It's shortly before 5 a.m., and Steve Gower is about to hit the rain-dampened streets of Midtown. "It's a good night for a car break-in," he says, since the overcast weather seems to dampen the sound of breaking car windows.
Gower is neither a thief nor a police officer. He's just an exceptionally active neighbor. Gower is vice president and operations director of Midtown Ponce Security Alliance, the security patrol arm of the Midtown Neighborhood Association.
Armed with a flashlight, a video camera and pepper spray, the longtime Midtown resident takes the MPSA's white pickup truck on regular predawn patrols of his neighborhood's tree-lined residential streets.
Auto break-ins are the neighborhood's most persistent crime, he says, but definitely not his focus. Gower is at war with the neighborhood's prostitutes. "It's the most visible sign of disorder in the neighborhood," he says.
He starts patrols at 5 a.m. to catch what he calls "the breakfast club" – men who tell their wives they have to go into work early, but instead go to Midtown and look for prostitutes.
According to Gower, the local street prostitutes are concentrated at the neighborhood's southern end, between Fourth Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue. When he sees someone he considers a prostitute, he often stops his truck next to the person. Sometimes he waits and watches. Often, he videotapes them, and frequently posts their images on YouTube.
When he sees someone he suspects is a prostitute talking to a possible john, he pulls up behind them, hoping his truck – with its official-looking MPSA logo and flashing yellow roof light – will scare the john away. If that doesn't work, he'll turn on his portable klieg light.
"What's really fun is catching [the prostitute] getting in the car with a john," he says. "You flip on the light and most of the time the john dumps the prostitute. I'm hitting prostitutes in the pocketbook."
Gower moved to Midtown in the mid-1980s. It was very different then, he says – much more lawless. He recalls sitting in a parklike area on Sixth Street late one night with a friend. While the two of them talked and smoked pot, he recalls with a chuckle, they saw six young men jump out of a car. Within a couple of minutes, each of the six men had stolen a car.
Crime dropped as Midtown became a fashionable address for affluent home buyers in the 1990s and early 2000s, but prostitution and vagrancy remained big problems, he says.
Gower has patrolled Midtown for the MPSA since 2003. Residents fund the MPSA with a $275 annual fee. Businesses pay $400. The organization raised nearly $100,000 each year, and it pays for 50-60 hours of patrols a week, mostly by off-duty Atlanta police officers.
"We're taxing ourselves to do this," says Peggy Denby, MPSA president.
Gower describes his patrols not as policing or vigilantism, but as a form of protest. He strongly objects to prostitutes plying their illegal trade in his neighborhood, so he says he's exercising his First Amendment right to drive up to them and tell them to leave. He wishes Atlanta police would handle the situation on their own, but chronic department staffing shortages mean prostitution is a low priority for the APD.
This morning, the first suspected prostitute Gower spots in his patrol zone is a twitchy woman in a very short skirt in front of a closed wig shop. He stops the patrol truck and just watches her for a few seconds before driving on.
"She's a real female," he says. "There are very few real females anymore." Gower says real females and male hustlers have largely been driven away by the MPSA's patrols.
Before the patrols started, Gower says, it was not uncommon to see 70 prostitutes plying their trade. The majority of prostitutes in the MPSA's patrol zone now, he says, are transgendered– "transvestitutes," as Gower and Denby call them. "We have about a dozen transvestitutes [in Midtown]," Denby says. "They're more violent and usually armed."
Gower says he has been the target of scorn and even violence. Videos of his patrols posted on his personal YouTube page show people (ID'd in the video as prostitutes) spitting, cursing and throwing things at his truck. Gower's videos can be found by searching for the word "transvestitute" on YouTube.
Arianna Sykes, a transgender activist, says transgendered people are frequently presumed to be prostitutes. Tracee McDaniel, executive director of Juxtapose for Transformation, a transgendered advocacy group, says the MPSA harasses transgendered people who walk through Midtown.
"I'm not saying transgendered people aren't prostituting in Midtown, but what makes him so sure the people he's stopping are prostitutes?" McDaniel asks. "They could be going to a club or a party."
That's what Cheryl Courtney-Evans says happened to her when she was arrested for aggravated assault for allegedly pepper-spraying Gower through an open window in the truck in 2005.
Courtney-Evans, a 55-year-old preoperative transsexual, says she had pepper spray in her hands because she was frightened of Gower, who had followed her in his truck repeatedly during the preceding weeks. Gower even followed her home one night. "Wouldn't you call that stalking?" Courtney-Evans asks.
The morning of her arrest, she says she saw Gower following her again and was frightened. "I'm alone, he's been stalking me for some months," she says. "I reached into my purse and got pepper spray." She says she didn't spray him. The charge against her is still pending.
Courtney-Evans admits she has worked as a prostitute in the past, but says she was not a prostitute when the confrontation happened in 2005. "I'm a grown woman and I don't have a curfew," she says.
Activists point out that driving prostitutes out of Midtown won't actually solve the underlying causes of prostitution. It just moves the prostitutes a few blocks away.
That's fine with Gower and Denby, who are fed up with the presence of prostitutes in Midtown. "We did our time," Denby says. "Now it's someone else's turn."
Adds Gower, "We're not social workers."