The combustible crusader

Gabe Kaimowitz thinks I am after him.

He has sent an e-mail accusing me of threatening his office with a bomb because I returned a bagful of documents, unannounced. By that time in our once-friendly relationship, the attorney and self-proclaimed civil-rights soldier already had accused me of lying about the premise of this article -- to profile a man whose voluminous writings and legal filings accuse Orlando of upholding segregation -- and told me to get out of journalism.

"Let's be honest shall we? Let our hair down?" he wrote. "You don't respect me. And I sure, baby, don't respect you. But score one for your side. Nobody has fooled me as much as you did in a long time. Well, time to put the paranoia suit on again. I presume this will find its way into your distorted masterpiece. Good luck. What a waste."

I'd been warned. I knew Kaimowitz could be difficult, rude, peevish. I was told that getting to the bottom of his allegations would be like running through a marsh; the more you struggle, the less you're likely to find a solid foundation.

But I also knew that here was a man seen by some in heroic terms. Among his victories in the 1970s and '80s, Kaimowitz successfully litigated one of the most famous mental-health cases in American history. He forced a nation to consider whether "black English" was separate and distinct from standard English. He was among a group of attorneys representing black and Hispanic voters who held up the re-election of New York Mayor Ed Koch.

Such battles gave Kaimowitz influential allies. "He has been a champion against apartheid and racism in this country, much to his financial sacrifice `and` his pledge of duty over remuneration," says John Brittain, dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University.

"I admire his zeal," says Orlando attorney Steve Mason, a maverick himself. "There's many people who don't believe in anything."

Kaimowitz believes Orlando is screwing its African-American residents, particularly those in low-income pockets of downtown. He most recently sued the city on behalf of the federal government. The allegations this time stem from the struggle to revive West Church Street, and what Kaimowitz portrays as a promise the city broke after acquiring $1.65 million in federal funds to help.

He sees dark forces at work. Then again, he always sees dark forces at work. But is this another heroic quest? Or has Gabe Kaimowitz, the once relevant radical, lost his credibility on the way to becoming a Quixotic figure, fighting foes that only he sees?

To find out, I had to get past the pain in the ass.

Mention Gabe Kaimowitz around City Hall, and you're greeted with collective eye-rolling over the number of times he's been escorted out of City Council meetings or the numbers of lawsuits he's filed here, few of which he's won and none of which have altered the course of Orlando history.

"Hopefully in your lifetime you won't have to meet him," one city staffer told me several weeks ago.

But I did meet Kaimowitz, in Gainesville, where he lives and works as an investigator for the Alachua County Equal Employment Division. He didn't look like the devil. He was thin, had a gray beard and, at 65, his eyelids drooped at the corners of his eyes. He wore hearing aids in both ears.

We agreed to meet to discuss his most recent lawsuit, filed last year. In his 17-page complaint, Kaimowitz alleges that city officials lied to the federal Economic Development Administration so they could acquire $1.65 million to revitalize a section of the Parramore neighborhood. He says city officials promised in 1995 to use the Bryan Hotel as part of a deal involving a section of West Church Street called Vendors Way, then sold the hotel without alerting federal authorities.

The U.S. Justice Department has looked at the suit and, by not intervening to reject it, basically said to Kaimowitz: Go ahead and make your case.

City Attorney Scott Gabrielson said the city expects to win this case as it did with a similar suit Kaimowitz filed in federal court in 1996, which was thrown out before going to trial. "The funds that he discusses were used precisely for the project that was approved by the Economic Development Administration," Gabrielson says. "In fact, we think those improvements have enhanced the area."

During my four-hour visit, Kaimowitz was polite, helpful, willing to share just about anything in his life. He provided names and telephone numbers, so I could interview others about him. But the former journalist with a master's degree in communications from the University of Central Florida drew a line: When I offered to buy lunch, he balked. "I won't be able to get mad at you," he told me.

It wasn't long before he was. The next day, I received an e-mail from him saying he would no longer help me. He had spoken with other members of a group he belongs to called Attorneys Against American Apartheid, a small, unincorporated alliance of Kaimowitz's legal colleagues. They warned him to talk only about the lawsuit against the city and the history of racial problems here.

