A controversial black gay AIDS activist has been run out of town with a bloody nose--assaulted by an apartment manager, he says, a convicted drug dealer who worked for his former employer and arch enemy: the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver. The dispute, which took place in an apartment complex for poor black people with AIDS, resulted in fights, arrests and a petition campaign by other AIDS sufferers but little action from the Urban League.
Love him or hate him, stormy Steve Arrington is generally credited with forcing Denver's black community to recognize and deal with the AIDS epidemic. But as an activist, he often antagonized other AIDS agencies and government officials by accusing them of racism whenever he perceived inequities in services and funding. And last fall he openly criticized the Urban League for weakening the AIDS outreach program he directed before becoming too ill ("On the Outside," December 21, 1994).
Among Arrington's accomplishments was helping secure a federal Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS loan (HOPWA) to purchase and renovate a small, single-story apartment complex in Capitol Hill. Four of the six tiny apartments were set aside to house low-income blacks with AIDS who would otherwise be homeless; there was a food bank in the basement. The Northeast Denver Housing Center received the low-interest loan and owns the building.
A year ago, Arrington, who had already survived several bouts with AIDS-related infections, got sick again and had to quit his job with the Urban League's Black AIDS Project at Large (B-A-PAL). He moved into the apartments as a client.
That's when he began to run into trouble with Ken Williams, who managed the complex through a joint agreement between Northeast Denver Housing and the Urban League. In exchange for free rent, Williams maintained the premises for the housing agency. He received a salary of $475 every two weeks from B-A-PAL to look after the daily needs of the people with AIDS.
Arrington describes Williams as a convicted drug dealer and bully who assaulted him three times over minor incidents. Witnesses to scenes between the two men say that Arrington got the brunt of Williams's antagonism because he was the only one to stand up to the apartment manager.
But Williams says the animosity began over sex and that his accuser's public face is much different from his private persona.
"The problems began because Steve is gay and I'm heterosexual," Williams says. "From the first time we met, he's been trying to sleep with me and making all kinds of sexual overtures.
"I've told him, `Steve, I'm not interested, so just chill out and we can be friends.' I'm pretty liberal, so I don't care what he does to make himself happy so long as it doesn't infringe on me."
But Arrington continued to make advances, Williams says, reminding him that he had set up the interview that got Williams the job.
Arrington insists that Williams is gay and that they had a sexual relationship. In fact, he says, Williams is representative of a major problem with AIDS in the black community: black men who have male lovers but don't think of themselves as being homosexual or bisexual.
"That's why AIDS is so concentrated in African-American women," says Arrington. "Because guys like Kenny are with a woman this year and next year with a man--and I'm not his first boyfriend."
Last September 4, Arrington claims, he was weeding dandelions from a flower garden in front of the building when Williams angrily informed him that groundskeeping was his job. Arrington says his response was that in a community living situation, "everyone can help." Williams then punched him in the nose, he says, breaking it. Three people--a friend and a relative of Arrington's, as well as an apartment resident--say they witnessed the incident.
Williams's version is that Arrington was stealing flowers that Williams had purchased and planted in front of his apartment. It was when he was attempting to retrieve his flowers, "which weren't dandelions," that Arrington "slipped and fell" on the sidewalk, bloodying his nose.
Arrington says the flowers were purchased with money donated to B-A-PAL. "Kenny wouldn't know a weed from a flower," he says. "But next thing I know is, I'm waking up on the ground with blood all over the place."
Arrington reported the assault to B-A-PAL caseworker Laura McDowell, who called him back and said that Williams began to cry when confronted and then apologized. McDowell discussed the incident and Williams's attitude with other apartment residents, who, she reported, displayed "a sense of discomfort...not at ease in their surroundings."
Her report of the incident to the Urban League also stated that regardless of whatever personality conflicts there were between Arrington and Williams, "when one puts his hands on the other, a line has been crossed...especially when the physical abuse comes from a person in an authority position."
It wasn't long before the two men were at it again. On October 3, Arrington says, he complained to Williams about a loud argument the apartment manager was having with his girlfriend. Williams, who has a history of domestic-violence disturbances requiring police response, knocked Arrington to the ground.
Williams contends that the second incident was the result of Arrington's drug habits. "Everybody in this city knows that he's a drug head," Williams says. "There's a few dealers in the neighborhood, and they were constantly in and out of his apartment. Every time he walked out of his apartment, you could see he was high on cocaine."
