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Dressed in a black suit and red shirt, with chains draped over his body, Imanuel Reed looks more like the Rev. Al Sharpton than an environmental consultant. Invited by Mayor Ruby Cook, he is here to tell Brooklyn, Ill., village trustees his findings. He suspects 1993 floodwaters that ran through a railroad yard in this Mississippi River town have left deadly residue. He tells them he has taken soil samples and that what he's found doesn't look good: Lead. Barium. Mercury. Arsenic.
"Damn!" gasp some in the audience of about 30. Others shake their heads with suspicion, the leading commodity here in Brooklyn. Less than five minutes into Reed's talk, Trustee Dennis Miller looks less than alarmed. He tells Reed to get to the point.
Reed tells the good folk of Brooklyn that the chains hanging from his neck and arms symbolize their plight. Villagers are shackled, he preaches, their lives held hostage by unseen chemicals that could eventually extract a deadly toll -- not exactly a Chernobyl, he says, but, nonetheless, poison left by outsiders. Reed then turns from pollution to personalities. Pointing, he demands, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" Charles Douglas answers, calmly, that he's the attorney. At the last meeting, Reed had referred to him as "the white boy."
Reed ends by saying he's going across the street to the village hall and that anyone who wants more information can see him there. No one follows him out the door of the senior center.
Now it's on to committee and departmental reports. There's $2,000 in the general fund, not enough to buy street signs. The garbage truck is broken. "What's the situation with the fire truck?" Miller asks.
It's common knowledge that the bank has repossessed one of the town's two fire engines and that the other one, nearly 30 years old, is broken. The village has been borrowing rigs from nearby cities, but St. Louis needs its truck back on Friday. Fire trucks have been a problem in the past -- four children died in a 1994 apartment fire while the village's aging pumper wheezed to the scene, a quarter-mile trip that took 10 minutes.
"Anyone from the fire department?" Cook asks. No.
The discussion moves on to street lights, a municipal garage and other projects for which the town has no money. Someone asks about bills. "There's a list there, but we won't be able to pay them," Cook answers. Who hired the police dispatcher? "We'll explain that in an executive meeting," Cook responds. "All personnel is in executive meeting." Finally it's time for public discussion, the reason Police Chief Jerome Young began the meeting by warning that anyone who gets out of hand will be removed: "There'll be no whooping and hollering like there was last time."
He might just as well have said, "Ready, set, go!" Someone in the audience complains that another check has bounced. "It cost us $18," the man complains. "We don't want no more checks from the village." Then he starts complaining about Reed. "I don't know what the hell he's doing here," the man says, prompting Cook to bring down the gavel.
"C'mon," the man pleads. "I just said 'hell.'"
Cook explains she was looking out for the best interests of the village when she invited Reed to look into possible pollution. Several in the audience say they're skeptical -- all the chains and preaching in the world won't convince them that Reed's not in it for himself. "People come here with ulterior motives," observes Miller, Cook's main political adversary. "Don't let no one come in and control your town."
From the back of the room, Sundiata Keita Cha-jua, a history professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, agrees that Reed's presentation was terrible. That said, Brooklyn wouldn't be the first African-American community to suffer the consequences of industrial pollution, he says. "Do you disrespect a correct message because a fool delivers it?" he asks. "Regardless of his behavior, you've got to deal with the issue. I'm saying, look at the data. If you don't like him, bring in someone else to do it."
The debate continues. Voices are raised, accusations exchanged. Nothing is decided -- the trustees don't take a single vote before retreating to executive session. Outside, the bickering continues. Reed saunters back from the village hall and is soon arguing with citizens waiting for the end of the executive session.
Lord knows what's going on inside. The IRS recently informed trustees that the village owes $400,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties -- and they'll be held personally liable if the village can't come up with the money. Meanwhile, Frankie Banks, the former village treasurer, has just been indicted on theft charges -- federal prosecutors say she embezzled more than $100,000. Trustees, who say Banks gambled much of the money away at the Casino Queen, also want Cook removed from office. Cook's supporters say Miller and other trustees are making accusations for political reasons -- they want a palace coup.
Trustee Pamela Calvert emerges looking tired. "No one person is right and no one person is wrong," she declares. "It's a struggle. We just want to survive. People are not seeing the struggle we're going through. We're trying. We may have rough spots. The only thing that's going to do it is to pull together. It just hurts. I love my town."