I tried to persuade him that someone who paid Orlando $27,203 in penalties after filing a lawsuit judged to be "frivolous" -- as happened in 1990 -- has to renew the public's trust in his credibility. Especially when, given the number of targets in his suits -- including the Florida Supreme Court, the Florida Bar, the Federal Reserve Board, the University of Florida and nine departments of state government -- he's susceptible to the charge that he's crying wolf.

I called several friends of Kaimowitz. One of them, an Ivy League communications professor, asked if I was going to make Kaimowitz a hero. No, I replied, not yet having reached a conclusion. Rather, I was trying to examine the current lawsuit in the context of others Kaimowitz had filed against the city.

"Oh, then I don't think I can help you," the man said.

A week later, the professor e-mailed an account of our conversation to Kaimowitz, warning that I was going to do a "bag job" on him. Kaimowitz then called me to say he would no longer offer information. He also became sour because I'd asked about a reprimand given to him in April 1998 by the Florida Supreme Court. "I hope we don't have any further contact," he said.

The next day, he e-mailed 16 messages to me.

Kaimowitz could see it before I could. He knew a profile written about him would be a Jekyll-and-Hyde story -- quotes from his detractors followed by rebuttals from his fans. It was the "kind of dishonest 'balanced' reporting" he wanted no part of.

Indeed, there are a number of people who still idolize Kaimowitz for fighting City Hall and the legal system, usually simultaneously and often for free.

Charlie Jean Salter was among a group of neighbors in the Orlando community of Washington Shores. The neighbors, who Kaimowitz helped without charge, tried to keep city planners from extending John Young Parkway through their area, claiming the road would divide their community. Kaimowitz didn't deter the city but did win landscaping and other perks for the mostly black neighborhood, Salter says.

"He's very intelligent," she says. "He does his research. When you go up against the government, it's like going against a brick wall. We'd gone through a whole slew of attorneys. A lot of them refused to take the case, but he took it pro bono. We had no other choice."

Another plaintiff in the case, the Rev. Sam Hoard, says, "His mind was so sharp. He would come up with these theories. ... He knew what he was talking about, but I couldn't always understand him."

Says one City Hall watcher: "I believe his I.Q. is 30 to 40 points higher than everyone else's. That's what drives him crazy -- dealing with us."

Kaimowitz knows his reputation. He knows his comments are dismissed as the rantings of a gadfly -- one who makes illogical connections among loosely connected events. Anticipating what city leaders will say about him, Kaimowitz says, "Gabe is a crazy. We treat him the same way we treat a crazy."

He does exhibit extreme behavior, especially in the legal arena. "His writings are very stream of conscience," says George Waas, a lawyer for the state Attorney General's office. "It's very difficult to grasp where he is going."

The confusion doesn't stop at the clerk's office. Federal Judge Maurice Paul stopped him during one hearing and said, "I don't understand what you just said. I heard your words. I just don't understand what they mean."

Kaimowitz also alternates between being overly combative and overly victimized. During the hearing before Judge Paul, he responded to the judge's arguments by saying, "I know you have the power to do that and I'm not disputing that power. And I stand here frightened. As frightened as I would have been in Germany in an earlier era. As frightened as I would have been in the Soviet Union ... "

Paul cut him off, saying: "If you make any more remarks like that, you are going to have a reason to be frightened."

Gabe Kaimowitz was born May 5, 1935, the only child of parents who worked as sewing-machine operators and were sympathetic to the Communist Party.

He graduated from the Bronx School of Science in February 1952, showing signs that he was brighter than the average 16-year-old by completing high school ahead of his age group.

He went on to the University of Wisconsin as a journalism major, then wrote for several publications as a sportswriter, film critic and editorial columnist. "I was just a journalist on the sidelines minding my own business," he says.

He might have stayed that way except for several incidents in 1963 that began to awaken his social consciousness. He began talking with his father about political activism and participated in a New York City demonstration in support of school integration. During a trip to Nashville to get married, he witnessed a black youth forced to tap dance on a table for entertainment.

