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This list is not comprehensive. The duplex demolition, however, got Melton in more trouble than usual. The rental property Melton sent his army of young drug warriors to destroy was owned by a single mother who rented it to a young schizophrenic man with no history of drug-dealing. The district attorney charged—and a grand jury indicted—Melton and his two police bodyguards of multiple felonies, ranging from burglary to directing a minor to commit a felony. At the same time, the state attorney general charged Melton with violations of various gun safety laws as well , including wearing a weapon in church and carrying a concealed weapon on a university campus; Melton pled down to misdemeanors on those charges. Still, a notable achievement for one of the founders of "Mayors Against Illegal Guns."
Melton and his defense team—led by a conservative former mayor of Jackson who is also suing the city in an annexation battle, and the attorney who defended Byron de la Beckwith (the man who murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers)—ratcheted up the mayor’s paternalistic populist appeal by pushing the meme that the duplex destruction was part of the mayor's passionate war on crime. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Melton's people painted the place as a “crackhouse,” and his antics little more than a creative effort at getting another drug dealer off the street.
The lawyers convinced a mostly African American jury that this black mayor was doing what nobody else had done in Jackson: He was cleaning up crime in the inner city. They instructed the jury that Melton had no “evil intent,” which they insisted had to be shown in order to convict Melton or his bodyguards, despite objections from prosecutors.
Melton the folk hero might have gone a bit too far, they argued, but he was just being “Frank.” He meant well. All were acquitted, inspiring outrage at the NAACP, the ACLU and even the NRA. To Melton’s supporters, it didn’t matter. The mayor had targeted a small-time drug user (not a dealer). That he didn’t find any drugs, that he’d thumbed his nose at the rights of citizens and property owners—these were beside the point. Mayor Melton was leading a war against the drug scourge in Jackson, they'd say. That was what mattered.
Oddly enough, under Melton’s leadership the Jackson Police Department didn’t report a single arrest for selling drugs in 2006. So while Melton basks in the glory of his own extra-legal vigilantism, he really isn’t doing much to fight the drug war by legal means.
The Department of Justice is currently putting witnesses—including the police chief and city attorney—before a grand jury to testify about the mayor’s role in the duplex demolition, in addition to other incidents, including a Melton-led warrantless midnight raid on a nightclub later the same night. On that raid, with his hand still bandaged and bloodied from broken glass at the duplex, Melton stood in the middle of the club and yelled, “Close this motherfucker down!”
When manager Tonari Moore—the son of the club’s owner—began videotaping the entourage, Melton’s bodyguards put him in handcuffs. When they got him outside to the Mobile Command Center—the tricked-out RV that Melton uses for his midnight raids—witnesses say several teenage boys jumped off Melton’s bus to beat the handcuffed Moore.
On April of last year the mayor allowed me to accompany him on a ride-along for his Sunday night raids. My photographer and I first went to Melton’s home to meet up with him, Police Chief Shirlene Anderson (a timid, ineffectual leader whose purpose seems to be to enable Melton to play cops-and-robbers), and other police officers. Melton invited me into his bedroom as he finished preparing for the raid. This room was huge, sparsely furnished with a table for meetings at one end, and an unmade king-size bed at the other. The room was exactly the same size as the Olympic-sized swimming pool in the basement underneath it—a pool where Melton has for years brought boys from the inner city to teach them to swim.
After buckling his shoulder holster into place, he asked me if I wanted to see his collection of badges—none of which he has any legal authority to wear. He grabbed an old one from a brief stint he did as a part-time county deputy and put it on the collar of his Abby, his drug-sniffing dog. “He’s putting a badge on a dog,” one of his mentees said to another, rolling his eyes.
During that ride-along and another the following Sunday, I watched Melton spontaneously park the RV, get off and walk into traffic with Abby the dog, then conduct impromptu, completely random drug searches of passing vehicles. He then turned to me and said with a snicker: “Donna, you know what? I run Jackson. I do it in a weird way, but I run Jackson.”
I watched Melton and his bodyguards—with submachine guns—marched into private homes, walking past bewildered-looking tenants too afraid to challenge him. He beat on one woman’s door with the butt of his shotgun. All of this happens in the poorest parts of the town, by the way, leading one black newspaper here, the Mississippi Link, to call him the new Bull Connor, quite an accomplishment for a black mayor.
Later, I hid behind a tree while Melton’s entourage pushed into a private home in the middle of the night because a man down the street told them he had bought “pot” there. They walked through the living room, flashed lights all around, then gathered the three young people who lived there onto the porch to lecture them about the dangers of drugs.
One of them was the girlfriend of one of the tenants. Melton made two shocking statements to her, delivered with a joking tenor: “Why you are in there sleeping with him if he ain’t got no damn job?” came first, followed by, “What time are y’all gonna' fuck so I can come up in here and catch you? … I want to make life miserable for you.”
Two years into his tenure, and amid what appears to be a wide-ranging FBI investigation—including civil rights violations, bribery and other forms of corruption—support for Melton within the city limits is finally waning. But that may have more to do with mismanagement of the city budget than his disregard of the rights of young black people. Two years after unseating a mayor who balanced the budget every year and managed to keep the lights on, Melton and his staff has given the city a shortfall somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million.
The city council managed to whittle the deficit down to about $3 million, including cutting line items like the $70,000 part-time salary paid to Melton’s sister-in-law. Last month, the city had to tap its $7 million reserve fund for the last $3 million of Melton’s 2006-07 overspending, which has threatened the city’s credit rating.