Mayors, cocaine and who we are

November 5, 2013

Mark Blinch/Associated Press

News of a crack-smoking mayor does not make me laugh. That’s because I remember exactly where I was when I found out that my mayor had done the same thing. And it forever changed my feelings about the powers of addiction, drug abuse and power.

I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was 8 years old. I had gone to sleep early at my father’s sister’s house in Oxon Hill. In what seemed like the middle of the night, she burst in, panicked, screaming. “Clinton, Clinton, wake up!” she said. I thought the house was on fire. She grabbed me from the bed and told me to come downstairs. On our mutually swift descent of the staircase she said “Mayor Barry just got caught smoking crack.”

I didn’t understand.

There were two things I knew about crack at the time. One, it was bad. Two, I shouldn’t do it. That’s it. So when Toronto mayor Rob Ford announced to reporters Tuesday that he smoked crack during one of his “drunken stupors,” I was instantly transported to that January day back in 1990.

Sitting on the edge of the couch, I watched that grainy black and white video of Marion Barry engaging in an illegal act at the Vista hotel. My other aunt silently shook her head, while the rest of us watched in bewilderment.

The effects of that piece of tape still influence who I am today. To my knowledge then, perhaps naively, Barry was a black man that provided opportunity and promise for black people in my hometown. To see him publicly humiliated on a national stage was embarrassing. If he could succumb to such a fate, what chance did I have?

Rob Ford is not Marion Barry. The accusations of Ford’s boorish behavior are easy to laugh at, but for Barry, the scenario cast an awful light on an entire city, the only place I’d ever called home. Years later, at a sleepaway baseball camp, a friend asked me, with wonder in his eyes, what crackheads looked like in real life. He’d assumed that because I was from D.C., I’d have an answer. At 14 years old, scary thing was, he was right. So, I told him. Then I went back to my room and cried.

In the 1996 film “High School High” a comedic look at what urban education was like in that era, the kids attend Marion Barry High School. In it, there is a statue of Barry in front of the school, holding a drug pipe. The message was clear.

On Twitter Tuesday, the jokes came with ease. “Rob Ford is a fat crackhead with a job proving everything is backwards in Canada,” @desusnice wrote. “I’ll be in Toronto next week. So I just go to the mayor’s office for my crack?” wrote @jpodhoretz.

It’s a different world now than it was in 1990. Between social media and 24-hour news networks, a white Canadian mayor admitting that he uses drugs is looked at as a source of comedy. In those days, it was a reason to vilify a majority-black city for a drug epidemic that took countless lives. The idea being: look at those people, even their mayor is hooked. Overlooking the obvious public health issue about how drugs, incarceration practices and policing issues affect communities.

I suspect the treatment of Toronto and Ford will be different. Maybe the real issues that affect that city, which I’m admittedly not super familiar with will get glossed over in the international media for the sake of a joke. But it won’t be funny to anyone whose life has been legitimately affected by the drug.

This afternoon, Josh Greenman, New York Daily News opinion editor and editorial writer wrote this on Twitter. “RT if a small part of you wishes your mayor smoked crack too.”

Actually, mine did. And I wish he hadn’t.

 

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Mark Berman · November 5, 2013