After that, Kaimowitz changed. "I knew I wanted to do something," he says. "I didn't want to be on the sidelines any more."

He attended New York University Law School and eventually wound up in Detroit as a Michigan Legal Services lawyer. "All I remember about him was that he was a brilliant and crusading lawyer," says Howard Simon, director of Florida's ACLU and a former Michigan attorney who had an office two blocks from Kaimowitz' for many years.

It was in Michigan where Kaimowitz first earned national recognition. In the late 1960s, the mental-health community, led by several prominent East Coast psychiatrists, argued for the return of lobotomies as a viable procedure for curing pathological brain disorders. Some of the discussion centered on whether lobotomies would prevent violence, especially among the "violent slum dweller" engaged in the era's race riots.

Kaimowitz heard about a mental patient being kept "incognito" for such an experiment at the Lafayette Clinic at Wayne State University. He sued on behalf of the patient and 12 others in 1973, claiming the Nuremberg Code prevented a mental patient from giving informed consent to the procedure.

Peter Breggin was a critic of the practice who testified at the trial. He says Kaimowitz made a number of tactical decisions that allowed the psychiatrist to talk about the history of lobotomies, dating back to Nazi experiments in Germany. Over defense objections, the three judges hearing the case were mesmerized by Breggin's testimony, he says. They cited it in their opinion banning psychosurgery in Michigan. California and Oregon soon followed. The ruling, which hindered the momentum psychosurgery had gained in the country, has never been appealed.

"Gabe was very brave in presenting such a dramatic case," Breggin says. "It was unusual for an attorney to care enough to take this kind of case."

In 1977 Kaimowitz was again in the national spotlight. He had filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 black elementary-school children who said teachers had treated them unfairly because of the way they talked, sparking debate about whether "black English" could be considered a formal language.

Kaimowitz argued the children were being treated unfairly because teachers saw them as mentally deficient, or emotionally or intellectually inept. His contention was that the children's problem should be treated as a language barrier between teacher and student.

In the end, a judge sent 40 teachers from the school to a consciousness-training class. But the broader results were mixed; indeed, says Kaimowitz, the case was never about race in the first place. "It was supposed to be a 'Brown vs. Board of Education' for poor people," he says.

Several years later, after moving back to New York City, Kaimowitz was among a group of attorneys representing minorities who, in 1981, held up that city's primaries for two weeks, claiming that gerrymandering of city council districts had violated the Federal Voting Rights Act. The group said minority representation among the 45 members of the city council had dropped to 18 percent, in contrast to the 50 percent representation of blacks and Hispanics in the city's overall population. That election eventually went ahead.

His introduction to Orlando came in the mid-1980s, when Kaimowitz accepted an offer to direct Greater Orlando Area Legal Services (GOALS), a federally funded agency that gives free legal advice to indigents on civil matters such as welfare rights and family law.

One of the first things he noticed was that Orlando wasn't the world-class city tourists typically associate with Disney World. "I stressed with you at the outset my surprise at learning that Orlando was not a major metropolitan center and, in fact, was 20 miles from Disney World," Kaimowitz says. "The fact that conferences are held more often perhaps at Lake Buena Vista hasn't changed a thing. Over the years, my friends coming down to such conferences still believe they are coming to Orlando."

That impression of the city would figure prominently in Kaimowitz's decision to make Orlando the focus of his future lawsuits. With an eye on capturing national headlines, Kaimowitz has filed suits in federal court to expose what he describes as a plan by the current and former mayoral administrations to force black people into slums on the west side of I-4 -- a direct contrast to the sunny, upbeat image of the city put forth to the world.

He didn't last long at GOALS. He was fired in August 1986 for trying to fight racism against the wishes of the board, according to published reports.

Kaimowitz elaborates: He was fired, he says, because he wrote to an aide of then-U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, outlining the city's racial problems, which Kaimowitz called the worst he'd seen in 30 years. City employees, Kaimowitz says, were aware that he was bringing Orlando's racial problems into the open and managed to work behind the scenes to have him ousted. "Chiles wrote me back," Kaimowitz says. "I'm sure that was what triggered it."

