A street-smart activist makes a bid for City Hall

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series of interviews with candidates running for Tacoma City Council. For earlier interviews with contenders Marty Campbell, Jonathan Phillips, David Curry, Marilyn Strickland, Harold Moss, Donald Powell, and incumbent Spiro Manthou, visit the Index archives online.

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One recent afternoon, Hilltop resident Jack Pleasant dropped a glossy photo album on his kitchen table, opened its cover, and pointed to the first page — a photocopied newspaper article that depicted a man grimacing and clearly in pain, shot and wounded on a corner just a few blocks away from Pleasant’s home.

“Thirteen years ago, this community was literally on fire,” explained Pleasant, who lives at the end of a narrow slice of South I Street, near South 25th Street. Entitled “The Battle for Change — 1995,” the album records efforts that Pleasant and his neighbors made 12 years ago as members of McCarver Action Group: empty and overgrown lots were cleaned up; abandoned furniture and piles of trash were hauled away; and neighborhood walks monitored activities of the notorious 25th Street Crips, which were reporrted to local police.

“That used to be called Smoke Hill,” he said, pointing to photographs of a narrow street at the end of his sloped backyard. “We didn’t have to watch ‘Cops’ on TV. We had it right here. There was a regular parade of things going on in Smoke Hill.”

To be sure, his neighborhood isn’t entirely crime-free. Last year, he had a run-in with a gang member who was allegedly trespassing his property. It’s unclear which action eventually removed the thug from the neighborhood: pressure from Pleasant and Tacoma police on the landlord of a home frequented by the gang member; or the gang member’s arrest and conviction for a murder last summer outside a downtown nightclub.

This year, Pleasant, 49, is running for the District 3 position on Tacoma City Council. The position represents the Hilltop neighborhood, and areas of Central and South Tacoma. It will be vacated by incumbent Councilmember Tom Stenger, who announced he will not seek re-election. Others have entered the race: Fair Housing of Washington executive director Lauren Walker; attorney Donald Powell; and pastor Ronnie Allen Warren.

Pleasant was born in Germany, and, as a kid, moved from city to city due to his father’s work as a mechanic for the U.S. Air Force. A brief spell living in South Central Los Angeles would foretell his later activities fighting gangs in Tacoma. He arrived in Pierce County at a young age after his father was stationed at McChord.

Today, Pleasant is running on a platform of fighting what he says is a resurgence of gang activity in the neighborhood. Battling gangs and criminal activity, he says, is something he’s tackled since moving to the Hilltop with his wife, Susan, 13 years ago (the couple has four children). At the time, his neighborhood was overrun by gang members: within two years of moving into his home, seven people were shot within a two-block radius. And the narrow, hidden street outside his home afforded drug dealers and gang members a level of cover.

“Financially, we could have lived anywhere in the city we wanted,” said Pleasant. “But we wanted to take a stand. We were young enough. Some people would say dumb enough — to do what we did. It makes me feel good.”

I met Pleasant, a helicopter mechanic, in his Hilltop home — a modest, two story row house that he restored himself. He disccused the city, his candidacy, and his experience living in Tacoma over glasses of lemonade on his backyard deck, which affords a view of some of downtown’s skyscrapers, a slice of the tide flats, and the arched Tacoma Dome rooftop. In a few days, he would fly to Las Vegas, Nev., for a spell working with a helicopter flight academy.

INDEX: Why have you decided to run for City Council?

PLEASANT: What turned it for me was the realization of what Tacoma is in for. Tacoma is in for a big shock, and it will be happening in not too many years. Seattle has already caught wind of it, and that is why they are re-enacting their gang unit. They are being proactive. There is going to be another emergence of the gangs that were here. The 25th Street Crips are the predominant group in this area. They are still here, still alive. They’re not as well as they used to be, but the difference is they are educated now. The new generation is regrouping, finding its base again, and being educated as far as what you can do, what you can’t do, and how to skirt the system. For us on the streets, we know it’s coming. Gang members today are not as in-your-face as they were before because [criminals] have learned you can’t do that. You have to be a little bit more discreet. Case in point: I know two houses on this block that today are dealing drugs. The police know about them, they know everything about them — but they have learned how to fly just under the radar that they don’t become an issue enough for the police department to address. I know, as a community activist working on the streets and trying to bring about a positive change to this city, it only works if it falls in line with whatever programs or directions the city has adopted for itself. It has nothing to do with the population. It has only to do with the leadership. I guess it’s just time for me to get in there and really bring about a positive change for the community.

