Us Versus Them

Why the politics of fear and a growing racial divide still cripple Richmond. Former Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks thinks he just might have the answer.

Family and friends gather in the shadows, chatting discreetly as reporters and television news camera crews pace the sidewalk, awaiting yet another candlelight vigil, which are beginning to feel routine. In addition to the cameras, a local NAACP director is here, along with the community activist roundup. Inside the house, the family is huddling with their attorney, David M. Hicks.

Moments later, the candles are alight and friends of the family begin to speak, offering solace to the Thigpens. But the friendliness dissipates quickly, and a steady anger seems to build steam.

Billy Thigpen, unarmed when he was shot and killed by police, had been trying to get his life together. He’d just bought this house, got a promotion at work and finally qualified for family health insurance. In a city with so much violence, the crowd fumes, they can’t even trust the very officers paid to protect them. Adding insult to injury, the police officers that were here moments before the vigil have inexplicably driven off, taking their mobile spotlight with them and leaving darkness behind.

The small crowd grows restless as the cries of injustice grow louder. Visibly angry, Daryl Holland, executive director of Richmond’s Youth for Social Change, like a proud host, introduces Hicks. The presence of the 45-year-old former commonwealth’s attorney, fresh out of office, seems to validate the dissent of those here.

He was one of them, after all.

“He’s here representing the family today, but he’s also prosecuted police officers!” Holland barks.

A solemn Hicks does his best not to stoke the fire.

“Right now, it’s time to stay calm,” he tells crowd. “I want to tell you all this is just the first step in a long journey.”

In the wake of one of the bloodiest Januarys in memory, coupled with increasing tensions between the city’s black communities and police, Hicks’ foray into private practice after 12 years of putting the bad guys behind bars could seem selfish. Hypocritical even.

Hicks had announced his retirement in June 2004, more than 18 months before he left office, making him a lame-duck prosecutor as Richmond underwent a renaissance at City Hall: a newly elected mayor, a new police chief, a new system of government. Hicks, to the surprise of many, had decided it was time to bow out.

But the tough-talking lawyer from Plainfield, N.J., hardly acts like a man retired from public service. In fact, Hicks is angry. He says he’s tired of standing by, watching the city delve deeper into economic decay, the racial divide worsening as the criminal justice system fails those it aims to protect.

Just last week, Hicks watched as his successor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring, dropped charges against Edward Aeschlimann, a police officer involved in the shooting an unarmed man. Hicks helped state police meticulously build a case to prosecute Aeschlimann for his part in the May 2004 shooting death of Santanna Bryant Olavarria. Now, after a month on the job, Herring had let Aeschlimann off the hook. There would be no trial to determine his guilt or innocence.

It’s another example, Hicks says, of a system that’s set up for failure.

Hicks may be here to comfort the family mourning on Napoleon Street, but he’s really here to answer a higher calling. This might be only the first step for the Thigpens in their new life without a father and husband, but it’s also a first step for Hicks, who has taken a decidedly high-profile case as the city comes to grips with a rash of violent crime and questions about police and their use of force.

Hicks may have been the city’s top prosecutor, but he rarely acted like one, at least not in the traditional sense. He believes that the commonwealth’s attorney’s office should never become beholden to the men in blue. That sometimes justice means losing. That sometimes it means prosecuting cops.

Richmond’s violent crime problem is much more complex than what most politicians would have you believe, Hicks says. Putting more cops on the street to fight the drug war and making punishments harsher won’t solve it.

Rather, he says, the problem is rooted in economics and education, and the divide between those doing the policing and the policed. Too many people in law enforcement subscribe to black and white thinking, an us-versus-them attitude. It’s an easy trap to fall into when you’re on the street fearing for your life, worried about the drug pusher who might be packing or the drunken driver who might have a gun. But this cultural divide, Hicks says, is killing the city.

“It’s not the individual officer’s fault that they got put in a situation where we’ve got 85 percent of our daggone officers that don’t even live within the borders of the city that they police — much less don’t look like the people whom they police,” he says.

“And then we wonder where us-them comes from. Where’s us-them not going to come from?”

What if the shoe was on the other foot? Hicks wonders.

“I’m just sitting here trying to imagine that if 85 percent of the police officers that police Chesterfield were black and came from the projects, who said that would be OK?” Hicks asks. “Nobody would say that would be OK. Nobody would even think twice about it. It’s a ludicrous assumption.”

So ludicrous that it’s defeating, he says.

For starters, the problems with police are symptomatic. Hicks posits that by and large, many of the city’s public service jobs — police, prosecutors, teachers — are training grounds for better-paying and less-demanding jobs in the surrounding counties.

