Baltimore, My Baltimore, Part II: Down to the Wire
How did celebrity journalists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles get to the ACORN office in Baltimore, the first stop on their barn burning tour of Eastern Seaboard ACORN offices?
In my previous post, I entertained the possibility that they could’ve taken a route that allowed them to drive by both the plot in the center of the city where Memorial Stadium used to be and the two new stadiums down by the Inner Harbor. That route would have afforded them a study in contrasts.
Alternately, they might have elected to visit shot locations for HBO’s gritty police drama, The Wire, which ran for five seasons from 2002-2008. The brainchild of former police reporter David Simon, The Wire was ostensibly about the surveillance efforts of a special detail of the Baltimore police force tasked with putting away a drug-dealing kingpin in West Baltimore. But the real subject of the show is not crime or political corruption or cops chasing down drug dealers: the real subject of the series is Baltimore itself.
In 2009, Baltimore City had the fifth highest murder rate and the second highest total number of murders (238) nationwide.
The city with the highest murder rate in 2009? New Orleans, site of Simon’s current series, Treme.
How do you tell the story of a city that has undergone the changes discussed in the previous post: dramatic drop in population with the consequent proliferation of abandoned housing; significant loss of jobs and a steep decline in the relative earning power of the jobs that remain; the loss of the steel factory; the departure of the shipping industry to deeper waters; the focus of redevelopment funds on the Inner Harbor, refaced in the ever popular style of Anywhere, USA?
One way to tell the story of the city is to haul into town and walk in the local office of a terribly run organization meant to assist the poor, staffed largely by volunteers and low-wage employees, turn your camera on and see what happens when you sell the receptionist and the seasonal tax assistant a story about how you’re new to town, just starting law school at Hopkins, and you’re in need of advice about how to finance a mortgage for a house your girl can trick in.
ACORN seasonal tax assistant, Tonya Thompson, and part-time receptionist, Shera Williams
listen to Kenya (Hannah Giles), while O’Keefe secretly films the doings. (Clockwise from top left.)
The following are all true:
- Neither of these ACORN employees is remotely shocked to find themselves suddenly in a conversation with a woman who says she is a prostitute.
- They don’t turn Kenya and her boyfriend out on the street or report them to the police.
- They don’t counsel Kenya to pursue other career opportunities.
- They don’t insist that James reconsider the wisdom of running a child prostitution ring nor do they do more than mention in passing the legal hurdles such a venture faces.
No, as the first Veritas video documented over and over again, while running on an endless loop on Fox throughout September 2009, and continues to show on YouTube, where it has over 600,000 views, Ms. Thompson and Ms. Williams were only too happy to pass the scorching afternoon in the airless Baltimore office offering all manner of advice to the law student/pimp/future congressional candidate James and his girl friend/friend/high-end hooker-escaping-an-abusive-pimp/madam-in-the-making Kenya.
The following is also true:
- Neither of these ACORN employees seems to be keeping track of all the details James and Kenya keep tossing their way .
This is evident in the video that was released; it’s even clearer if you read the transcript of the visit from beginning to end. Even though the video strips the meeting of its context, it struggles mightily to make the ACORN employees seem anything other than two powerless, poorly educated women with no options who are trying to muster a credible appearance of some form of mastery. While much has been made of how heavily doctored the tapes are, how misleading, how prejudiced and prejudicial, my own interest is in what is missed by focusing exclusively on the editing and distribution process of Veritas, Inc.
So, allow me to stipulate at this point that there is no question that the Baltimore chapter of ACORN, with its documented history of not paying its bills or its employees, was terribly run. Furthermore, it’s a simple thing to grant that the Veritas videos, doctored and distorted as they are, make it clear that the services provided in the office of ACORN headquarters in Maryland were worse than substandard. I’ll even accept the argument that what was true for ACORN Baltimore was true for all ACORN offices across the country, if this will allow us to focus on the lived reality that remains after James and Hannah take yet another bow for having provided the ammunition that sent the association of community organizers into bankruptcy.
What do we learn about the lives of the urban poor from the transcript of this visit? What does the exchange tell us about the politics of the future?
Early in the interview, Tonja Thompson, the tax adviser, is trying to get a sense of how much Kenya makes in her business:
Tonja: “Each month about how much you think you made?
Kenya: “Four weeks in a month . . . . Eight.”
Tonja: “About 800 dollars a month . . . .”
Kenya: “Eight grand a month.”
