How to Steal Land in Montgomery Alabama

Ownership of space lays bare the most despicable human qualities. Our basest measures, our most ruthless acts emerge when we assert ownership and control over land. We steal it, we occupy it by force, we even kill for it. Virtually every brutal war and bloody conflict on our planet today has its roots in the domination and ownership of land, its spaces, its resources, its spirit. Land is the least transient and most stable of human possessions. Its ownership is the bedrock of modern global capitalism, and is more fundamental than the ownership of things, ideas, even money.

Land ownership is at the core of the American project. It is the foundation of this nation and the very essence of the European impact on this continent. North America was unowned before it was colonized. Today, every inch is owned. This kind of ownership is immortal. Humans die, but the religion of land ownership lives on in perpetuity. What’s more, it is almost never questioned. Ownership of land has become axiomatic. It is the basic guiding principle of our social structure, our cultural networks, our economy. It is both the yardstick and the source of all our power, and its ideology is ubiquitous.

In early America owning land was as simple as the willingness to stake a claim where nobody else yet had; provided you were white and male. Something of that frontier mentality still remains today, only now the frontiers have imploded inwards. The literal criteria of white and male have given way to a metaphorical criteria expressing exactly the same privilege and power. It is no longer essential that you be white and male; only the norm. If you are not white and male and have somehow managed to attain privilege or power, you are expected to be grateful and well-behaved, or risk losing your status, your security, your livelihood, your land.

Jimmy McCall is a large man with a soft, round face and hair just beginning to gray at the edges. He speaks in a slow southern accent, deceptively simple in contrast to his quick, intelligent eyes. McCall owns three acres of property near a strip mall in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, and he is building a home there. Nailed to the front of his house are two notices issued by the city of Montgomery. The first reads “Building deemed unsafe under code 44-2006. Unfit for human occupancy.” It’s an odd notice to see on a house that has never been lived in. The second states that the house is slated for demolition within 45 days of September 9th. Today is November 14th. McCall has a hearing before the city council next week in which he will try to convince them not to tear down his house.

“This is the house I’ve been trying to build,” says McCall. We stand inside and he points out its features, the high slanted ceilings, the exposed beams of dark, antique wood. It looks like a charming, spacious home in the making. Door and window frames wait to be fitted. Sawhorses prop up a makeshift table covered in stacks of detailed blueprints.

McCall is visibly upset. Outside, a demolition crew hired by the city of Montgomery is removing a pile of building materials from the side of the house. Later the city will send him a bill for the work. They will put a lien on his property if he doesn’t pay. If the city succeeds in demolishing his house, they will charge him for that too.

Incredibly, less than four months ago McCall saved his house from city-ordered demolition. He hired a lawyer who knew his way around property law and caught the city off guard. McCall agreed to a settlement and reimbursement of his legal fees. But within 3 months the city returned with new charges under a state blight law which gives municipal authorities the right to declare properties a “public nuisance,” offering virtually no specific criteria for that designation. Section 11-53B-2 of Alabama law states the following:

Upon a finding of necessity by the governing body of any incorporated municipality in the state, after giving notice as provided herein the municipality may demolish or repair a building or structure or parts of buildings and structures, party walls, and foundations which are found by the governing body of the municipality to be unsafe to the extent of being a public nuisance from any cause.

The cost of these demolitions is assessed against the value of property in the form of a lien. If the owner refuses to or cannot pay for the work, the city will seize the property and sell the land at a public auction to the highest bidder.

McCall doesn’t know why the city is targeting his land, or how the house he is building constitutes a “public nuisance.” But a few months ago when a city inspector showed up at his property, McCall asked him exactly what he was looking for. “Anything I can find,” the man replied.

In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state and local governments could use eminent domain—the 5th Amendment principle that allows private lands to be taken for public use—to acquire land not only for public works projects like roads and schools, but also for private developers. If a city believed the entire community would be improved by the construction of, say, a shopping mall or a pharmaceutical company, it could forcefully purchase land from its residential owners at fair market value and hand it over to private developers.

It was a controversial ruling. Influential groups like the AARP and the NAACP protested the outcome, and national polls found that a majority of Americans disagreed with it. A number of states, including Alabama, quickly passed laws prohibiting the use of eminent domain for private development. But while middle-class property owners and property-rights advocates lauded Alabama’s forward legislation and gleefully declared the state a safe-haven for private ownership, the city of Montgomery was quietly circumventing eminent domain restrictions to claim land from poor, inner-city neighborhoods, accomplishing exactly what the new laws were supposed to protect against.