“If I were king and built the system … what’s so hard about having a rotation system? Why not get some young, really save-the-world teachers, and I put them in the inner city. And right about five years, when they start getting a little tired, I can rotate them out to a nice suburban school where the parents are helping the kids with their homework and let them get a little rest. And then rotate them back in the game.

“What is so hard about that? Instead of keeping them here until the wheels fall the heck off, and then you lose them.”

The world according to Hicks has many twists and turns, hiccups that are hard to explain away. But he makes intriguing points, with dabs of blunt honesty.

He feels slighted, perhaps, because his political star didn’t launch as quickly as some expected, and he quite clearly has his sights set on a higher office in the not-too-distant future.

In 1993, when Hicks was campaigning against the bare-knuckled incumbent Joe Morrissey, few people gave him a chance. But he managed to gain the support of the white business establishment, led in part by Jim Ukrop, while Morrissey, the white prosecutor, had the backing of Richmond’s black politicians.

Hicks won, and many assumed he was destined for a higher office. He was a conservative populist with a bright political future.

“He was a very attractive young public official. And he got off to a very good start,” says John Moeser, a longtime professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, now a visiting fellow at the University of Richmond’s Center for Civic Engagement.

“You would think that given the backing that he had, having run on a platform of reform and cleaning house, this would have been simply a launching pad for a very promising political career.”

Instead, Hicks’ tenure was long-lived. “That he stayed as long as he did,” Moeser says, “that he resigned without announcing plans for higher office, suggests that either he has decided not to pursue public office or he is biding his time.”

Hicks appeared to be angling for a job in Mayor L. Douglas Wilder’s administration, which partly explains the timing of his retirement announcement, during the mayoral campaign in the summer of 2004. At Wilder’s inauguration in January 2005, after the speeches had been made and the gospel singers departed, Hicks told a Style reporter he’d be interested in a job on Team Wilder, perhaps even a new position that was above both the police chief and the prosecutor’s office — something akin to police commissioner, … la Gotham City.

But nothing came of it. Hicks’ explanation for his retirement is that it was simply time to pass the baton. Three terms as commonwealth’s attorney were enough. And with Wilder on board, he felt if ever there was a time to ride off into the sunset, this was it.

But he doesn’t talk like a man riding away from anything.

“Why did I leave? Because unfortunately, while you’re still in it, which is something I learned, you are still viewed through jaded eyes because people still think there is something in it for you,” Hicks says.

“I mean the level of dialogue that we’ve got to have, you know, to move this community forward, has got to take a quantum leap.”

Indeed, the dialogue is where Hicks seems most comfortable. Racism still paralyzes Richmond, Hicks pontificates, and its roots are in the very political structure built to bridge the divide.

Wilder may have swooped into office and reinvigorated the electorate, giving Richmonders a kind of hope they hadn’t seen in decades. But the system is still quite broken, Hicks says. Despite the addition of an at-large mayor, Richmond is one of the few cities in the state that isn’t partisan. Elected officials don’t run as Democrats and Republicans, as they do in Chesterfield and Henrico counties, for instance. That makes Richmond’s political structure, Hicks says, decidedly “un-American.”

In the wake of desegregation, Richmond’s political system was made over. The Supreme Court approved a new political structure in Richmond that divvied up voters into nine wards. It was established to guarantee that the previously underrepresented African-American communities had an equal voice in city politics. By the mid-1970s, the system was in place, and it has remained the same ever since.

“Why don’t we have party politics in the city of Richmond?” Hicks rails. “The compromise was, we had nine wards. What were they based upon? Race: four white, four black, one swing.”

The wards, he says, were “created in a time right after massive resistance where all I needed to know about you was, you were white … or I was black. We’re talking about a time where I could have been the black Bill Gates and I still wasn’t shopping at Thalhimers on certain days of the week. I think I need to know a little bit more about me now than whether I’m black or white. … I mean, Farrakhan is black — so is Colin Powell. I don’t think just saying someone is black in the public is enough now.”

And if ever there were an imbalance in the system, Hicks protests, it is now. The City Council no longer elects the mayor from within its ranks, which weakens the city’s legislative branch. With the strong mayor system, Hicks says, it’s even more important that the city undergo a redistricting — to balance out the power of the executive branch.

As it stands, he says, the wards have inherent competing interests, keeping council members going in different directions.

“The first ward, it’s probably got an average housing price of a quarter of a million dollars,” Hicks says, “and on top of that we’ve got the 6th District, which has got three housing projects in it. How in the world do I get a consensus and a city vision out of [nine] different wards that are as separate as they are?”

Hicks has decried the city’s ward system since 1993, when he first campaigned for commonwealth’s attorney.

As the economic divide in Richmond continues to grow — one could argue that Richmond is now more segregated economically, between poor and rich, white and black, than at any other point in history — the city is heading for dire straits with or without a powerful mayor such as Wilder.

