No One Is Immune From Problems

By Donna Britt
Friday, January 13, 2006

Most people have an immunity problem.

I don't mean folks who catch everybody's cold or Capitol Hill types who crave the kind of immunity that could protect them from lobbyist Jack Abramoff's tattling. I'm talking about the immunity that most of us believe on some unspoken level is ours -- the kind that's supposed to protect us from life's ills.

You'd think we would know better. We shake our heads when famous athletes believe they should get away with spitting on an opponent or brandishing a gun, asking, "What do they think they are, untouchable?"

As if life never had to remind us that no human is immune.

You can be a universally respected journalist for one of the nation's finest newspapers, living on what one neighbor called "the ideal Mayberry RFD block," and be killed during your evening walk. You can be one of your working class community's best-known and -loved political figures and discover that a pair of youngsters whom you invited into your home are holding a gun to your head.

Those who knew retired New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum describe him as uncommonly helpful and engaging. He brought his wife flowers each week, and he hand-fashioned Valentine's Day cards for female office mates. Such a man should be immune from hoods who'd sneak up on and batter somebody for his wallet. Was anyone surprised that his grieving neighbors kept saying how astonished they were that something so heinous happened in their community?

As for Marion Barry's very different immunity issues, one of my first memories of the Ward 8 council member is from 1990, when then-Mayor Barry, during a freewheeling interview with a female Los Angeles Times reporter, bragged of his sexual skills, announced, "I'm invincible" and asked: "Co-caaaaine? How folks use that stuff?" On Tuesday, we learned that Barry had reportedly failed a routine court-ordered drug test related to his recent tax troubles -- a problem that could compromise his plea agreement or land him in jail.

I was still digesting Barry's recent announcement that he'd been robbed of $200 by local thugs who had helped him bring in his groceries. Some questioned the entire episode. Others were surprised that Barry perceived youths whom he'd just met as trustworthy.

What struck me was Barry's self- perception: as someone whose longtime community activism should have immunized him.

"There is a sort of an unwritten code in Washington, among the underworld and the hustlers . . . that I am their friend," Barry said of the "betrayal." Even D.C. Police Cmdr. Joel Maupin was "very surprised" that youths aware of Barry's identity "went ahead and robbed him anyway."

In a world in which people repeatedly prove they're capable of anything -- that's surprising?

Over and over, people whose experiences suggest they shouldn't feel immune -- the poor, the disenfranchised, minorities -- are continually shocked by their vulnerability. As a woman of color, I've experienced prejudice -- both subtle and face-smackingly obvious -- hundreds of times.

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