Every month the Montgomery city council agenda contains entries like these from December, 2007:

15. Pursuant to Section 11-53B-1 et. seq. Code of Alabama, authorization of demolition of an unsafe structure at 2225 Ajax Street.

16. Pursuant to Section 11-53B-1 et. seq. Code of Alabama, authorization of demolition of an unsafe structure at 4020 Vandiver Court.

17. Pursuant to Section 11-53B-1 et. seq. Code of Alabama, authorization of demolition of an unsafe structure at 510 Virginia Avenue.

On its surface, the agenda seems not unfair. Unsafe structures probably should be demolished or repaired. The problem is in the law’s application. Montgomery has no shortage of dilapidated properties, many of them owned by well connected, prominent city figures. It is rumored that the Mayor himself, Mr. Bobby Bright, owns a boarded up building downtown, a building far more unfit for human occupancy—and far more of a blight considering its central location—than McCall’s house in progress. McCall’s land was the site of an abandoned school which was ignored for years until he bought it. No blight laws were enacted against the previous owner, so why is the city applying them now?

The reasons why cases like McCall’s go unnoticed are brutally simple and commonplace: McCall is poor. He has land that someone with more power and more connections wants. Taking it from McCall gets it to them dirt cheap. Montgomery is an isolated community. The laws are vague, and they are vague for a reason—so they can be easily manipulated and applied at will by those who stand to benefit from their selective application. Be it for a new shopping mall, a climate-controlled storage unit, a toothbrush factory or town homes, McCall’s land is more valuable to the city of Montgomery as something other than a single family dwelling.

“Eventually they’re gonna find something to stick,” says McCall’s lawyer Norman Hurste. “It’s called the shotgun effect what they’re doing right now. You run here, they’re going to take another shot, because they’re the government. They can do it.”

Hurste believes the law being used against McCall should be stricken from the books— “When you deal with vague terms then it can become arbitrary and capricious”—but he’s doubtful this will happen. Hurste has already proven in court that the city of Montgomery has taken property unlawfully, skipped required informal hearings, failed to give proper notice and circumvented their own laws, but it doesn’t matter. “I’m dealing with phone calls from Mr. McCall where they’ve settled a case and I’ve got their word of honor, and 3 to 4 months later the check’s still warm in the bank and they’re back down there, so it’s not a victory, because whatever they give you, they keep coming back. They don’t give up.”

There are only two weapons to fight the current system with, according to Hurste: galvanized public outrage or lots and lots of money. A man like Jimmy McCall is unlikely to produce either. “Jimmy’s in it big time,” says Hurste, “I mean I would say that he’s pretty much been done. Unscrupulous. It’s just a modern day lynching.”

The city of Montgomery boasts a unique history of dominance and oppression. Its original inhabitants, the Alibamu Indians, were driven off before 1800 to make way for white settlers. Montgomery was the first capital of the Confederate States of America. In 1962 Alabama governor George Wallace stood on the steps of the capitol building and promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Present day, white-dominated Montgomery happily declares itself the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, and in doing so skillfully co-opts the empowerment message while slyly obscuring the conditions that lead to its rise. Rosa Park’s immortalized act on a Montgomery city bus is a testament to courage and action in the face of oppression, but its very existence points to a truth that remains insufficiently challenged in Montgomery today: occupation of space that has been claimed by the powerful is a threat that will not be tolerated.

Having gradually spread itself over the entirety of this continent, the culture of land ownership and dominance promulgated by the privileged and powerful has turned its gaze inwards and begun recanvassing the new frontier spaces of America: inner cities, suburban slums and urban ghettos. These spaces, where the poor have traditionally staked their own meager, crumb-like claims on land are the sparkling investment opportunities of the future. A society whose prosperity and abundance rests on a legacy of genocide and displacement of Native Americans cannot be expected to honor the rights of the poor. Though the methods are more cultivated and the approach less overtly brutal, the legacy of domination by land control has remained unchanged since this continent was colonized.

Author’s Note:

This article would have been impossible without the help and guidance of Jim Peera. The city of Montgomery’s Mayor’s Office and City Council both refused to comment. At the time of writing, Jimmy McCall’s house is still standing.