April 22, 2008

A troubling day in the neighborhood: A neighborly dispute escalates into intimidation, violence and claims of racism

Seeking tranquility for her family, Shekela Brasher moved to the 2200 block of Franklin Avenue, the narrow dead-end of a thoroughfare nestled in the Pleasure Ridge Park neighborhood, flanked by Dixie Highway and Cane Run Road, last July. “I was looking for a quiet place,” she said. Being a single black mother of three, Brasher, 33, wanted stability and decided that purchasing a home was paramount. She’d lived in West Louisville her whole life, but she worried about raising three teenagers there because of violent crime in certain areas.Once she settled in, Brasher adored the house and neighborhood. “We loved it,” she said. “It was peaceful.”Ten months later, however, Brasher had moved out of her dream home after a dispute with a neighbor escalated into what she described as intimidation, violence and racist threats.Sitting at home last week, Brasher flipped through a slideshow of photographs taken at her former home. Her initial affection for the place is dimmed: One is of a dead rat. Another shows several sharp nails sprinkled across her driveway. Other photographs show a busted car mirror, a shattered windshield and other property damage.Brasher said the photos are evidence of months of harassment, the results of an ongoing feud with her neighbor, Joe Davis, a 47-year-old white man. She claims the harassment was punctuated by a series of racial epithets that eventually escalated to intimidation and violence. For her, the tipping point was after one argument, when Davis allegedly pointed a shotgun at her and her 19-year-old son, early in January.Sitting on his living room couch, Davis talks about how he has been a renaissance worker, first a mechanic and then a garbage truck driver with other odd jobs sprinkled in between. Over the years, his body has suffered. Besides multiple nerve damage in both legs, he has two steel rods and six pins in his back. He has had five different surgeries to his abdomen. Davis’ stomach bulges with massive hernias. “It has been emotional,” he said. Unable to work, he’s now on a fixed income, barely able to make payments on his truck. Limited financially and physically, he considered suicide. “One day my wife came in, I was leaning over my high-powered rifle and was going to shoot myself,” he said.Both Brasher and Davis said that before their feud, they met under amicable circumstances. Shortly after Brasher moved in, Davis volunteered to cut her lawn and she cordially accepted. But Franklin Avenue is such a narrow street that parking a car on the road instead of in a driveway makes leaving and returning home an unhurried chore of vehicular precision. Their feud began over parking. “I couldn’t get my truck out,” Davis said, and added that he tried to talk to Brasher about the problem without results. “She cursed me each time.” Brasher contends the opposite: After her guests were harassed by Davis, she said, she approached him calmly but was rebuked. Both are scheduled to appear in court this week for criminal charges related to their dispute, with Davis facing misdemeanor charges for menacing and harassment, while Brasher is looking at felony charges after being arrested last month for wanton endangerment.Every neighborhood has joints of tension between residents. Whether it’s noisy parties or menacing pets, the “neighbor from hell” makes one ponder options available outside of law enforcement. It also reveals the institutional blind spots of local government. “We couldn’t do much,” said officer Phil Russell, a spokesperson for Metro Police, of the Brasher-Davis feud, which he described as little more than name-calling until recently. Both Brasher and Davis said police were unhelpful in settling the dispute last year. But often, Russell said, people call the cops about small civil problems that are not police matters. That typical civic response, to depend on police or the courts to settle disagreements, may persist from an ignorance of other available resources. Neither Brasher nor Davis were aware that the Metro Department of Neighborhoods provides mediation and conflict resolution training through a group called Just Solutions, which has contracted with city government to help defuse neighborly disputes since 2004. During their months of conflict, both Brasher and Davis say, no one informed them about these services.“You learn that a lot of residents don’t know the resources at their fingertips,” said Amanda Clephas, one of six community outreach liaisons with the Department of Neighborhoods whose western territory includes Franklin Avenue. Clephas said the department is dedicated to connecting local government to residents. Clephas said that if she’d known about their quarrel sooner, she would have suggested Just Solutions as a remedy, but she only heard about the conflict when her supervisor, Elizabeth Kenney Hoffman, the agency’s assistant director, said she’d seen Brasher on a local news report. Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com