Cynthia Harper woke up her family at 3 a.m. yesterday in Landover and drove them in the dark to the District's U.S. courthouse, expecting to watch Rasheeda Moore and Marion Barry watching themselves on the Vista videotape.
The Harpers were too late.
The line had formed at midnight.
The last of the 36 tickets had been spoken for at 3:50 a.m.
More than 100 people were turned away.
And at dawn, when a Georgetown law professor offered $100 for a ticket, no one would sell.
Pop video extravaganzas may fill up RFK Stadium, but nothing packs them in like a seat on a hard wooden bench in the back row of Courtroom No. 2 for the premiere of a black-and-white, no-vertical-hold short film produced by the FBI.
Sure, by now even sailors on aircraft carriers have seen it on CNN, and by the weekend the tape may be rentable at the corner video store, but there's nothing like an opening night.
The first-comers lined up for many reasons, loud and little. They lined up to see history. They lined up to see Effi Barry stare down Rasheeda Moore. They lined up to eliminate the media filters between themselves and Truth. They lined up to watch defense counsel Ken Mundy cross-examine Moore into bits. They lined up to watch body language. Or they just lined up.
Political science student Byron Patterson was first, taking the last Metro train in from Rockville. A 24-year-old black man who likes trials and carries a police scanner, Patterson "didn't want to form any opinion without seeing it for myself. I don't trust Barry to be innocent, but I don't trust the government either, and I don't trust the newspapers and the TV to tell it straight." He signed up for an afternoon ticket to see the cross-examination, which will continue today.
Joe Person came for his fifth time because he, like so many other young black men in Washington, got his first job from Marion Barry. "He came to me when I was in need, so I come out to support him," said Person, 33.
Ron Johnson came for "sex, lies and videotape," and to make an unorthodox point: As a black man, he's worried about the idea that a black public official can't be convicted of anything. The 47-year-old D.C. native says he knew Barry in his SNCC rebel days, and liked him better then.
Patricia Little drove down from Northwest Washington "because I love Marion" and because "Rasheeda shouldn't snitch." Little, 51, a black woman in a denim dress, created a stir in the courtroom: She began sobbing as the tape showed FBI agents busting into Room 727. She was escorted out by marshals.
There were white spectators in line, but they wouldn't give their names or their opinions.
The overnight wait on the west side of the courthouse was tedious, interrupted only by gardeners at 2 a.m. spraying insecticidal soap on the shrubs. And at 4 a.m. by a Washington Times carrier with a rack sign touting, "Love Nests! Rasheeda Tells All!" And at 6:30 by a USA Today photographer who insisted on doing his job although several people in line turned their backs, confessing that they intended to call into work sick.
For the spectators, last week's early days of Case 90-0068 had been like the Sooner rushes when Oklahoma opened for business. When the three doors of the courthouse opened at 8 a.m., the first 36 people to reach the second floor won seats. "They were scratching and clawing," a marshal said.
So now it's the honor system. The first spectator to arrive before the building opens sets up a legal pad with Nos. 1-18 for morning seats, 19-36 for afternoons and 37-45 for the waiting line (tip: don't use a vacation day for the waiting line).
The rest of the routine is simple: Sign the pad, pick up the corresponding numbered scrap of paper similar to those used by takeout Chinese joints and take a nap.
At 7 a.m. the U.S. marshals emerge, explain to latecomers that they came late, and give each of the scrap holders a 3-by-5 card that buys a walk through the metal detector at 9:45 or 1:45.
The early 36 who made it to the back row yesterday could see and hear the smaller details passed over in media accounts of larger issues: the mayor's boutonniere of two yellow sweetheart roses; the way Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson rubs his head as if he has a migraine each time Mundy objects; Effi Barry's flowing olive geometric dress; the mayor's loose bantering with a white reporter who refuses to return his black power salute; the way the white jurors look at the audience during breaks but the black jurors look at the mayor; the laughter when Moore said she screamed as the FBI arrested Barry "to release some of the pain for him."
No one wanted to pass up all that, even when law professor Paul Rothstein of Georgetown University showed up at 7 a.m. with a $100 bill. "I got a research grant to study the trial and I have to have a seat," he said. He offered his $100 around, but got no more than a nibble.
Then he 'fessed up. He already had a ticket. "I really just was interested in finding out how deeply feeling runs on this trial. It runs pretty deep."