“Because now the executive branch is so strong,” Hicks says, “that person from the poor district, that person representing the poor district, has even less than nothing now. I mean, come on, give me a break,” Hicks fumes. “At least before [the popularly elected mayoral system] you had one-ninth the power that also affected the executive branch. Tell me what that person that’s representing the 9th, and the 6th and the 8th — what do they have now?”

Consider: As the city undergoes housing revival at the behest of a generous tax credit program, there is a lack of affordable housing in the city — as well as manufacturing and industrial jobs. The poor are only getting poorer and condensed geographically, Hicks says. The results can be seen in the criminal justice system, in the schools, in the most recent wave of violent crime.

“One of the reasons we were on such a dangerous path in Richmond with the former leadership wasn’t that they were bad people,” Hicks says. “They didn’t understand the science of economics, ward-science economics. And that’s dangerous.”

Hicks says one problem is the notion that Richmond was on the right path under former City Manager Calvin Jamison and former Mayor Rudy McCollum. The “as long as we’re building stuff we must be doing good concept,” he says, was distracting the city’s political leaders from addressing the housing and education crisis.

Not to mention urban flight. Not that urban flight is altogether bad, but that in the state of Virginia it means moving into another political jurisdiction entirely. Cities such as Atlanta experience many of the same racial problems as Richmond, but when city residents flee the city, they typically land in a suburb that shares the same tax base with Atlanta. Not so in Richmond.

It wasn’t just getting a little farther away from the city, Hicks says: “In Virginia urban flight meant you took your money and left too.”

Could Hicks save us? He’d like to think so. He admits to having a bit of “hero complex” and expresses an affinity for the comic-book variety. But first, he says the political establishment must stop pushing the politics of fear. It’s a misconception, for example, that drugs are the city’s real problem. Rather, it’s economics and education.

“The criminal justice system inherits everyone else’s shortcomings and screw-ups,” Hicks says. “Too many policy-makers who don’t know what the heck they’re doing, and don’t have spines, bluntly, will go to ‘Let’s get tougher, let’s get tougher,’ and it’s amazing that you know we’ll find new ways. It costs approximately $26,000 [a year] to keep an adult in jail; costs upwards of $30,000 to keep a juvenile in jail — and we’ll find new and different ways of keeping people in jail for longer.”

“Then when we talk about some real money for … education, all of a sudden nobody got money for that.”

Hicks often uses his Jersey roots to illustrate a point. He grew up in the ‘hood, and like most of the young people in his old neighborhood, his main objective growing up was to get out. When he was 14, his father was murdered, and for a spell he turned to the streets, attempted to be a “hood.”

But Hicks didn’t fit in with the roughnecks. “I was the skinny kid with the books,” he says. In high school, his nickname was “old man” because of his prematurely graying hair. He entered University of Virginia interested in premed, after all, and wound up in law school. “None of this has been scripted, believe me,” he says.

On the contrary, when Hicks first joined the commonwealth’s attorney’s office in 1990, he became the black sheep in the family. “I did not grow up in a neighborhood where the cops and prosecutors were the good guys,” he says.

While almost everyone who can leave the ghetto eventually does, Hicks says he now recognizes that’s one of the biggest problems. Young people must be taught that they have an obligation to return to their communities, says Hicks, and make a difference.

“All the ghetto is, is a place with a net trade imbalance,” he says. “We’ve got two economic systems right here in Richmond. You’ve got the capitalist system, and then you’ve got the communist/socialist system that you have in every housing project. And if we learned anything from Russia, if you have communism and socialism, the first type of capitalism that will take root is black-market capitalism.”

No one wants to deal with the simple economics, Hicks says. “Economists know that if I take an otherwise socialist system where everything is coming from the government, no one is a wage earner, et cetera, and then I introduce black market capitalism, it will grow and choke out all the life.

“But then I’ll get stupid, and I’ll have Gilpin Court projects, and I’ll have crack dealers, and I’ll wonder why they don’t want to work at McDonald’s for $5.15 an hour,” he continues. “All you’ve got left is concentrated poverty and concentrated hopelessness.”

Hicks says the answer lies in eschewing the labels, taking away the fear factor and attacking the city’s problems in the realistic context of black and white.

But if the current politicians aren’t addressing the problems, who will?

Hicks smiles when the question arises. When will Hicks run for higher office? For the prosecutor who went unopposed in two elections, the most logical next step would be mayor.

His name was often mentioned before Wilder announced his intentions to run in the spring of 2004. Could Hicks succeed Wilder? Or, better yet, is Hicks capable of being a good mayor?

His record is somewhat mixed. Those who worked with Hicks during the early years offer differing accounts.

