Guns and Bullets. For the last three weeks Marion Barry has dreamt about shootings almost every night.
"Being shot was a scary experience. But part of the problem now is that I dream about bullets. Shootings. The dreams are so real that they wake me up," says Barry. The nightmares lack a locale or identifiable faces but they are frightening.
"I might have to go to a psychiatrist. The dreams really bother me. But I think I'll wait a while (before getting professional help). Maybe they'll go away. But it's strange because I never before remembered my dreams. Now I can't forget them."
Since his close brush with death during the violent takeover of the District Building on March 9, Barry, an outspoken man who is now a member of the D.C. City Council but has his eye on the mayor's office, has become more introspective not only about the value of his life and the risks of public exposure, but also on the causes of terrorism.
"Nobody wants to die or be a martyr. Nobody's that masochistic," says Barry. He talked about the last three weeks away from his office and beyond earshot of his secretary, Patricia Selden, a hostage for 38 hours, who is now openly nervous about Barry's accessibility to people. "A certain amount of danger goes with a public job," adds Barry. "I'm not foolish but also I'm not preoccupied."
For most of Barry's 41 years, peril has been an intimate, and, somewhat accepted, part of his life. "Confronting danger has always been the price you pay to change something," says Barry.
He was born in Itta Bena, Miss., a link of the Deep South, where dark roads, night riders and racial friction evoked visions of violence.As an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating commitee (SNCC), Barry and many other civil rights workers regarded death as an ingredient of progress. Before he became a credentialed politician, one of Barry's most widely known activities was the organization of Pride, Inc., a self-help training project for hard-core city residents, many of whose lifestyles included hustling, conning and gunning. When Barry was president of the D.C. School Board, the headquarters were constantly evacuated due to bomb threats.
In the early days of Pride, Barry did carry a gun. "There were some rough dudes around. To some of them putting a pistol in their pocket was as routine as picking up their cigarettes," says Barry.
"I carried a pistol because I knew a lot about huys like that, but not enough. I didn't want to be caught without any protection," says Barry, who eventually made it a Pride policy for the employers to disarm and sold his own registered weapon. One time 15 Pride workers invited Barry to a grip session and he put his .45 in his pocket before he went.
Over the years Barry has watched friends die through violence -- Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Featherstone. "Medgar's death was the first time a political death had been so close. We had worked together in Jackson, Miss., we had differed on things but his death was the first to hit real hard," says Barry. "I was shocked, angry and raging mad but also I realized I was almost helpless to do anything."
Each death that has taken someone close to Barry, he says, serves as a reminder that "tomorrow is not promised." He admits that is a commonplace conclusion, but points out emphatically that tragedies make him more determined. "These events either slow you down or speed you up. It speeds me up," he says. "I'm sort of blessed, blessed to be alive. No one can explain how I can be here. Whatever -- it makes me more determined than ever to work. With each death close to me I grow bitter. I get less patient with trivia."
His calmness had developed not only from the constant proximity to violence but also his familiarity with science. He trained as a chemist before he turned to civil rights. "Having been a scientist you learn to rely on the here and now. I believe in God, a supernatural being, but my reliance is mainly on my self," he says. Right now he belongs to All Souls Unitarian Church but previously has been both a Baptist and a Christian Methodist Episcopal.
Has he given any thought to switching careers, even back to the lab and the classroom?
"When these things happen you really do think about your job. Public officials get paid so little -- really $26,000 isn't enough to live well in Washington. You are a target on many levels, from the guy who just wants to talk, the citizens with real complaints, to the other politicians.But why should I leave? I get pleasure out of the job."