Kaimowitz filed several suits against GOALS, its board of directors, former Mayor Bill Frederick, the police department, the Orlando Times newspaper and several city employees, claiming they conspired to have his story kept out of the media. The case was thrown out in 1991 after a visiting judge from Tennessee ruled Kaimowitz provided no evidence that his civil rights were violated.

Another judge, Kendall Sharp, ruled that a separate GOALS case was frivolous and ordered Kaimowitz to pay $39,000 based on what is known as a rarely used Rule 11 violation of the federal code of civil procedures. "You've got to really mess something up to get a Rule 11 sanction," one attorney told me. In 1992 Kaimowitz' bonding company paid Orlando $27,203.

An audit completed after Kaimowitz left GOALS said the agency was mismanaged and had poor morale. He doesn't deny those findings. "I was brought in to be an administrator who had never before administrated. I was experienced in the rights of dependent people and `banking loans` to minorities. Those are the two subjects I could have categorically said I knew: housing and banking."

The federal suit is one of many Kaimowitz has filed against the city. He previously has asked the federal court system to place an injunction against a city ordinance that limits the amount of time members of the public can speak at City Council meetings. He's sued to have the council districts redrawn because he felt there were too many blacks in two of those districts; he felt blacks could dominate those districts but still be better integrated in other districts.

In the course of his actions, Kaimowitz has deposed Mayor Hood, city attorney Gabrielson and Downtown Development Board president Tom Kohler.

"Winning and losing has not been an issue in most of the litigation in which I've been involved," Kaimowitz says in his defense. "Litigation for me has been a way of educating the courts and the public about issues I consider of great public interest, or `about` which I believe that the underclass has been deprived of some rights."

It's been an expensive education for taxpayers. Many people who take on government or corporations complain that the bureaucracies have unlimited resources; well-heeled foes will continue to spend money on high-priced attorneys until the small guy gives up. But in Kaimowitz's case, he's able to fight court cases without piling up much debt. It costs just $150 to file suit in federal court. The only other bills Kaimowitz likely would pay is gas for his vintage VW Beetle and paper for his computer. It's cheap for him to file suits, and if he wins a case, he stands to win a substantial amount of money; for example, he is seeking 30 percent of the money recovered from his current suit against the city.

The cost to taxpayers, meanwhile, continues to grow. As far back as 1991, city attorneys complained that Kaimowitz had cost Orlando $250,000. Gabrielson says he's unsure how much more Kaimowitz has run up, though he added that Orlando is seeking $75,000 reimbursement from Kaimowitz for a 1996 lawsuit. Likewise, Waas and other attorneys for the state were unable to calculate the cost of defending the government against Kaimowitz.

The impact he's had on Central Florida's legal and political community, on the other hand, has been minimal. "Years ago he got stuff done, in the early '80s," says Doug Head, director of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee. And he still makes valid points, though he gets lost amid details and "stretches conclusions" to the point where they aren't believable, says Head. "There's a saying that a stopped clock is right twice a day. Gabe is a stopped clock."

If there's one thing that excites Kaimowitz, it's talking about Orlando's oldest and poorest neighborhood. Parramore is his passion. Or, to be more precise, racially segregated housing in Parramore is his passion. The neighborhood, which is 87 percent African-American, is Kaimowitz's symbol of Orlando's racial failures.

He bases his perception of race inequality on the book "American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass." (Attorney Against American Apartheid took their name from the book.) Written by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in 1993, the book is a convincing argument that white society has knowingly and systematically isolated blacks by forcing them into ghettos.

Before 1900, there were no slums, write Massey and Denton. Then white society, at first through violence and later through "covenants" among neighborhood associations frantic to exclude blacks, began to segregate African-Americans to the periphery, where they could be watched and maintained by intimidation. Even well-to-do blacks integrated into white society were forced into the ghetto, according to the authors.

In the 1960s, as President Lyndon Johnson moved to dismantle segregation, Congress succeeded in passing civil-rights legislation to end discrimination in employment and voting. But housing was the last and most difficult to legislate because white society, especially in the South, feared integration. Massey and Denton argue that Americans still live with the unfair legacy of black isolation, the only "unfinished business of the civil-rights era."

