackson Prep senior, but they want the opportunity to get something. I mean one American dollar is what, 15 dollars in Mexico. There are so many people in this country that don't have to work, my parents had to work. Let's take schools, you drive by Casey and it's going to be full of 10 buildings and an old, old schoolhouse. Then you go to any town in America from Philadelphia High School on, and you look at the public schools that used to be built: big, beautiful, Jackson Central type facilities. I'm kind of all over the map, but my point is things have just changed, priorities have changed. People today have so much that they don't have to do things. Then there is the other half. So, the other half of the other half has to help the other half to understand that I can succeed in this country. I can be a Leroy Walker.
I wish that everybody could visit Lanier's yearbook staff. Everything may not but be perfect there, but it is not going to hell over there, either. They have got some good, sharp kids over there. There is an infrastructure that a lot of people won't admit is there. People like to talk about institutional racism. Not just overt racism, its just a way of life, a culture, the people that you hung around with at Prep or my kids hung around with at Jackson Academy you're expected, you know you're going to college, you are expected to succeed. Your parents succeeded. These things are expected. Prep bragged 43 National Merit students, St. Andrews and JA up there with that. There were four or five in all the public schools. Things in life are different. My point is that my biggest wish is that I could convince people that these people can succeed. There are opportunities there; it's just a lot of time people get caught up in a lot of the old baggage. The Boy Scouts of America is the best program ever invented. It's expensive. I'm sitting here talking the talk; I should walk the walk. More people, more churches should get involved, more local involvement. 100 Black Men is a great organization.
Is there a reason to still talk about our race history?
Yes. When my kids turned 16 they went home with me where I grew up in my old neighborhood (in Vicksburg). Kids your age don't really believe that there actually were two water fountains. Harvey Johnson sat in the back of the movie theater, while Ben Allen sat in the cool part below in the front. It is important not to dwell and die in it, but it makes me proud of Mississippi. I defend my state to the death. I don't think that is right to dwell on it; it's all about the influence of economic infrastructure; the system doesn't change overnight. It's not discriminatory, particularly; so-and-so's daddy was a banker because his daddy was a banker. When I was your age, a black guy couldn't even go to engineering school in this state. That's why when I meet people I remember—I'll have some conservatives howling on this issue—why I admire Harvey Johnson so much. So many people know where we are now, appreciate where we are; they're trying to go somewhere else, not sitting there dying in the 60s.
Is the feud real between you and Kenneth Stokes?
What is your take on the slapping incident between you and Councilman Stokes?
I thought he was going to hit me. How ever Mr. Stokes wants to interpret it is fine with me. I had a call where my life was threatened. I called the proper authorities, I was told it was very serious and that I needed to file charges, and I needed to get the death threat out in a public arena in official form. I had to get my story out. I had to get my sentence out there. What kills me about the whole thing: I have had more people comment on that one meeting, that five-minute ugliness than any other of the years of Council meetings. We are defined by that. He doesn't think much about me, and I don't think much about him as a person, negative or positive.
Do you think the slapping incident helped you politically?
I don't care if it helps me politically; I could care less. I've got a wife and children; when someone calls and says, "Don't stand by any windows or you will die," I clearly had to do something about that. If this guy wants to kill me because I don't support Bo Brown for president, he can kiss my ass, I mean get a life. I'm over it. Been over it.
Do you support the Convention Center?
Yes, I support it. The opposition to the convention center and funding mechanisms must all be crazy: We are the only capital city in America without a convention center. Every single convention center has been funded with some sort of public funding mechanism. I totally support it; it needs to be in downtown Jackson. I hope to goodness it passes.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
Irrespective of all we've talked about today, what I've accomplished has been very vanilla to the public. The City Council is a well working group, and I think I have a lot to do with that. We have some arguments, but we have enough decorum to keep it private. If you are asking about nuts and bolts: From the car in yards ordinance to liquor store moratorium, I'm proudest of the quality of life issues. There have been a bunch of them. What gives me warm and fuzzies are a lot of little things I do for people: city government is not some big powerful body. I am proud of the smoking ordinance and the car-in-yard thing, this sounds so boring. There were these trailers showing up all over the city and no laws addressing them. Something big, long and sexy (you won't find), I'm a councilman.
What is your biggest disappointment?
The public display of immaturity between Councilman Stokes and me on that fateful Tuesday.
What about you would surprise the public?
I shared a batch of my wife's cookies with Muhammad Ali. In 1979 I was in Natchez going to one of my school accounts. Ali was there in Natchez filming the movie "Freedom Road." As I drove by the Prentiss Motel on Highway 61, I saw him standing in the parking lot. My wife had sent me on the road with some fresh baked chocolate-chip cookies. I had just read that chocolate-chip cookies were his favorites. I pulled my car up next to him and naturally startled him; didn't mean to but did. I said, "Sorry to alarm you, Champ, but I have some fresh baked chocolate cookies right outa my wife's oven. You want some?" He grinned and said, "Park yo' car and let me try some." I did, and we chatted for a few minutes. He loved the cookies, a guy with him snapped a photo, got my name, address and mailed me the photo. It was surreal. He was a REALLY nice guy.