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Throwback Thursday: Flamboyant East St. Louis mayor in contempt, in cuffs

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s recent visit to East St. Louis to back the mayoral candidate who didn’t thumb her nose at him over nightclub closing times reminded us of another clubbing mayor.

Back in the 1980’s, East Boogie was home to the fast times and paper-selling hijinx of Mayor Carl E. Officer. At age 27, he wandered from the family funeral parlor and into East St. Louis City Hall as the nation’s youngest mayor.

The youthful indiscretions piled up. More than 100 mph in his Jaguar on Interstate 57, his bodyguard pulling an Uzi in a Peoria nightclub, a city where unemployment rose as fast as the mountains of uncollected trash and piles of unpaid city bills, a scandal involving one of many failed riverfront redevelopment plans, losing City Hall to a man beaten in the city jail: The News-Democrat’s files bulge with clippings from the Officer era.

For this Throwback Thursday, we recall Officer’s brief stint in jail on April 14, 1989. The high drama included his interesting interpretation and imitation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but with a typical Officer twist.

For months, Associate Judge Sheila O’Brien had been pushing East St. Louis to fix sewer problems that were leaving a school and homeowners swimming in offal. Officer went into a hearing with O’Brien denying there was an actual health hazard, and saying the potential for harm was being overblown.

“There’s potential that locusts will invade tomorrow. There’s potential for the world to explode,” he said at the time.

Then Officer missed a hearing March 31 about the city’s progress on sewer repairs. He later said he had the flu and was consulting with doctors, who recommended plenty of fluids.

O’Brien was fed up. She had Officer and his attorney, Eric Vickers, handcuffed and jailed for contempt on April 14, 1989.

They were in the St. Clair County Jail for 90 minutes, until supporters came up with the $3,500 each for their release on bond.

“It is clear that there is no justice in Belleville for East St. Louis,” Officer said after his release. “What I saw today in Belleville were black robes and white justice.”

He wasn’t finished. That Sunday Officer circulated a letter to the city’s church congregations, “from St. Clair County jail,” that he said he wrote while incarcerated. He invoked the Rev. King and his famous April 16, 1963, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that set out King’s moral imperative to resist racism with non-violent opposition.

Former Sheriff Mearl Justus called foul: He said there were no writing materials in Officer’s cell, so there was no way he wrote the letter in the jail. Officer then clarified that the letter was written as he was being bonded out.

Things got so bad in East St. Louis, and Officer became the face for all of it, that the city’s voters put restrictions on the mayor’s power and ended his tenure after 12 years.

That was only Act I, however. A dozen years passed and Officer was again elected mayor in 2003. This time he was a minister, a father, gray at the temples and with no Uzis or Jaguars in sight. He left office in 2007, served on the city’s school board and looked at runs for state office.

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