Fighting Fire With Fire
Volatile black activist Alvertis Simmons says he's leaving his job of three years as the mayor's neighborhood-watch coordinator to wage his own fight against the myriad social problems he sees facing Denver.
"I'm looking forward to leaving the city," he says enthusiastically from his sixteenth-floor office across the street from the City and County Building. "I need to be where I'm not restricted. In the city, I'm restricted. I'm like a thoroughbred horse, ready to race."
However, Simmons's stride was slowed a few months ago when the city revoked his cellular phone after he ran up a huge bill, the latest in a series of controversies that have surrounded him during the past year. He was also criticized for his confrontational handling of local rallies in support of the Million Man March. But Simmons blasts others for inaction. He describes Denver's black middle class as "too fat," and his comments and actions have angered many.
"He's not too welcome in the community right now," says black activist Nick Walker, of Citizens Concerned About Minorities in Aurora. "He proved such an embarrassment--at least, that's the feeling I'm getting. With the Million Man March and the cell phone, his ego exceeded his capacity, and he ended up pissing off just about everyone."
Some people try to separate Simmons's actions from his raw style. "I just think we have a young brother who had a very difficult time," says John Bailey, executive director of 100 Black Men of Denver, a nonprofit organization that helps young black men. "He had a lot of energy and ideas--and like most young brothers, [he's] stubborn. But he's a good young brother."
But what exactly has Simmons done from his sixteenth-floor, $31,000-a-year post with the city? He has eleven neighborhoods in north and northeast Denver in which he is responsible for administering watch programs, but the president of a Globeville neighborhood association says there is no program in her area, and a member of another says Simmons hasn't come out for a neighborhood-watch meeting in more than a year.
"Basically, I just get them started," Simmons says. "Check up on them in six months. If there's a problem, I get back over these. I don't just go out and say, 'Here I am.' They have to pick up the phone. I'm not gonna please everybody."
Others say he has been active in their neighborhoods. Currently, Simmons is trying to organize a block party at 33rd and Fillmore to dislodge a local gang. Priscilla McConnell, a nine-year resident of the neighborhood who lives at 32nd and Fillmore, says Simmons "has been at every meeting we've asked him to come to and done his job, trying to curtail gang vandalism and chaos. He just comes through the block and asks the neighborhood what's going on." His work as an official coordinator will end, however, because Simmons says he's leaving city work "soon" for other ventures.
But at the same time Simmons confidently talks about his future, he also seems like a wounded animal--proud, worn down by criticism of his explosive personality, and always looking to fight back.
A self-described leader who's not averse to comparing himself with martyred black leaders such as Malcolm X, Simmons says he's been "singled out" by the press because of his controversial past. "Why don't they talk about how many times I've closed down crack houses?" he says. "Why don't they talk about how many times I stood out in the bitter cold so we could have a Martin Luther King parade? Why don't they talk about the kids I help in Juvenile Hall? Why in the hell do they talk about a cellular phone? It's baloney and bullshit."
But there have been articles about his good deeds, including a long, glowing profile in the Denver Post back in January. Stories have detailed the time he led protesters for fifteen weeks on a rally against drug dealers at the corner of Humboldt and 22nd last summer. Or his door-to-door efforts in Park Hill last January to help ferret out the killers of 3-year-old Casson Evans, shot in the head in his car seat.
It's the more critical coverage that gets his goat. Like Election Day last year, when Simmons, working as an aide to Mayor Wellington Webb, reportedly kicked down several campaign signs belonging to mayoral candidate Mary DeGroot and had enough tense run-ins with candidate Bob Crider and his staff that they hired an off-duty Denver cop.
It was reported that he encouraged kids to boycott George Washington High School in March and that he was at the center of a battle against the Denver Public Schools to permit a Million Man March rally at the school the following month.
Later in April, while spearheading Denver's low-turnout Million Man March, he alienated Hispanic and Native American organizations interested in participating.
And in March 1995, Westword reported that Simmons had been arrested three times since 1983. The first two times were for shoplifting (he wound up with a deferred judgment as a first-time offender) and assault (stemming from a domestic-violence incident; he pled guilty, went through court-ordered counseling and had the incident expunged from his record). The third time, he was taken into custody after an altercation with his wife, but a charge of disturbing the peace was dropped. It was the last time he spoke with Westword until until now.
Simmons complains about his poor treatment by the press, yet he seems to thrive on the publicity. "I know you need to print controversy," he says. "I just say, 'Print what you want.'"
His most recent notoriety involved his use of a city-issued cellular phone. Between January 1995 and May 1996, Simmons ran up a bill of about $7,600, more than $1,000 of which was piled up while he was on leave from the city for two months early this year, coordinating the local Million Man March rally. "No, I shouldn't have used the cellular phone in the two months I wasn't working, but I paid that off," he says, dismissing the affair with a look of irritation. "There was no intent to fraud or do anything wrong."
Even some city officials share his annoyance. Asked to comment on Simmons, Councilman Hiawatha Davis, whose district includes several of Simmons's neighborhoods, praises his work at 33rd and Fillmore and says, "Is this another 'Kick Alvertis's Butt' story? He has a determination and idealism that he can help a lot of people solve these problems, and he doesn't mind rolling up his sleeves and working to do it. I would like to see more people help him carry the load."
But Davis says Simmons has become a "victim of his own enthusiasm for trying to right a lot of wrongs. He's made some mistakes, like predicting the Million Man March was gonna fill up Mile High Stadium with 70,000 people." Or, the councilman adds, like Simmons's misuse of his cell phone.
Larry Borom, former head of community relations for Denver Health and Hospitals, says of the cell-phone incident, "This is one of the problems the city has had in terms of not having good management. He's an example of having overdone it more than others, but I would guess there are others who have abused that privilege."
Simmons agrees, but he's not about to name names. "The DA's office was asked to investigate me, and they didn't turn up anything, but nobody's written about that," Simmons says. "Print that."
The DA's Economic Crime Unit did investigate Simmons's cell-phone use for a few weeks, but "ran into a wall right at the start," says Chief Deputy DA Phil Parrott. "We had insufficient evidence to prove a criminal violation beyond a reasonable doubt." The city records were at the time not itemized, Parrott says, and there wasn't a clear policy on cell-phone use.
Simmons was required by the city to pay $4,000--one half of his total bill. Shortly after the story broke, Rocky Mountain News columnist Robert Jackson wrote that several people--he won't say who--had asked him how they could contribute money to pay off Simmons's bill. Jackson says he called the mayor's office to find out where checks could be sent.
The mayor's office told him to send checks to the Manager of the Department of Revenue, and Jackson wrote that in his column. "All we did was say, 'Here's what you would do if people wanted to do it,' because that's where Alvertis is sending his check, too," says Andrew Hudson, the mayor's spokesman. The solicitation was news to Cheryl Coen, manager of the revenue department, who says, "I read it in the News and thought it was satire."
So far, it essentially is, because no one has anted up for Alvertis--except Simmons himself, who had paid off $938.08 of his bill as of late last week, Coen says. He has until next May to pay the city back the full $4,000. After that, though, Hudson says Simmons "will never get the phone back again."
That's one more restriction that presumably will be erased when he goes solo.
"Maybe I'm before my time," he muses. "Malcolm was before his time. Maybe they'll just look back in twenty years and say, 'Alvertis had it right.' Maybe they'll name a block after me--but I'm not interested in that. I'll be buried under it, and they'll go right over me."
Maybe Alvertis Simmons Drive?
He nods. "They'll drive right over me.
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