Hicks had a tendency to micro-manage, some people who worked with him say, and he fired some of the most veteran prosecutors in the office within his first two years in office. Hicks says he had to in order to change the culture. “It was really time for a new direction and a whole new mentality,” he says.

At least one of his early backers, however, who asked not to be named, says the office was devoid of leadership, at least in the first few years. “Perhaps he didn’t exhibit good leadership skills,” says the early supporter, who adds that he thought Hicks was too green to clean house. The move left the office with very little experience.

Yet others say that was precisely what the office needed. Under Morrissey, success was measured by victories and statistics, says one former prosecutor.

Hicks instilled that prosecution was not about winning, but about people and justice.

“It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about numbers,” says Kevin Purnell, a defense attorney who worked as a violent-crimes prosecutor for Hicks from 1994 to 2002.

“The focus was probably about equal justice more than anything else. … You’d rather have a person go free who committed a crime than put one person to death, or one person in jail who is innocent.”

Perhaps the biggest mark against Hicks came in 2000, during a tenuous time at City Hall, as Sa’ad El-Amin came under fire for tax evasion, and Reva Trammell was making headlines for late-night jaunts with a police officer. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Hicks had spent more than $34,000 in taxpayer dollars over five years flying his senior prosecutors to retreats on the West Coast. He also was paying himself bonuses of more than $40,000 over the previous three years.

Hicks defended the bonuses as part of his regular pay — before the bonuses, he was making $145,000 a year — and said the retreats were a necessary part of training and team building for his staff.

Politically, however, he couldn’t escape that the bonuses and retreats were seen as excessive, especially at a time when City Hall was under intense scrutiny. Moeser, however, says the jaunts didn’t appear to hurt his career as one might expect. In his next election, he went unopposed. “I thought that would have crippled his career,” Moeser says.

Hicks also gained a reputation for having an adversarial relationship with police. Hicks protests that it was only one police chief, André Parker, and that he got along swimmingly with former chiefs Jerry Oliver and Marty Tapscott. He also has nothing but praise for the current police chief, Rodney Monroe.

But when a commonwealth’s attorney goes after police officers as he did, the anti-police tag is hard to shake. “The relationships with police were not particularly amicable,” Moeser says.

As for his future in politics, Hicks won’t commit. He likens his relationship with Wilder to something akin to “father and son,” but lately the relationship has been strained. The mayor, when asked to comment on Hicks’ political future, isn’t exactly accommodating.

“David Hicks had promised to look into and bring closure to the Marilyn West case, where she was paying herself $20,000 a month,” the mayor says in a statement, referring to the former chairwoman of the Richmond Hospital Authority who was allegedly paying a firm she owned more than $1 million for services over more than a decade. “Unfortunately, Mr. Hicks had done nothing, and now the matter has to be referred to Mr. Herring for closure. The wasted time is inexcusable.”

Wilder also has harsh words for Hicks concerning Sheriff C.T. Woody’s attempt to gain access to the City Jail before he took office. “Mr. Hicks would not provide assistance in doing so,” Wilder charges. “It’s incumbent upon persons in these types of public offices to perform such duties as would be expected of them.”

At hearing the complaints, Hicks eyes grow wide. He says he did exactly what was expected of him and turned the West case over to the Feds and the state attorney general’s office. As for Woody’s attempt to gain access to the jail — outgoing Sheriff Michelle Mitchell had refused to let him in — he says he agreed he would take action if “there was a violation of law” and asked the city auditor’s office to forward its findings to his office. That never occurred, so Hicks says his hands were tied.

As for Wilder’s vitriolic tone? Hicks smiles. He’s been here before, and surmises that it’s simply Wilder’s way of keeping his younger political siblings at bay.

“It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last,” he says of Wilder’s target practice. Eventually, though, Hicks says Richmond must begin thinking about its future. “Regardless of what you think of Doug, the leadership of the city is in the hands of a 75-year-old man. We still have to deal with the future.”

Hicks says he “doesn’t know” if he’ll eventually run for mayor. But he does vow not to challenge Wilder, who some believe may be eyeing a second term in 2008.

Wilder’s a historical figure, Hicks says, beloved in the African-American community. “I wouldn’t run against Doug Wilder because I’m a boxing fan,” Hicks says.

He offers an analogy: Muhammad Ali’s final championship bout in 1980 against an undefeated Larry Holmes, Ali’s former sparring partner. Ali was beaten so badly that he landed just 10 punches in 10 rounds and couldn’t muster the energy to answer the bell in the 11th. It was history no one wanted to see.

“When Larry Holmes fought Muhammed Ali … I remember the look of look of pain on Holmes’ face doing what he had to do. Holmes was literally crying when he had to do it. Everyone who was watching that was in pain,” Hicks says. “I ain’t boxing Doug.” S


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