root - Posted on 01 January 2000

A Play by Local Anti-Poverty Activist Reveals Truth Beneath Dallas Famed "Bridge Protests" of 1994

by Gordon Hilgers/PNN Dallas Correspondent

Next time you're out walking the Trinity River levees (in Dallas), holding hands with your honey and watching egrets walk on pink stilts and fleets of starlings streak in formation into the twilight over downtown Dallas, try taking a closer look at the bridges. Underneath huge concrete pylons, you'll see the jagged and scarred underbelly beneath Dallas "compassionate conservative" image.

Yes, they're still there. Each night you might be attending "Greater Tuna" or eating some of it, oblivious to this shameful fact of Dallas life--hundreds of homeless people are do their best to survive beneath whatís ironically called "the freeway." If youíve ever wondered where the tramps, bums, vagrants and addicts and domestic abuse victims all go when Dallas, a cosmopolitan city, rolls up its sidewalks tighter than either the Torah or Britney Spearsí britches, try taking a stroll down underneath the I-45 bridge some night.

Surely, we jest. Aren't there more pertinent things to do? Recently, for example, an anonymous donor gave the City a check for $6 million, enough to underwrite construction of another "signature bridge" connecting Dallas proper to South and West Dallas. The prim Calatrava superstructures, boosters boast, will show the world Dallas is indeed classy. It will be a symbol, weíre told in bright newsprint, which will prove Dallas is one happy city, not two as in the good old days, when a rich one and a poor one faced off across the Trinity like two wild dogs defending respective territories. But on the streets, among those whoíve nowhere to go, word is out: Calatravaís coming to town to build "luxury hooches" for the disenfranchised of North Texas.

Right now, Calatravas every homeless wingnut's "buddy." And signatures? Once complete, Calatravaís steel and concrete ballerinas will be graced by hundreds of them: 352 Crip, SeKt, Menace, ESL, Eat the Rich. A can of spray paint, a good sharp knife, and just like behemoth Martha Stewart home decorating projects, those bridges will be signed pretty as a postcard from Nantucket Sound.

Surely, local architectural wonders being used as "howdy boards" by poor people will be another inescapably obvious sign the City exercises priorities that are, in a word, surreal. Look at the polarities. Affordable housing or luxury condominiums? A living wage or a seven-figure "golden parachute"? Good roads or more convenient locations for shock absorber stores? A place where homeless people feel safe a new Saks on West Davis? These choices, and how they play among powerbrokers, reveal City government priorities for what they are, and the economic values underpinning them are there for every citizen to see. A busted City budget is announced only a week after the Palladium deal got rammed up our snouts? Are we blind? Or simply stupid?

Case in point: While itís been on the books over at the Mayorís office for months, a proposed $6 million municipal "Homeless Assistance Center," complete with a safe haven where street people can sleep without fear of being rousted by police most of whom don't even venture into certain Dallas neighborhoods because the crack gangs control even the vacant lots down there--has been all but scuttled. Scuttled? Why would a world-class city scuttle proposals to help its poorest citizens? Was the old chestnut that you can tell the moral clarity (W.ís term, not mine) of a nation according to how it treats its poorest citizens only a palliative? Go ahead. Be the judge on this. The question before you is: Why are these things happening?

In the illimitable 30th anniversary words of Deep Throat, the anonymous source that blew the Nixon Administration right out of the swamps of the Potomac: Follow the money.

Many citizens may not even realize it, but homeless advocatesóeven the homeless themselvesóhave been fighting the City over bridges for years. And, in case youíre afraid to venture among the earthworks and trash heaps that already grace nearly every overpass within a half mile of City Hall, weíd like to suggest a safer way: a theatrical presentation that very well could get you up to snuff on how the City of Dallas and the concept of democracy apparently mix like crude oil and spring water, preferably the more rarefied brands available in many Southeast Dallas trailer parks. PCBs, courtesy of the Texas Water Control Board, are, of course, optional, even if theyíre mandatory to many Southeast Dallas residents as one of the cityís biggest little secrets.

"Bridges," a politically charged piece of theater by longtime anti-poverty and civil rights activist John Fullinwider, recently celebrated its premier public reading at the Undermain Theater in Deep Ellum. Part of WordSpaceís "Texas Unbound" literary festival, "Bridges" is a tale Fullinwider says he wrote to honor the men and women he met under the Taylor Street bridge in 1994.

Fullinwider himself wonít readily admit it, but "Bridges" isnít at all "loosely based on true events that took place when the unprecedented occurred: Dallasí homeless stormed Dallas City Hall, shouting to then Mayor Steve Bartlett to "Stop Arresting Homeless People!" Rather, "Bridges" is tightly based on the now legendary "bridge protests" that spanned a year in time when one man, a man who really lived, a man named Prince Johnson, challenged the Cityís anti-sleeping ordinance, only to be found dead before the case could get to trial. In other words, "Bridges" is almost fiction. The real man, the real challenger to cash and carry politics in Dallas, really did die. The African American Artists Alliance will once again perform "Bridges" at the Undermain in mid-August.

