Lenny Harris was a fighter. I realized that the first time he dropped by the Washington Post offices in Alexandria back in the summer of 2002. He had something burning in his heart and on his mind.
On this day, he wanted to give me a tour of Del Ray, a community that had recently become a destination for young middle class and wealthy families. Harris believed that vendors along Mount Vernon Avenue, the neighborhood’s main drag, were targets of a city that didn’t want them around. On a walking tour, he introduced me to men who felt like they were being pushed out. He was less interested in his own plight- he wanted these men to have a voice. Indeed, he was an organizer, an activist and he had taken it upon himself to stand up for them.
Harris’ body was found in a well Saturday in Prince George’s County after a four-month search for him. Police said Monday morning that he had been shot. I hadn’t talked to Harris, 53, in years, but the news reminded me that he was always looking out for the invisible. Among other projects, Harris founded Operation Hope, a non-profit that provides life skills training and counseling and had his own pest control company.
Harris was a gadfly, but his issue wasn’t traffic or dog parks. Instead, he argued that the people in Alexandria’s public housing had serious needs that city leaders ignored.
Harris was known to often use hyperbole in his fight for Alexandria’s downtrodden. When we talked, he unsparingly charged that city officials wanted to push out low-income residents in favor of expensive town houses.
In 2003, I got a call from Harris. It was late evening during the summer, and he was angry as he alerted me to a clash between police and some residents who lived in the ‘Berg, the informal name of the city’s public housing complexes in Old Town. What struck me was Harris wanted the voices of the residents heard. He wasn’t out to hear himself talk. He supplied me with with people who claimed to be witnesses and followed up to make sure I had reached them.
It’s been nearly 10 years since we last spoke. After I left Alexandria, Harris ran for city council. But from the outpouring of grief since his death, it’s clear that he remained true to his activist roots.
“There is a big loss in Alexandria. Not many left willing to speak truth to power,” said former Alexandria city council woman Joyce Woodson on a Facebook page that had several tributes to Harris. “Pray for his family and thank God Lenny was with us here to help us see the light... if only for a short time.”
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