Tonja: “Eight grand a month. Okay so that is gonna put you at about 8000, 9600 for the year. Nine thousand six hundred for the year so you would [. . . ] that’ll be good. But you gonna have to pay self employment taxes, and you had expenses that you had to meet the commodities [?], so you should have a business loss. So you really shouldn’t have to have no self employment taxes to pay. So you can have a business loss” (9-10).*
Um, there’s a serious disconnect here, no?
Tonja’s not hearing what Kenya’s saying or she can’t process a monthly income on that scale or she doesn’t understand “eight grand a month” or she simply doesn’t believe what the girl sitting across from her is saying. And Kenya, for her part, doesn’t correct Tonja’s egregious error nor does grad school-bound James bestir himself to say, “Uh, Tonja, that’s 8k/month; 12 months/yr; 96,000/year, not 9,600/yr.”
Tonja isn’t surprised to be talking to someone who makes under $10,000 a year. Someone who showed up at the office seeking tax assistance making nearly 100 grand a year? That would probably be surprising. Probably.
There are no questions, no corrections on either side of the table. It would appear that this is a meeting of people who aren’t terribly sharp.
If you were to headed out the door where this meeting is taking place and walked southeast for about twenty minutes, you’d be in an area well known to fans of The Wire: Hamsterdam.
In the third season of The Wire, conceding that the War on Drugs has been a failure, Major “Bunny” Colvin, who is nearing retirement, decides to create three “free zones” in West Baltimore where drug dealers and prostitutes can practice their trade without fear of police interference. Colvin’s idea is to move the low-level criminal activity to contained locations in hopes of reducing violent crime city-wide. When Colvin’s men on the street explain the plan to the corner dealers, they compare the plan to life in Amsterdam, which the dealers hear as “Hamsterdam.”
Although Hamsterdam is on the west side of Baltimore in The Wire, much of the filming for this section of the plot took place on the east side where there are fewer trees, which means fewer opportunities for continuity problems when mixing B-roll shot during different times of the year. Here’s The Wire’s art director and location scout , Vince Peranio, explaining why he recommended Hamsterdam be located in the alley marked in red above, which used to be lined by abandoned rowhouses and is now bordered by two cleared fields:
“It was great because it was really scary looking and all that, but nobody was around so we really had control over it,” Peranio says. Then, with two episodes left to film, the rowhouses were torn down. Peranio had to scramble for a similar-looking location. It wasn’t too hard. “I moved down the street one block.”
Hamsterdam being patrolled; Major Colvin watching dealers scramble to serve a drive-through customer in one of his free zones.
A little later at ACORN headquarters, out of the blue, Shera tries to offer some emotional support to Kenya.
Shera: “And the thing I tell everybody is–do not ever ever, whatever you line of business you in . . . be proud of it.”
Shera: “You nineteen years old, be proud of it. Okay? Don’t feel like, because you [trick for a living] . . . . [You] still have a job. You are not robbin’ nobody, not hurtin’ nobody, not stealin’ from nobody, okay?”
Shera: “Don’t feel like that ever” (15).
Later, when Ms. Tompson is done providing James and Kenya with tax advice, Ms. Williams returns to provide advice on house buying and life in general. In so doing, she gives her interlocutors a glimpse into her own life experiences:
Kenya: “That will be very nice for me to be treated like a client [by the people at ACORN].”
Shera: “We don’t treat you like . . . [a prostitute]. First of all let me tell you something. My job is not to judge people. I have kids. I mean I don’t like when people judge . . . .”
James: “How old are your kids?”
Shera: “39 and 31.”
Shera: “I don’t like nobody to judge me. So therefore I don’t judge nobody else. I don’t let nobody compare me to somebody” (26).
Hamsterdam can’t be allowed to stand, of course.
When news of Major Colvin’s rogue experiment makes its way to his superiors, Hamsterdam is immediately shut down. Colvin is demoted and forced to retire at a lower salary; the cushy security job he’d lined up at Hopkins is cancelled.
And the various pieces of the city continue to grind against each other: the police force; the corner kids; the drug dealers; the gang leaders; the administrators; the politicians. The lowest get moved this way and that. Nothing changes.
How do you tell the story of the city?
You multiply the variables; you try to make sense of the range of perspectives; you record the movement of ideas, initiatives, beliefs, prejudices.
The transcripts for the visit to the ACORN office in Baltimore don’t have any time stamps, so there’s no telling how much time has passed since the beginning of this visit. Maybe half an hour.
