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Revered and reviled, Sandra Seegars is a brusque voice for Ward 8

By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; C01

A dictator of sorts with a short 'fro and a gavel nods to recognize the woman sitting in the audience at a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting: "You can ask a question, only if you have a question about another issue."

"But . . . " the young woman says in faint protest.

"We already moved on from that topic," Sandra Seegars, chairman of the commission, says sternly.

"But . . . " the woman says again, trying to squeeze in one last comment about a housing program proposed for at-risk youth on Congress Street SE, a project that Seegars in recent weeks has turned her full wrath against.

Seegars eyes the woman suspiciously. "Is it a question on another topic?"

"No," says the woman, still trying to make a point, any point.

Bam! Seegars slams down her gavel. "Meeting adjourned!"

The room falls into a shocked but brief silence.

A woman in the back yells, "I wanted to hear what you had to say, baby."

But the matter has been decided by Seegars, who, as one of several ANC chairmen for Ward 8, advises the D.C. government on social services, police presence, zoning and other matters for her neighborhood, known as 8E. (It encompasses Congress Street SE to Bruce Place SE and 15th Place SE to 11th Place SE.)

Seegars, 59, elected an ANC commissioner in 2004, has been called abrupt, brash, fearless.

Either you are going to love her, people say, or you are really, really not going to like her.

There is only one thing that will be certain: Seegars will not give a damn.

"I could care less," she says. "If I got upset or reacted to everything people said about me, I would attract more vicious people. My father -- if he never said anything else right in his life -- he said, 'Meet them in the street and leave them in the street.' When I go home, I don't worry about it."

Seegars is perhaps one of the most controversial among the legions of community activists vigilant about keeping the city on its toes. ANC commissioners are elected and receive no salary. She is on a one-woman mission in Ward 8, D.C.'s most southern jurisdiction, which has one of the city's highest rates for crime, unemployment and children living in poverty. Her mission, she says, is that of a modern-day Robin Hood, "to take from the rich and give to the poor," a role she believes requires courage.

Seegars is not afraid of you, or the mayor, or of any of the employees who answer the phone in any of the District's agencies, which she calls often to get them to rectify complaints she collects from neighbors. "I give them three chances to answer my calls," Seegars says. "Then I call back and leave a voice message saying the next call is to your supervisor. They always call back with some kind of excuse like they were out or they were busy."

She is not afraid to walk her neighborhood in Southeast, where the murder rate is also among the highest in the city. Wasn't afraid when somebody tried to torch her car back in 2000. "Afraid?" she says. "No, I was mad as hell."

She is unafraid now, in the face off a libel lawsuit filed recently by the Peaceoholics, a group founded in 2004 to help the city's at-risk young people. The suit said that Seegars "began maliciously distributing false, defamatory and disparaging messages about Plaintiff organization, the Peaceoholics," by e-mail to people in the community, according to the complaint.

Ronald Moten, a founder of the Peaceoholics, says: "She called me a fool. If I called her a fool, she would call a press conference. She sends out an e-mail saying somebody was assaulted by somebody who works for us. It wasn't true and she is careless."

Seegars counters by saying: "The e-mail I sent out is the one he used for the libel suit. It's a narrative of what happened at the meeting. . . . I don't tell lies. . . . That is why his libel suit is going to fail."

The Peaceoholics filed the lawsuit in April after a controversial community meeting in which members of the organization tried to explain a proposal to house at-risk youths in an apartment building, where they would receive counseling and a chance to buy the unit when they get a job. The problem is the neighborhood is undergoing gentrification and many of the neighbors oppose the project, saying that there are too many housing units for at-risk youth on that one street.

"What they want to do on Congress Street is not good because of clustering," Seegars says. "It violates Title 11. The law says you are not supposed to put more than one facility within 500 feet of one that is already there. There are four of them there now."

Seegars has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a list of properties Peaceoholics owns in other parts of the city and a list of police activity at the properties.

This issue is a gold mine for a retired woman who once worked as a private investigator and has nothing else to do. No husband, no kids, no dependents. "Have I ever been a secretary? Hell, no. People used to tell me: 'You should cook, have babies, be a secretary.' I'm not cooking, having babies or being a secretary."

Reaction to Seegars's community work is mixed. Tonette Sivells, 35, who lives in Congress Heights, says: "I can respect her integrity. I know with the issue of Peaceoholics moving next door, she is the only official who gave us the time of day. If she said she would get back to you by the end of the day, she does. So often when you live in Ward 8, the D.C. government doesn't care what you have to say.

"She has a fire in her belly. She is not afraid of people -- nobody."

But then not everyone thinks so well of Seegars. Sharece Crawford, 22, the woman silenced by the gavel at the meeting, says simply: "I think she has a Napoleon complex. . . . I believe there is a positive cause she is working toward. I just think she has given herself too much authority."

A neighborhood fixture

Sandra Seegars is sitting at a table in the back room at the Players Lounge on Martin Luther King Avenue SE, a plate of pigs feet covered in hot sauce before her. Police officers walk in and out of the backroom. They know her by name. She inquires about their children, their brothers, their last shifts. She is wearing a yellow fleece jacket, sunglasses and a baseball hat.

An officer stops. "I didn't recognize you."

"Yes, I'm wearing my 'fro," Seegars says. "Power to the people."

A waitress comes over and Seegars asks her to turn the television down -- and while she's at it, turn down all that noise coming from the jukebox.

"This is lunchtime," she says, "they shouldn't play that music so loud."