INDEX: Why did you move to the Hilltop and involve yourself in neighborhood activism and tackling gangs?

PLEASANT: At that time, they called us ‘urban pioneers.’ There was a call for people to come to Tacoma and help out on the streets and see if we could change the atmosphere in Tacoma. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible. Every rumor was true. It was like the Wild West out here. In this neighborhood, we had drug houses all over the place. We had gangs so thick you couldn’t even get through this alley. We were even told at the time, if we had any problems getting to our house — and this was from the police — just run them over and call when we get to the house. It was hard. It was very hard. But we just always had this sense to give back. And we had the tools, education, and ability to make a difference. We gave it a shot. It worked out well. One thing I told people in this neighborhood — because I was right in the street, right in the middle of the gangs, and it was the only way to make a difference — was the first thing you had to do was establish yourself as somebody that wasn’t a threat, but wanted change. To do that, you had to gain their respect. My wife had me take out a $500,000 life insurance policy right off the bat because she knew what I was going to do, and the threat was that extreme. I confronted the gangs head on. It was dicey.

INDEX: So you would just go out into the street and confront gang members?

PLEASANT: Right into the middle, and say, ‘What is going on?’ They were shocked because they had never been confronted like that. Most people who lived in the area gave them free reign. They were afraid of them. For me, sure, I wasn’t stupid. I knew I could be taken out at any time. But I wasn’t prepared to cause them the kind of grief that they would have to retaliate against. I was basically there trying to wake them up.

INDEX: When did things turn for the better?

PLEASANT: There was a big transition period of about four or five years maybe when a lot of the old gang bangers were either killed, sent to prison, or got smart and got the heck out of here. I guess it was about 1998 that the big change came. Part of that was because of the things the City of Tacoma was doing at that time that were extremely influential as far as dispersing this gang culture that had basically taken root in this area. It’s really one of those affairs where everyone was thinking of doing the same thing at the same time. The City of Tacoma was thinking, ‘We’ve got to clean up this stuff because we look really, really bad.’ The community was saying, ‘We’ve had enough.’ That’s what really turned things around. It was a great thing to see.

INDEX: You’ve described your involvement as going out there and facing down gang members. Did you get involved in neighborhood groups, neighborhood councils, or block watch programs?

PLEASANT: We started our own neighborhood group. That was the thing at the time — mobilize neighborhoods into smaller groups so that you could kind of keep an eye on what really means the most for you. For most people, it’s just their general area that they paid the most attention to. It was important to start those small groups and get them active. McCarver Action Group is the one we started. It doesn’t really have an official base now. But back then, when it was really necessary, we had a large base of people actively involved in cleanups and things of that nature, and even helping other neighborhoods in the Hilltop deal with their issues that we had experience dealing with, and had the ability to help. A lot of the clean-up stuff was very important. McCarver Action Group is something that we still receive calls for every once in awhile to address issues. But times have changed. When the gangs finally got busted up, and they really weren’t cohesive anymore, and the leadership was knocked out, then it became one of those situations where we went into a transition mode. It’s a transition mode and, frankly, it’s scaring me.

INDEX: You think the increased gang activity is going to start cycling back through, right? When you say ‘generational transition,’ do you mean the kids of those earlier gang members are getting to their teenage and adult years, right?

PLEASANT: That’s right. It’s getting passed on from generation to generation. And these kids are having kids much younger. You’re getting a group of children that don’t know how to wipe their butts, but they know how to act like a gang banger. What has gone wrong?

INDEX: How closely have you followed City Council?

PLEASANT: I stay up on City Council all the time. I get the agendas and I’m always watching those things — issues that really hit the core, and nobody is saying anything about them — it’s so important to a community that certain issues are addressed from that viewpoint. Not from the economic side but from the community side, which is why I’ve gone to City Hall and addressed certain issues.