On the night of the assault, Williams says, he was in his apartment talking to his former girlfriend, his mother and his stepfather when Arrington knocked on the door requesting a can of tomato paste.
"My mom said, `What are you talking to him for? He's obviously high.' I told my mom to be quiet, but they got to arguing."
The argument between Arrington and Williams's mother continued outside and, Williams says, Arrington pushed his mother.
"I was in shock," Williams says. "My stepfather grabbed my mom, because she has a 9-millimeter handgun and she's crazy. I grabbed Steve and pushed him.
"My mom says to call the police, and Steve took off running. That was about eleven o'clock. When Steve came back about 2 a.m., I called the police back and they came out. My mom filed charges against him, but he also filed charges against me for pushing him."
Williams was charged with assault, pleaded guilty and received a deferred judgment--meaning that if he meets the terms of his probation, the conviction will not appear on his record. The charges against Arrington were dismissed.
"Everybody who knows me knows that I don't do drugs," says Arrington. "In fact, when I found out about Kenny's record, I told the Urban League he should be out of there. But they didn't do nothing."
Williams admits that he served four years in prison after his arrest in Arizona on drug charges twelve years ago. "I did my time and kept my nose clean ever since," he says.
Brian Dino, the program manager for the Urban League, denies that the agency knew about Williams's drug conviction.
"Wow," Dino says when asked by Westword, "this is the first I've heard of that." He then begins laughing and says, "That's our boy, Arrington."
On October 4, the day after the second incident between Williams and Arrington, all of the AIDS residents in the apartment complex signed a petition requesting that the Urban League remove Williams. They complained that he was unable to work with the residents to provide "a harmonious place to live," that he failed to provide services in a "willing" manner, that his fights with his girlfriend were "disturbing the peace" and that he intimidated residents.
The Urban League placed Williams on 45 days' probation. Dino wrote a letter to the apartment residents informing them of the probation but adding that "because of a lack of credible evidence," the investigation into the two alleged assaults on Arrington was "inconclusive." Williams kept his job.
The Northeast Denver Housing Center took no action. Spokesman Gete Mekonnen says his agency considered the incidents to be "person-to-person" and therefore the responsibility of the league. "We preferred to take a back seat," Mekonnen says.
Williams contends that it was Arrington who "emotionally intimidated" the other residents into siding with him by reminding them that the apartments they lived in were achieved through his efforts.
Williams got through his probation period, but he and Arrington tangled again in January. This time, Arrington says, Williams was upset because he thought that Arrington had left the door to the laundry room open. He came over demanding Arrington's key to the room and, when Arrington refused, pushed him down.
Williams says he was upset because Arrington was letting "his drug-dealer friends and people who were not HIV-positive" take items from the food-bank room, which was also in the basement. Because of the missing food items, Williams says he went to Arrington's apartment to demand his key to the basement. Williams admits pushing him down and taking the key from his pocket after Arrington refused to give it to him.
Arrington contacted a lawyer, Steve Silvern, who threatened to sue the league so that his client could afford to move out of the apartment complex, where he no longer felt safe. The matter was referred to the Ohio Casualty Group, the Urban League's insurer, for settlement. Arrington offered to settle for $9,000. But when the insurance carrier requested to see his medical files, especially psychiatric records, before agreeing to any settlement, Arrington refused.
"It'd be like giving your worst enemy your most private confidences to gloat over," says Silvern. "Steve didn't want to do that."
The Urban League made no move to get rid of Williams, but his contract ran out at the end of June. Williams says he's moving to another state and doesn't care what Arrington says about him. "Everybody in this city knows he's a liar, anyway," he adds.
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Dino says the Urban League didn't get rid of Williams, because the reported assaults were a "he-said, she-said sort of thing."
Reminded that Williams had pleaded guilty to assault, Dino says, "Well, I guess that all I can say is that the program survived, thank God...Arrington was a thorn in our side."
B-A-PAL will no longer have an on-site manager at the apartments, Dino says, mostly because HOPWA funds may be axed from the federal budget. However, the Urban League has contracted with Northeast Denver Housing to continue providing caseworkers paid for from another federal fund.
Arrington, meanwhile, has moved to Ohio, where he grew up and where his mother now lives. And he has two new jobs--managing a housing project for people with AIDS and coordinating an AIDS-education program for the Urban League of Cleveland.