O’Keefe and Gilles have already whispered excitedly to each other about “tax evasion!” With that in the bag, O’Keefe wants to turn things up a notch: given the fact that the tax adviser hasn’t raised an eyebrow at the news that Kenya wants to buy a house with money earned from prostitution, it’s time to introduce another variable:
James: “Well I want to ask you a question. There is another variable here that–Kenya should we?– [we] should talk to you about which may complicate our taxes . . . is that we have a couple of girls overseas who are coming over and they are very young, you know what I mean? We don’t wanna put them on the books.”
Kenya: “They are kind of dependent.”
James: “They are from El Salvador.”
James: “There is like 13 of them and they are probably going to move into the house that we get.”
Kenya: “Just for like a year while they get on their feet.”
James: “Just to get them on their feet so they can do this type of thing” (18-19).
Notice how fluid the story is. First, it’s “a couple of girls overseas.” Then, in O’Keefe’s next statement, they’re not from overseas after all–they’re from El Salvador. Then it’s not a couple of girls, it’s thirteen. Later it will turn out that some of them are already in Baltimore. And then that they are from Guatemala.
Ms. Thompson isn’t either.
Her response to this flood of new information:
Tonja: “So do you want to . . . ? So why you all even wanna do taxes? Oh, cause of the house” (19).
Thompson now seems to be in completely over her head. What to do about all these girls? Do they need social security numbers? 1099s?
O’Keefe keeps rolling in more details for Thompson to consider: the girls are “like fifteen” and they’d only be staying a year or two before going back to El Salvador. Thompson begins to ping pong all over the place, spraying advice in every direction, trying to hit this ever-moving target: Kenya can claim some of the underage El Salvadorians as dependents, but not all of them; Kenya won’t need to issue W2s because the girls are under sixteen; Kenya can claim the girls as dependents even though she is currently living on James’ boat, which James says is “on the Chesterfield” (19-20).
The Chesapeake, maybe?
It’s not like anyone is listening that closely.
Over the two year period from 12/07-12/09,
a total of twenty-nine tips from Maryland were received at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center
The clock’s ticking, but time has stopped in our airless room.
There are too many variables; there’s too much information; and the pieces just don’t come together.
James has just told Ms. Thompson that he wants these El Salvadorian girls to be turning tricks.
Tonja: “But if they making money and they are underage, then you shouldn’t be letting anybody know anyway.”
Kenya: “Well that’s true , ’cause . . .”
Tonja: “You shouldn’t be letting anyone know anyway.”
James: “Well that’s what happened. We told the bankers and they kicked us out.”
Tonja: “Right, because it’s illegal. So I am not hearing this, I am not hearing this. You talk too much. Don’t give up no information you are not asked.”
James: “Kenya . . . If I don’t give the information and you guys discriminate against us for all this stuff . . . Promise me that you won’t discriminate against us.”
Tonja: “We can only discriminate against some thing. If we don’t have the information, then how are we going to discriminate? You see what I am saying? If I don’t know . . .” (20).
Tonja can’t get it to compute.
Why is this guy telling me all this stuff? Does he really not see that you don’t go into a bank, say you’re engaged in illegal activities, and ask for a loan? Is that possible? Is he some kind of fool?
O’Keefe meanwhile is pressing his larger concern for his future audience: these ACORN people won’t even argue the point that being denied a loan for an illegal business isn’t discrimination! Why? I’ll tell you why. Because these ACORN people see every disappointment in life as the result of discrimination, that’s why!
And still it goes on.
Reading page after page of the transcript is like being trapped on the train next to a group of drunks who’ve enjoyed a night in the city: the echo chamber of insobriety causes every statement to be repeated; the advanced hour steals nouns and verbs at random as the sentences roll past; nothing happens, but there is animation, the semblance of communication.
Tonja asks for Kenya’s 2008 tax information, prepares to leave, but James and Kenya want some more time with Shera. And why not? She’s not doing anything. Indeed, no one seems to be doing anything besides saying whatever comes to mind.
Before Ms. Thompson leaves, James says:
“And I just wanna thank you so much because people have just been so discriminatory toward us” (24).
The plot line for the fourth season of The Wire, which has public schooling as the backdrop, is drawn from the experiences of Simon’s collaborator, Edward Burns, a former Baltimore detective who taught social studies for seven years after he left the force. During Burns’ first year as a teacher, thirteen of his two hundred students were shot, two of them on two separate occasions. His stark description of what life in the inner-city schools is like is realized in the show’s depiction of Edward Tilghman Middle School:
“I was in the infantry in Vietnam, I chased escapees and murderers and rapists. I was in homicide. There’s nothing like walking into a middle school in a setting like Baltimore.”
