Hunting witches with monsters of our creation
November 29, 2006
We look back with disdain and horror at the communities in the past that wound up burning people at the stake because they purportedly cavorted with demons. Innocent people, because they were perhaps a bit peculiar, were mercilessly tortured in the process of being savagely murdered. In those dark times, if you ended up crosswise with the wrong person, you could be anonymously accused of practicing witchcraft, and your options were reduced to admitting the charges and implicating other innocent associates in the process, or denying them to face a fiery death.Yes, we are tricky creatures that can easily spot the horrible sins of our kind three centuries behind us, yet we are blind to similar, disguised injustices being committed directly in front of us. If you haven’t seen it lately, you may be looking too far away.We have a local witch. She’s a senior citizen. Being past retirement age and still laboring, people like her systematically become societal pariahs in our Madison Avenue culture of boundless youth and wealth. She’s an unashamed smoker and proves it with a gravely voice. Her laugh is a cackle reminiscent of Elphaba. Oftentimes she dresses in black and wears unusual hats. Her political views are boldly conservative in a town of erudite liberals. She is not like anyone you’ve ever met in Aspen.But what does it matter if this person is or is not a witch? In these enlightened times we don’t burn them alive.Quite right, I must agree. Rather, we evict them from their homes, knowing full well that options for housing are scarce and that the evictee might even have to leave town. Yes, that’s what we do; we run them out of town!In case you’ve been under a spell since Thanksgiving Eve, 72-year-old Sheryl Robinson’s lease at her government-subsidized affordable senior citizen housing unit is not being renewed by the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority. For an elderly woman living off the not-so-extravagant wages she earns from cleaning dirty offices and homes, this is a wicked spell.Does she qualify financially for the low income housing she is “not technically” being evicted from? Yes, there is no doubt about this. If she had a trust fund, do you think anyone here would be treating her like a witch?Has she broken any Housing Authority rules to warrant having her home taken away? According to APCHA director Tom McCabe, she has not.Has she threatened, harmed, or injured anyone, in any way? The answer to this is also “no.”Does she pay her rent on time and abide by her lease agreement? According to a published newspaper report in The Aspen Times by John Colson, APCHA Property Management Supervisor Cindy Tucker-Davis has called Robinson “for the most part … a good tenant.”Well then, she must be a scofflaw of notoriety to deserve this treatment. No? According to McCabe, she has not violated any rules. Colson’s report quoted him as saying that what she has violated are “more like social norms.” The same report quotes Tucker-Davis as saying that Robinson “has a reputation of doing things that just put [her] at odds with some folks.”A letter dated Nov. 21, from Tucker-Davis to Robinson explaining why the lease would not be renewed, officially put words into print accusing Robinson of being “unnerving,” “grouchy,” “evil” and “creepy,” making others feel “uneasy,” describing her as “appear[ing] out of nowhere,” and “seem[ing] to be everywhere.”The way I see it, Sheryl Robinson is messy vitality personified. That’s what we lament the continued loss of here, right?This woman is losing her home because she has violated “social norms”? Her lease is not being renewed because she “has a reputation for doing things that put her at odds with some folks”? Does anyone really believe that she can “appear out of nowhere” while “be[ing] everywhere”? Wake up, Aspen – this is our witch hunt!I cannot recall any more frightening situation with a government agency in more than 40 years living in this community. With more than a third of our population residing in government-controlled employee housing, we should all be alarmed.This is not happening in a private apartment complex where landlords have every right to engineer almost any social climate they desire. This is taxpayer-financed housing, approved and constructed to house people who have no other options to live here. In part, we build it to keep local characters local. If Sheryl (or any of the thousands of other people living in deed restricted units) loses this housing, there are scant alternatives except to pack up and leave. It is a heavy axe to wield over the heads of “lottery winners.”Remember, this woman’s only crime is being a little different. The APCHA has exposed the frightening muscle we voters have given it. Apparently, Tom McCabe and Cindy Tucker-Davis have the power and authority to begin the sanitization of Aspen’s work force as they see fit. Unique people need not apply!Never mind that you may follow each and every one of the myriad rules this bureaucracy prescribes to qualify for and keep your employee housing; if these people find that you exhibit some odd behaviors you might lose your home, too!APCHA has usurped the roles of legislature, jury, and judge. Without ever involving local law enforcement, they have tried Sheryl Robinson for “crimes” that they have invented. They have convicted her on hearsay evidence from accusers who remain secreted, without any semblance of due process. They have sentenced her to life someplace other than where she wants to live. Scary!And, with housing so difficult in this town, I’ll wager that only the most creatively sinister among us can imagine how much worse this unbridled power play can get. People desperate for scarce living quarters can be manipulated in many cruel ways, especially once they are in the system.The report in The Aspen Times ended with McCabe stating that he feared this situation with Robinson could turn dangerous. “I hope I’m wrong,” he says. “I hope Sheryl’s fine, and she’s stable, and she’ll be all right. [But] I’d rather opt on the side of being safe, rather than sorry.”You’re too late, Tom. The evil spirits have been unleashed. The danger is already upon us.Roger Marolt is not too worried about the entire amount of danger all 72 years and 105 pounds of Sheryl Robinson can brew up. Hex him at firstname.lastname@example.org.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.