Monkeywrenchin' 'De Empiah Town'

The man from Hempstead figured he had one best shot at telling the world his hometown was being strangled by an old-school political machine. Composing lines at his kitchen table and banging on his keyboard in his free time, he created a Web site that for two years has been one of the few independent sources of information on local Republican leaders' attempts to keep conservative white guys like them in power.

The middle-aged cyberscribe, who now lives out of state and asked to be identified only by his screen name, Poe M'Noke, says his goal was simple. "I just wanted to provide a little perspective and understanding for people who might not live in Hempstead," he says, "and for people who live in Hempstead who might not understand how things work in the rest of the country—where's there's actually local government."

At the heart of Poe M'Noke's site, "Hempstead: America's Largest Town" (found at www.rev.net/people/aloe/hempstead), is the story of the decade-long struggle for minority voting rights there. In 1997, a federal judge ruled that Hempstead's system of electing the town board at-large put black and Hispanic voters at a disadvantage, and ordered the creation of districts—including at least one that would be minority-controlled. Rather than set to work drawing up district lines and making the elections fair for everyone, the Republican town has continued to appeal the court's decision.

Poe M'Noke recounts the battle for equality in a long poem, "De Empiah Town Be Fallin' Down," written in the African-American dialect formalized by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a 19th century black poet.

Poe M'Noke says it made sense to use the language of people who'd been on the frontlines.

"I'm white, but on the Internet I'm not. I'm colorless," he says. "This is written from the perspective of somebody who has felt cheated in Hempstead town politics. That's something a lot of people share, whether they're black or Hispanic or Democrats or apartment renters."

Poe M'Noke revels in revealing the muddy drawers of Hempstead bigwigs, never forgetting the plight of people banished to the margins.

"Daih's campaign pichas of apah'tmen's
Taken f'om ou'side.
We cain' have 'em—iss jes' fo'play
So's we nevu' satisfied.

Daih ain' nobody need ah vote
To run de guvvamen'
Cohs Hempstead town, it be so big
We's only twel' pu'cen'."

Tucked inside the funny lines are dozens of puns on politicians' names. Poe M'Noke takes aim at donkeys and elephants alike, here pinching a reference to Democratic fat cat Steven Sabbeth, there nipping at Hempstead Village's Republican mayor, James Garner. The high and mighty take the same dose as the lowliest party hacks.

"Dey be prayin' on de sabbaf,
An' all de way fru Lent,
'Please Lo'd he'p me cuvva up ma graf—
Each law dat Ah done bent!'"

If you recognized the names of Sabbeth and former Republican congressman Norman Lent, you might hold your own in Poe M'Noke's ongoing contest to find the most hidden references.

Poe M'Noke says visits to the site fell off after his friends had cruised through the pages. Still, he soldiers on, adding maps of proposed council districts, hooking up links to community organizations and tinkering with his poem. From time to time, disgruntled Hempsteadians mistake his pages for those of the official town site, so Poe M'Noke posts their complaints. He refuses to surrender, though he knows his Internet attack may never have much impact on Hempstead Town Hall.

"It's like aiming at a tank with a peashooter," he says.

 
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