You might think she is cranky, but she says this with humor, as though she were queen of a silent party. The waitress sits down to take the order.

The Players Lounge is a place where power brokers on the east side of the river come for lunch, for fried whiting and cornbread and greens. It still has paneled walls and black lights. Seegars sits at a booth, her ubiquitous canvas bags of neatly organized files next to her. "I might have to refer to them," she says. "I like to be correct when I say something."

She has something to show you. But wait.

Seegars gets up and finds a newspaper. She swipes the table with it for unseen grease and lays the paper down. "I don't trust this table," she says. "I hate greasy paper."

She brings out a copy of the libel suit. "I'm being sued because I won't roll over. They just filed this to shut me up. . . . Normally, when you get sued, you shut up. I did not shut up. He can't shut me up. Shuts don't go up."

Stalwart from the start

Seegars was born in Alexandria and moved to public housing in Southwest Washington when she was 2. She moved to Southeast at 18 when her mother, then a nursing aide, bought the house Seegars now lives in on Savannah Street.

Seegars had two younger brothers and one older brother, and she was always the one in charge of her younger siblings, the one in the neighborhood whom other kids ran to when they needed help. Perhaps, she says, this is what formed her and now drives her.

"I was in charge of my younger brothers and nephews," she says. "If somebody did something to them, they would come get me and I would beat" up the kids who bothered them.

Her earliest memory is of being swarmed by bees while with spending time with her late father, who worked as a gardener. "They used to chase me and sting me. I didn't run that fast," she recalls. "One day, a bee landed on my head. My brother took a wrench and hit it. I was about to cry. My mother said, 'Look he got the bee!' "

She didn't cry.

Inside her house on Savannah Street, the walls are painted pale green; the carpet is gold. She has stacks and stacks of files, taking over the tiny dining room and the kitchen, with a stove that has been used only once. "I could sell it new if I wanted to. I told you I don't cook."

In a corner of the living room, she has set aside a space, from which she fires missives throughout the city. There is a comfortable chair and a foot stool, on which right now rests her laptop. Not far from her are four box turtles in an aquarium. One of them is named Marion Barry.

Seegars has worked at the post office and the Treasury Department and as a private investigator. Last year, she received her paralegal certificate from Howard University. She wanted better skills to sue the city, if needed.

She turns on her laptop and out comes a deep, sexy voice: "Where you been, baby? You got mail!"

"That's Barry White," she says. "He lives in my computer."

On this computer are many letters Seegars has written in attempts to rectify what she sees as wrongs. "Sometimes the government doesn't want to cooperate," she says. "If I write a letter, I don't just address it to that one person. Everybody's going to get it, from me to the president. I write everybody because it doesn't make sense to write one letter to one person alone."

Her letters, she says, are effective. "I know what people don't want to hear -- threats. If you don't do such and such, I will talk to your supervisor. You've had this five weeks. Are you competent?"

There is a printer on the love seat by the picture window, over which are portraits of her family, including six of her beloved mother. On another wall is a portrait of her older brother, James, who was fatally shot in 1978 on Galen Street SE. Her brother Floyd died in 1996 after he fell and hit his head, and other brother Marvin is in prison on murder charges.

Seegars never got married. "Marriage is an institution," she says. "I wanted no husband. No children. I don't want to be told what to do. I don't want to answer on a regular basis to anybody."

She got what she wanted, she says: "Freedom and not to see people do wrong."

She became a community activist, she says, "because stuff needed to be done."

Ten years ago, while Seegars was a D.C. taxicab commissioner, she prompted a citywide controversy by saying something she still won't take back: "I said if I was a cabdriver, there are certain people I wouldn't pick up and certain neighborhoods I wouldn't go through. I didn't care about the reaction, because it was true."

She was criticized by many, including then-Mayor Anthony Williams, for prompting cabdrivers to discriminate against black men. In 1997, she led an effort to recall Barry, but failed to get the 3,475 signatures needed. She said in 2000 that people criticized her: "How can you go after him? He's a brother."

"They couldn't do much with it because I am black," she said then. "Anyway, I don't judge people by their color. It's by what they do." And what they don't do.

'I'm like Robin Hood'

Seegars is driving through her ward in a white Dodge Intrepid. There are bumper stickers that say "No 1 Beer!" -- a reference to the sale of single bottles -- and "No (Marion) Barry."

A man sitting on the stoop yells: "Hey, I saw you on television."

"That was me," Seegars says. She parks her car and gets out.

The man says he needs a job -- that they are not hiring black people up at a construction site.

Seegars takes his name and she will write it in a spiral notebook, where she keeps all complaints. Then she will go home and call whoever needs to be called to investigate this situation.

A young woman in a red shirt gets off the bus.

"I saw your mother the other day," Seegars says.

Andrea Tillman, 23, tells Seegars that she is looking for a job and a bigger place. Tillman has four children.

"I'm in a one-bedroom with four kids. I put my kids in the room. I'm in the living room," Tillman says. The woman says she receives $602 a month from the government, and spends $542 on rent.

"Damn," Seegars says. "You think you got it bad, then you meet somebody else." She tells the woman she will send her a list of affordable places available for rent.

They are standing outside Liff's market. Nearby is a sign advertising the movie "Robin Hood," with Russell Crowe. She points to the poster.

"People stop and ask for help because I help them," Seegars says. "I didn't read the book, but I'm like Robin Hood. . . . I make sure justice is served for all. I'm like a super sister."

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