"Most of the characters in my play are composites taken from a number of real people," Fullinwider admits. "I meant the play as a commemoration. If I could have sculpted a statue to honor Prince Johnsonís life, I would have built a statue. Still, you know, self-expression is a pretty powerful force. Iíd been carrying that story around inside my head for six years, and I finally decided I was going to try and write it. If everyone who read the play were to tell me, ëThis stuff isnít very good. Why donít you stick with leaflets?í I would have said, O.K."

Directed by Charles Hillman, a former homeless man ("He spent a winter around a fire barrel," says Fullinwider) who also has been connected with both the cityís theater community and its small circle of progressive African American activists for nearly 20 years, "Bridges" tells the fable of Prince Mason, a homeless man living under a freeway bridge. With the help of a civil rights lawyer played by Cynthia Anzaldua, Prince Mason sues the City of Dallas, hoping to overturn its anti-sleeping ordinance.

The target of a number of ensuing protests in the body of the play is Mayor Jack Ransome, a political figure so ensconced in the game of politics that he sees the growing problem of homelessness in his city as a threat to his future political aspirationsónot to mention the cityís pending Olympic bid. Strutting on the stage of the Undermain like the cock of the walk, overtly concerned over "the flies in the Mayorís soup," Ransome, like nearly all Dallas-bred politicians and bureaucrats, just can't see the grassroots view of things from his perch in a political skybox.

He's myopic and deluded, like Sinclair Lewis Babbit, though he believes heís farsighted and lucid, a booster with a strong handshake and horsewhip sharp decision-making capabilities that make sissies run. His concerns are based on hierarchy, on rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, on coercion rather than compromise, on dividing the private from the public and always opting out for what wonít get tarnished by the light. And the homeless are about to blow his cover.

If this quick take on the text of Fullinwiderís "Bridges" sounds familiar to those who watch local politics closely, itís because itís thinly veiled truth. The aptly named Mayor Ransomeóbeholden to the money men and worried over whether or not he's going to win the election game and thereby take home the Monopoly board--instructs the City Attorney to remove the homeless from underneath area bridges "by any means necessary" and to get Prince Mason, played by David Butler, off the City's back. Prince Mason, after all, is not the Mayorís buddy.

The end result is murder. Prince Mason is killed by a police informant, hustler and junkie by the name of, well, D-Town. In real life, Prince Johnson, the homeless man who actually did challenge the Cityís anti-sleeping ordinance in 1994, was also murdered, shot in the face. Though the case officially never has been solvedóthe blame was first placed on a small time drug dealer from Oak Cliff, but the charges turned out to be bogusómany who were there with Prince Johnson, attorneys who were there, housing activists who were there, John Fullinwider who was there, all believe the man was not only murdered but set up. By whom is anybodyís guess. Whatís important is this: The civil rights lawsuit, which resulted in a temporary injunction against the Cityís anti-sleeping ordinance by a Federal judge in 1995, a near landmark act of jurisprudence which for a time actually manacled the hands of a city government that was chomping at the bit to arrest homeless people for sleeping in public, wa s eventually dropped f

When asked about this rumored set-up murder of a plaintiff in a Federal civil rights case, John Fullinwider is unequivocal: "Want to know why I think Prince Johnson was murdered? Because the main person that identified his body admitted to Princeís defense attorney that sheíd only killed the man because ëtheyí threatened to revoke her probation if she didnít. As far as I know, the case is unsolved."

Despite the loss of a valued friend willing to take a long shot for the betterment of others, Fullinwider waxes over his personal involvement with these "bridge protests" sparked by Prince Johnsonís troublesome stance against an anti-sleeping policy more intelligent city governments across America consider inhumane and a violation of human rights, not mere civil ones.

In 1994, Fullinwider says he became aware local police were repeatedly harassing homeless people living hard, cobbled-together existences under bridges forming a ring around what some high-profile Dallasites have only recently been calling "the loop" in this latest push of downtown Dallas as fashion statement.

City Hall Plaza, at least at the time--and according to frustrated mainstream media commentators who not only didnít have a handle on the situation but didnít want a handle on it--was one, vast, open-air bedroom. Homeless people were prostrate all over the place. At the highest levels of both government and private industry, way at the top of those glass towers where pigeons dare to tread, it had become fairly certain that City homeless policyónamely, ignore the buggers and pray they disappearówasnít working. While some homeless individuals then using City Hall Plaza as a makeshift home may insist to this day they were only trying to send local politicians a fairly conspicuous message, something relatively easy to read like Hooked On Phonics or Goodnight Moon, the City, alarmed at the number of people apparently passed out all over the place and ruining everybodyís buzz, decided to act out a kind of fantasy taken straight from movies like Schindlerís List or W ild In The Streets

People's only possessions were confiscated, trashed and burned. Families were separated. Police arrested the homeless in scores as huge "bluebird" paddy wagons appeared nearly every night. Those who resisted were jailed. Those who didnít resist were, of course, jailed too. One thing Fullinwider remembers was evident to him at the time was easy to see: Nobody was getting any help. Arrested or not for sleeping in public, addicts were still addicted, drunks still drunk, families without homes still roughed it every night and, perhaps worst of all, Vietnam Veterans lived out their perpetual service to their nation "in country" and under a bridge.