In Westwood, NJ, where James O’Keefe went to high school, there were no murders in 2009; no reported cases of forcible rape; and ten violent crimes total, which translates to violent crime rate, relative to the total population of Westwood, of .015%.
Hannah Giles’ address, as of 9/09, Aventura , FL
Click, hold, and drag the figure on the left to any highlighted areas for a ground-level view of lovely Aventura.
In 2009, there were no murders in the pleasant Miami suburb of Aventura, FL. The crimes of choice were property theft and larceny. Violent crime, relative to the population, is virtually unheard of: the rate is .0022%
It’s Shera’s turn to offer this nice young couple some guidance.
Rule #1: play dumb.
Shera: “I am gonna tell you about business some things because you are young. Some things–you know nothing. Some things, when you get older, you . . . like you realize that you don’t need to. . . . [say things out loud]. You know what I mean? You don’t know. That’s . . . I’m [trying to tell] you. [You] don’t know, you don’t know. Is such and such? I don’t know” (27).
What follows? Those thirteen El Salvadorian girls? Um, they’re house guests. They’re exchange students. Um, I don’t know what they’re doing here. I thought they were going to school; I didn’t know what they were up to. I didn’t know.
Rule #2: don’t use a cell phone to do business.
Shera: “No you don’t use your phone. Don’t use your phone. Don’t you never ever–my mama was a, my mama was in [garbled] . . . . Rule number one: never ever use anything that yours. It can be traced back” (30).
Rule #3: don’t talk to anybody about your business.
Shera: “Any time that there is a business, you don’t sit down there and discuss nothing loosely. Loose lips sink ships” (31).
Although the thoughtful couple is very attentive, they, too, keep getting confused. At one moment, the girls shift to being from Guatemala; some are already here, suddenly, with more on the way. Shera also seems confused and starts to counsel them to reconsider this life of crime before it’s too late:
Shera: If I was your mother or I was your father . . .[I'd advise you to think this over] because you know that you want to be in politics and she wants other things besides what she is doing [now] later in life. So therefore think about it. You don’t want her record to show up with your face and a number on it” (37).
But then, it’s back to advice about how to run the business successfully.
Rule #4: cover your ass.
Shera: “Cover your ass. You are in Baltimore. Cover your ass. And that is plain and simple” (38).
And, finally, it grinds to the happy ending. James and Kenya are told they will need to join ACORN, which is $120/yr, when they attend the workshop on buying a home. And, because Ms. Thompson knows they’re just starting out, she promises not to charge them her standard fee of $150 for the tax assistance, but only $50.
As the curtain comes down, hugs are exchanged by all the players and Shera, misreading Kenya’s expression of delight, says: “Don’t she look just giddy?” Tonja agrees, “I told you she is just as cute as she can be.”
Of course, since nobody’s paying attention, both sides think they’ve successfully conned the other.
Our intrepid celebrity journalists think they’ve conned these women into revealing how they do business everyday at ACORN.
And the women? They think they’ve conned the gullible young couple into coming back to pay them $50 for the free tax advice that ACORN is supposed to provide.
This is the sixth in an evolving series on Citizen Journalism. It may be read on its own or as part of the series, which begins with “My Brush with Celebrity: The Other Side of Cyber-Spying.” A summary of each section of the series may be found here: Citizen Journalism and the Case of James O’Keefe (Table of Contents).
*N.B. The only transcripts available for the East Coast visits to ACORN offices are the ones posted on Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com. O’Keefe refused to release the unedited tapes of these exchanges, so one is left to work with transcriptions made by an interested party who also has not been trained in representing dialect. I have bracketed many changes I’ve introduced in order to make clear the sense of what is being said in context. This is interpretive, speculative work: readers are invited to view the originals I worked with here. (O’Keefe and Giles released the complete video and audio tapes for their visits to ACORN offices in California to the state’s Attorney General in exchange for immunity from prosecution, which will be discussed later in this series.)
The data on Baltimore City’s 2009 murder rate may be found here.
Periano is quoted in “Wish You Weren’t Here” by Gadi Dechter, which may be found here.
The Polaris Project runs a hotline for tips to stop human trafficking. The report containing statistics on the calls they received from 2007-2009 may be found here.
The quote from Edward Burns may be found here.
Information on the Crime Statistics in NJ for 2009 are here.
Information on the Crime Statistics in Aventura, Fl may be found here.
The description of ACORN’s involvement in the IRS’ volunteer tax advice program may be found here.