Examining 1980 census tracts, they conclude, "Segregation levels showed no significant change in Houston, Memphis, New Orleans and Tampa."

Orlando is not mentioned. Yet it's clear from his writing that Kaimowitz thinks city officials have promoted the same idea in order to preserve cheap property for their developer friends when they need it.

Is Kaimowitz focusing on a city that appears less segregated than others? Aren't there bigger battles elsewhere?

No, he answers. "Even though I could today bring similar litigation in Gainesville (there is even the possibility of assignment to a black judge here), it has no national or international connotations," he writes in yet another e-mail. "Can you imagine similar litigation being brought in Apopka? Or Sanford, a very similar situation? No one knows anything about them." So he files lawsuit after lawsuit, hoping to catch national attention.

It isn't clear how his latest will help his cause. It is likely too esoteric for the average person to understand -- or care about. And it doesn't shout racism or corruption when you read it.

Kaimowitz alleges that city officials lied when they told the Economic Development Administration (EDA) the city would use the Bryan Hotel for its portion of a West Church Street revitalization. He says the city pulled a fast one on the EDA by using Housing and Urban Development money for the project without notifying either agency. Then city officials sold the hotel, which was supposed to be used as collateral for the city's deal with the EDA.

Furthermore, the new development never produced the intended consequences, Kaimowitz says. "By June 1998 almost all of the vendors who remained `in the West Church Street Vendor Way` declared their intention to leave," he says in his complaint. He went on to write that the city knew (or should have known) the project would never generate 173 permanent jobs, as city officials had estimated.

The upshot is that the city spent $1.65 million of federal money on a project it knew would have no lasting impact, he says.

Kaimowitz filed the suit in Washington, D.C., where he hopes to find judges he doesn't consider biased. (He's tried that before, filing cases in Jacksonville and Tampa, only to have them returned to Orlando.) He claims federal judges in Orlando are controlled by the banking industry, and bankers, Kaimowitz says, don't want his message to get out that city officials have been "screwing black people from Day One."

And then there's the bias that he says results from the connection between state and federal judges and a national student organization named Florida Blue Key. The organization, many of whose alumni are indeed prominent, is a 76-year-old honor society founded at the University of Florida. Kaimowitz says a number of judges and lawyers he's opposed have been FBK members, and he faults their alliance with denying him a fair trial in many jurisdictions as long as he speaks against Orlando's alleged racial ills.

"He sees these big conspiracies, and that's not the case," says one attorney, who uses Kaimowitz' fear of the fraternity to paint him as a "Don Quixote of the '80s and '90s." "He's tilting at windmills."

It's true that Kaimowitz has seen racial problems that others have difficulty spotting. Rev. Hoard noticed it during the John Young Parkway controversy. "He saw racism behind every tree in city government," says Hoard.

Yet proof is hard to find. He hears Glenda Hood and Bill Frederick boast of lineage to generations of Orlandoans, "an ancestry steeped in racial segregation, Orlando being the last city in the state to do away with the all-white primary in the 1950s -- 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional." But he can't pinpoint a single incidence of racist action by either one. And his arguments fail to account for the city's black police chief, black fire chief, black head of the Downtown Development Board and black members of the City Council.

To Kaimowitz, Southerners are guilty of racism by their association with the past. But sometimes he gets the association wrong.

On March 13, 1998, Kaimowitz appeared in front of Judge Wallace Jopling, an Alachua County circuit judge who has presided in Central Florida counties since 1977. He accused Jopling of lying, communicating with defense attorneys and protecting an "alum chum" from testifying at hearings and depositions. Later, in court papers, Kaimowitz also criticized Jopling for his "racial, segregationist heritage" and being associated with the "all white male" Knights of Columbus.

He had objected to three previous judges before Jopling was assigned to the case; whether he felt they, too, were racists is unclear. But his error on the Knights of Columbus is obvious: The 118-year-old Catholic men's service organization is multiracial. In Florida alone, there are Haitian and Hispanic members. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League both report no history of racism in the Knights of Columbus history.

