When civil rights activists become elected officials, they face the past

Courtland Milloy
Columnist August 25, 2013

When civil rights activists become elected officials, as often has been the case in the District, they sometimes encounter younger versions of their former selves. And the protests against them by this new generation can be as withering as any leveled by activists in the 1960s.

“What I see from elected officials in this city is contempt for the poor,” said Parisa Norouzi, 36, executive director of Empower DC, a group that promotes self-advocacy among low-income residents — through confrontation if necessary. “I see them coming out only for photo opportunities, trotting out kids for ribbon cuttings, while at the same time systematically trying to eliminate public housing and closing neighborhood schools.”

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) occasionally finds himself mixing it up with protesters. But the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and an organizer of the Freedom Rides says he doesn’t mind.

“I’m glad they are doing something because a lot of young people today don’t have any idea what the struggle is all about,” Barry said. Still, he dismisses their concerns about the loss of public housing in his ward. “The housing policies have changed for the best in the sense that we are trying to create mixed-income housing, not concentrate all low-income people in one place.”

Some housing activists disagree. They say that once a public housing complex is emptied for renovation, not all residents will be able to return and no provisions will be made for them to live elsewhere in the city. Goodbye, poor people.

“Getting rid of low-income residents is not the way to fight poverty,” Norouzi said.

During Saturday’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, speakers urged the audience to organize and fight economic oppression. On Wednesday, President Obama is scheduled to speak out against economic inequality. But in the District, which is the setting for such high-minded talk, the income gap between rich and poor is the widest in the country.

And few seem to know what to do about it.

Because of rapid neighborhood gentrification and a boom in construction, the District is reaping a windfall in tax revenue. Politicians are proud to be a part of the transformation — from a city once deeply scarred by riots in the 1960s to one that some now refer to as “little Manhattan on the Potomac.”

For former civil rights activists turned politicians, conundrums abound.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), a longtime advocate for the poor, is considering vetoing a bill that would require “big box” stores in the District, such as Wal-Mart, to pay employees a “livable wage” of at least $12.50 an hour. Gray also was one of the speakers at the anniversary march for jobs and freedom which, in 1963, highlighted the need for living wages.

Norouzi said Gray had a lot of nerve.

“I think about which side Martin Luther King would be on: with those who support a living wage or those who have sold out to corporate interests?” she said. “I think he would be on our side.”

Neighborhood groups, including some organized by Empower DC, have protested the Gray administration’s housing and school-closing policies, even showing up at some of his public engagements.

Asked what he thought about the protests, Gray replied in an e-mail: “I have participated in many protests but always wanted my information to be accurate. To win support for your issue or cause, you have to be credible. I have seen some who were believable and others who clearly were fabricating for purposes of sensationalism.”

Not long ago, Gray spoke at a festival, touting plans for a large commercial development on the grounds of the St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast. In the audience, a small band of protestors chanted, “Housing not stadiums.” They were referring to city plans to build a soccer stadium not far from an area where public housing units were scheduled to be demolished.

Gray wrote: “There was a side of me that wanted to leave the stage and say to them, ‘Let me show you how to do this!’ I thought what they did was ill-conceived and uninformed, albeit well-intentioned. In reality, those two issues [housing and stadiums] are not mutually exclusive.”

Gray added that his budget for next year includes $100 million for affordable housing, although there is disagreement as to what “affordable” means in a city where market forces are driving housing costs through the roof.

So, the protests continue, and with rallying cries that the old guard would no doubt find familiar.

“We have to remember what Frederick Douglass and Dr. King said: Power concedes nothing without demand,” Norouzi said. “They have become the establishment, and they will not let go of any power or privilege without us consistently and publicly confronting them.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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