Because of the police sweeps and the enforcement of a controversial ordinance that was only complicating life for the cityís homeless population, Fullinwider, several attorneys affiliated with the ACLU, civil rights activists, area preachers and the homeless themselves got organized. First they were seen picketing City Hall and the offices of The Dallas Morning News, and conducting public hearings under the bridges. Soon, when it became apparent the City wasnít listening (does it ever?), organizers scaled up their protest campaign.

"That's right, right there on television, we crashed Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlettís press conference," Fullinwider says, his voice betraying that he just loves this stuff. "It was a scene just like the one in the play. We walked into the roomóit wasnít a very big roomóopened up a huge banner that read "Stop Arresting Homeless People!!!" and when Mayor Bartlett tried to get out of the room before the press turned its cameras on this, we wrapped the Mayor of Dallas in our banner.

"All the reporters were just there," the activist-playwright adds. "They turned the cameras on the Mayoróand on usóto see what heíd do. We kept shouting. Bartlett just stood there for a moment, then he tried a trick designed for the impromptu press coverage: He kept asking one man, ëCan I help you get to a shelter? Can I help you with anything?í It was a pretty lame performance. We saw what Bartlett was doing, putting on a big public show of compassion for the cameras. So we kept on shouting: ëNo! No! Stop arresting homeless people!í"

In addition to writing plays and causing hassles for big-bucks politicians who are afraid of bad publicity, John Fullinwider has credentials involving local anti-poverty campaigns and civil rights struggles like the anti-sleeping ordinance protests at least a mile long. Currently, he teaches at Dallasí Metropolitan Educational Center, an alternative school for kids who have either previously dropped out of school or are in danger of doing so.

"It's a real neat school," Fullinwider says of the Cedars area public school. "About 200 kids go to it. Itís all one-on-one, self-paced instruction. As an activist, heís been a member of the infamous Bois díArc Patriots, a protest group; helped found the local offices of Common Ground; has built houses for homeless people; and has published poetry in Texas Observer. Heís most famous for organizing West Dallas residents against lead smelters in the 1980s. Now that heís married, however, he says heís had to scale back his activities in order to be a good father. Evidence of this is plenty: His daughter wants to be a playwright and follow in her fatherís footsteps. Sources indicate Emily is currently working on her first full-scale production.

The Undermain production of John Fullinwiderís "Bridges" will reprise in mid-August. During the playís June 13 reading, the room was almost full, but Fullinwider admits that most in attendance were old friends, co-workers and acquaintances. I looked around for the Mayor or maybe a couple of City Council members, but I didnít see anybody big-time. In fact, I didnít see anybody from the homeless service community either, something that wouldíve made me feel less alone lost in a frou-frou crowd filled with New Age pony boys, truly a stranger in a strange land.

I did get to see a couple of prominent homeless advocates take the stage after the playís reading--which cost eight dollars--when Robert Trammell of WordSpace offered the audience a panel discussion. Homeless activist, Jim Schutze of Dallas Observer and his homeless advocate counterpart from The Dallas Morning News, arts critic Tom Simeóboth of whom have been right there in the trenches, defending the rights of the poor--gave great speeches. But something was wrong with the picture.

The audience, responding palpably to Fullinwiderís play, seemed all stoked up to talk to the playwright, the director and the actors and actresses about their social mission in performing such a politically-explosive work of theater, and about homelessness in Dallas in general. Instead, spokespeople treated us to a conversation about funding smaller arts organizations in the wake of the New Age of Austerity ushered in by the Bush Administration. This was entertaining. Artists and the homeless are in similar predicaments in America, and really ought to learn how much commonality they actually share. I met several down-and-out local artists during my trek through homelessness, and some of them were nationally known, too.

As the reporters got into a snit-fit over whether or not large buildings damage cityscapes, I looked at the banner above them. It read, "Stop Arresting Homeless People!!!" As we listened to reporters sitting in a row talking about the arts, I also couldnít help but think: This looks like one of those scenes from the Cuban Revolution: Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and fellow travelers, in full revolutionary regalia, khaki uniforms, little army hats, conducting a Communist consciousness raising session for the peasants and proles. That surreal comparison in my mind was, by itself, almost worth the price of a ticket. I put it in my journal immediately.


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