As soon as Ed Hancock stepped from the taxi at Lafayette Park yesterday, he knew this was not your everyday group of protesters. Surveying the crowd of well-dressed, middle-aged and elderly blacks preparing to march on city hall, Hancock stroked his chin in astonishment.
"This is the 'got-it-made' crowd," the former school board member said. "These are the mayor's people. All along they've been for him. It looks like trouble in '78," he said.
Hancock was witnessing was a rare display of anger, frustration and fear from some 300 Washington home-owners, traditionally low-keyed, go-with-the-flow types who say they've come to realize that something is terribly amiss in Washington.
They said they believe that recent increases in utility bills - some well in excess of 100 per cent - appear to be part of a scheme to force them from the city.
During the past two years, the everage cost of water, gas and electricity have risen 50 per cent, while average incomes rose only 8 to 11 per cent, said Norman Neverson, a Xerox employee who organized the march.
"People are fighting for survival," he said. "They are having to mortgage their homes to pay the water bill."
Explaining why he had decided to take to the streets, Edward Hardy, 66, a retired painter and lifelong resident of Washington, told the crowd, "It's time to let my feet do the talking. Since Washington has been in the mayorship, Washington has been a mess."
Straining his voice and taking an occasional deep breath during applause, Hardy continued, "As far as I can see, we have no leadership - we ain't got nobody who can lead. We ain't even got nobody who can count. Guys like that we got to get out of office. Before they force me out of my house it will be over my dead body," he said, to a resounding round of applause.
Earlier this month, city officials acknowledged that numerous problems relating to water bills do exist and ordered administrative personnel to do something about it. Herbert Tucker, director of the D.C. Department of Environmental Services, said recently that he had found "mass confusion" in the water revenue division when he was appointed last year.
On Aug. 2, Mayor Washington signed into law a bill passed by the City Council that gives Washington residents an extra 30 days to pay their water bills if the bills total more than $75.
Clearly disappointed that no city officials were at the District Building to hear the complaints yesterday, the Rev. Vincent Allex began his invocation by saying, "In the current administration, some people get peanut butter, some get peanuts - and some of us get the shells. God have mercy on us."
While criticizing all utility rate increases and recent requests for more hikes, the protesters were particularly concerned about water rate hikes and inconsistent billings.
According to Charles Gooding, of upper Georgia Avenue, his water bill increased rom less than $100 to $2000. He said some of his friends say they have not received a water bill in five years.
"In 1976, there were six meter readers," said Neverson, "and they had 120,000 meters to read. We did a study and found that it takes seven minutes to walk from meter to meter. That means it takes 58 forty-hour weeks - no vacation or time off - for those six to read those meters. It is clear that all the meters are not being read," he said.
Concern over utility bills began to mount, Neverson said, in July when both Potomac Electric Power Co. and Washington Gas Light Co. asked for permission to raise rates 16 and 10.29 per cent respectively for all customers.
Among the demands the protesters wanted to present to city officials yesterday were appointment of a panel to meet with Mayor Walter E. Washington to discuss the adverse effects of utility increases on residents, election of the Public Service Commission chairman, who is presently appointed by Washington, and conversion of cubic feet of water on bills to gallons so residents will have a better idea of how much water they use.
"My water bill went from $20 to $89," said one man, who is retired and asked not to be identified. "The mayor never gets up to explain any of this. The only time you see him is at election time or some ribbon-cutting. Soon they will have run all of us out of the city."
"That's right," said a man moving through the crowd with a bullhorn. "When they move you out of the District, you can't come back. They want you back on the plantation, picking cotton. They're after you and your land."