ANC member acknowledges punching American University official at community meeting

An Army Corps of Engineers official shows World War I-era shells recovered from Spring Valley. ANC Commissioner Kent Slowinski, not pictured, said he wanted AU officials to address his questions about what the university was doing to address old munitions like these. (The Washington Post)

The meeting involving American University officials and residents from a neighborhood adjacent to its campus in upper Northwest had been tense, and passions did not subside when it gaveled to an end Tuesday night.

Andrew Huff, a community relations official with the school, told D.C. police that Kent Slowinski, an elected member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D, punched him in the shoulder with a closed fist, hard enough for him to stumble.

Though Slowinski’s name is not on the public portion of the police report, he freely admitted in an interview to throwing at least one hard punch — but, he said, only after Huff rudely interrupted him as he chatted with a constituent.

Slowinski said Huff stuck his hand out, hoping for a handshake; the commissioner said he tried to walk way, and then Huff pushed him.

“He filed a police report, really?”  Slowinski said. “I felt threatened. I wasn’t going to shake his hand. I was walking away and he pushed me. I said, ‘That’s assault,’ and so I punched him in the arm.”

Huff declined to comment, though his side is represented in the police report, in which he described the attack as unprovoked. The police report says officers saw no visible injuries to Huff.

D.C. police have asked questions about the fracas, but nobody has  been arrested or charged.

What could spark such incivility? Slowinski said Huff has a habit of “rolling his eyes” during meetings and cutting him and others off when they challenge campus dogma.

On Tuesday, neighbors and school officials gathered to discuss the usual community concerns — a construction project at the university and how it impacts its neighbors, from truck traffic to noise. Slowinski said he wanted to discuss other, more unusual community concerns: buried chemical weapons from World War I and whether any might be leaking into a parking lot along a residential street.

Land in the Spring Valley neighborhood that is now part of the university was an old U.S. Army munitions testing site and dumping ground. The Army has removed arsenic and canister shells of liquid mustard, along with 400 pounds of laboratory glass and 100 pounds of contaminated soil.

Slowinski, who has long pushed the university and the federal government to address the contamination, said he felt he didn’t get to fully complain at the meeting that he thinks not enough is being done to ensure that the area is safe.

The university issued a statement calling the incident “regrettable” and that it “is not indicative of the relationship we have with our surrounding community members.” It notes attempts to be civil amid disagreements, to treat each other with courtesy and to engage in “constructive discourse.”

Huff’s boss, Assistant Vice President for External Relations Linda K. Argo, on Friday sent a letter to ANC members calling the incident “unacceptable” and said that Slowinski has been barred from university property and events. Argo also said the university would not participate in commission meetings if Slowinski was present.

While the Tuesday gathering was not an official ANC meeting, the commission’s members lamented the fracas and distanced themselves from the puncher.

Chairwoman Gayle Trotter, who wasn’t at the meeting, said that “passions are running hot with some members of the community, but what happened certainly is not representative of the commission as a whole.” She called the incident “counter-productive.”

Another ANC member, Michael Gold, was present at the meeting but said he caught only the tail end of the dispute. “I certainly saw an agitated conversation in which several blows were thrown by Commissioner Slowinski” against Huff.

Gold said police have interviewed him about what he saw.

“I think it’s best that meetings don’t end in a Jerry Springer episode,” he said. “The purpose of this meeting was to find a constructive way forward. … We are busy trying to build bridges and at the end of the meeting they were burned down pretty hard.”

But even Gold found a bright side. “If nothing else,” he said, “we have dedicated community members.”

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Mike DeBonis · June 12, 2014