The Florida Bar asked the state Supreme Court to reprimand Kaimowitz for his allegations against Jopling. In April, a referee heard arguments and will decide by this fall whether to take action.

Kaimowitz, meanwhile, cannot understand why judges keep picking on him. He writes in a legal brief: "This respected attorney can't help but wonder if he too wasn't scapegoated in light of the great disparity between his reputation in Florida and that which he enjoys elsewhere."

The result of years spent making dubious claims is that even when Kaimowitz is right, people tend to discount him.

The last time he spoke before the Orlando City Council was Jan. 26, 1998. He was an unpopular visitor, having been arrested once and thrown out twice for failing to yield the podium. (He sued the city after his 1995 arrest. The case was dismissed after Kaimowitz failed to show his rights were violated.)

One of the people who liked him least was former Commissioner Nap Ford, at the time the council's only black member, who died later that year. Ford often left his council seat when Kaimowitz spoke. On that day, looking up from the podium, Kaimowitz remarked that he was pleased Ford was still in the room.

"You better talk fast," Ford replied.

Kaimowitz wanted to read a letter Ford had written. It was an argument for the status quo, for continuing to build low-income houses in Parramore, even though Kaimowitz and other critics had pointed out that meant the neighborhood would always remain poor.

Ford said in the letter that city officials never intentionally segregated housing, calling it a "bald-faced lie" that the city did anything other than build houses that people in the area could afford. Those seeking six-figure homes likely wanted to live where other six-figure homes were located -- in the white section of town. If Parramore was filled with low-income housing, that was the natural course of things.

"I don't want to hear any more hair-brained ideas about forced integration," the letter said. "If America is about anything, it is about choice. Sadly, people in `Parramore` have no choice."

The letter ended with, "Stop sending me copies of anything you write to anyone. It's a complete waste of time. I hope not to hear from you ever again."

When Kaimowitz finished reading, Ford leaned forward and said loudly, "Signed, Nap Ford." The audience laughed and applauded.

A mere two years later, times have changed. Government no longer looks at low-income housing the way Ford did. It looks at it the way Kaimowitz has advocated for years -- as something to be spread around the city, so that those with limited means are not isolated. Especially low-income blacks.

In May, the Orlando Housing Authority applied for grants to build $120,000 homes in the heart of Orlando's downtown ghetto. City government has realized that poor people should not be housed in one place because it encourages crime -- something Kaimowitz has said all along. Only no one was listening.

Given that city leaders were inclined to tune him out, I ask him if his reputation isn't silencing his message. Maybe he should try other measures to be heard, such as publishing his own account about what he sees as the sad plight of Parramore. He himself could be the "great white hope" in journalism that he had once wanted me to be.

Kaimowitz says he already tried the idea. He contacted the New York Times, but a reporter he knew seemed uninterested. Besides, he says, "the local angle is crucial. The only way change can or will be made locally is if the area is made aware of the kind of drain `racism` has on its image."

What he doesn't tell me is that in the early 1990s he was trying to market a story about "the rise and fall of a boom town of the South in the '80s" he titled "Orlando Vice." The project ended with Kaimowitz suing the University Press of Florida, alleging the academic press had a reckless disregard for his rights. He claims several professors, some of whom freelanced for the Sentinel and other publications, conspired to keep "Orlando Vice" and other stories from print. His suits were thrown out of federal and state courts.

As for retiring to the quiet life, don't look for that any time soon. Replying in several more e-mails, he says: "If I were to step aside because of the 'baggage,' the system would continue to operate as it has, especially against blacks, but most notably against `former city commissioner and defeated mayoral candidate` Bruce Gordy, to discredit him. The system, including the Sentinel, simply adds to the baggage until the weight pulls you down. It is one reason that I have acted for the most part without a lawyer to defend myself, so as to not have the system spill over on that person as it did on me.

"Will I retire?" he asks. "Will I be there? Wherever there is a black child crying for an education, Attorneys Against American Apartheid will be there. Wherever there is use of federal funds to create an undue concentration of black poor people, that organization will be there.

"Finally, I am named for the Jewish scholar Hillel (my real first name). I adopt his philosophy: 'If not me, who? If not now, when?'"

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