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Marion Barry, the outrage continues; Tommy Wells on race and the bag tax

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By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 13, 2010

Forty years of observing Marion Barry, and he can still make my jaw drop.

This time, Barry had the unmitigated gall to send a letter to Mayor Adrian Fenty urging him to ask President Obama to declare a state of emergency for the city, noting "The challenges that you are facing . . . are very similar to those that I faced, as Mayor, during . . . the snowstorm of 1987."

Barry has outdone himself, or he has lost his mind.

I remember that snowstorm. Marion Barry was nowhere near the District when the snow started falling in January 1987.

While we were digging out of 20 inches of snow, Mayor Barry, The Post reported at the time, was in Southern California getting a manicure and playing tennis at the Beverly Hills Hilton. And that came after he attended the Super Bowl and a party in the well-to-do View Park section of Los Angeles, which left him sitting on a curb dressed in casual clothes waiting for an ambulance to take him to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood.

He said at the time that his hiatal hernia had flared up. I'll leave it at that.

As for the crummy snow removal efforts that left the city paralyzed, Barry then explained: "We're not a snow town . . . where snow is confronted all the time, where you spend a lot of money on it." He later apologized for the city's slow response.

And at the very moment when residents were engaged in backbreaking shoveling, Barry announced that his 80-hour workweeks were stressful and that he planned to take more time off.

So help me!

--

And on our city's racial divide, last week's column discussed a Post poll that found a serious split, with 67 percent of white residents and only 43 percent of black residents believing that the city is headed in the right direction. A poll last Sunday found a similar racial divide over the new law requiring stores that sell food and beverages to charge for paper or plastic bags. According to the poll, three out of four white residents and one in three black residents support the tax, with widespread opposition in the city's heavily black wards.

I asked D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chief sponsor of the bag tax, for his reaction to the finding and his opinion as to why the divide exists. The following excerpts are from his e-mail response:

"The issue of a racial divide is often more complex than it appears on the surface of a poll . . . Often the experience of living in our city is described or explained according to which side of the Anacostia you reside, serving as a physical symbol of a racial divide in D.C. Representing a ward that includes the river, I wanted to do something substantial to help improve it."

The D.C. Department of the Environment conducted a study "to determine the primary sources of trash in the river. Forty-seven percent was found to be plastic bags in the creeks and tributaries and 21 percent in the main stem of the river. I decided to research legislative efforts to stem the use of plastic bags. I engaged local residents in my exploration. For example, Dennis Chestnut, a black leader of an environmental organization in Ward 7, Groundwork Anacostia River DC. He knows a lot about the river and cares deeply about the environment. He became a helpful ally for the resulting bill.

"I conducted formal presentations at four senior wellness centers about trash in the Anacostia and then fully described my bill, placing a 5 cent fee on disposable bags. The presentations were held at centers in Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8. I engaged the council members for the wards, including Marion Barry, who is a strong supporter of the bill. The vast majority of the participants were black. A group of seniors from one of the centers even came down and testified in support of the bill."

"Finally, environmental degradation is often accepted as the norm in lower income neighborhoods, but I never assumed that black citizens living along the Anacostia found the state of our river acceptable. In fact, many of the older black residents I talked with remember swimming in the river and fishing with their parents, and they still boat on it."

"I take my responsibility to represent all the citizens of a diverse Ward 6 very seriously, and I am disappointed in any racial divide in our city. But as it relates to the bag bill, I believe it was only by seriously engaging black leadership and concerned residents on both sides of the river I was able to pass it unanimously at the Council."

Wells said a cleaner Anacostia River will show the wisdom of the bill. I agree.

kingc@washpost.com


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