For nearly all the 46 years of his life, Herbert Barksdale has lived in Washington. During that time he has seen the city change, and one of the most obvious differences -- and perhaps the most visible -- has been racial. A lot of people appear to have simply switched places.
Barksdale, for example, grew up in Georgetown, "when Georgetown was a ghetto and black folk lived there. The white people did to Georgetown what they're now doing to Capitol Hill," he says. Georgetown is now mostly white and quite fashion able. Barksdale, now married, lives in far Northeast Washington.
Barksdale is acting president of his neighborhood civic association, has spent a lot of time working with various community groups in the city and is co-host of the grass-roots oriented "Rap with Petey Greene" radio call-in show on WOL. And some of the things he says about local affairs have a familiar ring to anyone who has spent time talking with people in the various sectors of this town's black community.
Barksdale was asked the other day how he felt about the current controversy over the granting tax-free disability pensions to three top members of the city's police and fire departments. That, he said, is another example of how things have changed, this time in the relations between city government, Capital Hill, the news media and the public.
The D.C. police and firemen retirement system has come under criticism during the past two months with the departure on disability pensions of Police Chief Maurice J. Cullinane, Assistant Police Chief[WORD ILLEGIBLE] O'Bryant and Fire Chief Burton W. Johnson. Newspaper editors writers suggest that not only the system costly and general but that some of the claim physical impairment have questional documentation and some higher ranking officials seem to have their claims processed faster than their subordinates.
News reports have also noted that these city retirees and some 3,000 other police and fire pensioners retire on disability at a far more frequent rate than their national counterparts and receive considerably more generous payments when they do.
Last week, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-MO.), the sponsor of a bill designed to overhaul the system, called the system a "premier ripoff" and suggested that a recent rush of retirements was aimed at beating the system before it is changed.
Barksdale sees it differently, especially since the two latest retirees (Johnson and O'Bryant) are black, and Barksdale is, too.
"When whites retired in the past, there was so problem, regardless of their position. Why is it that two black guys, who have struggled 30-something years and then decided they want to retire, why now is there a big problem"" Barksdale asked.
"I'm pretty sure that Senator Eagleton is aware that these regulations have been in existence for a long time. The Congress developed the rules and regulations under which policemen and firemen can retire. These men have served their time and all they are doing is asking to retire.
"There are going to be 30-something congressmen and 10 or 12 senators that are going to receive certain benefits (when they retire next year). Is Senator Eagleton going to be concerned about the benefits that they get?"
Does past abuse of the system by whites gave blacks a license to do the same. Barksdale was asked? And what about Cullinane and several other white retirees.
"It doesn't make it right just because white folks have done it," Barksdale answered. "That's not what I'm saying. In the past it has benefitted more whites than blacks. Maybe it's just coincidental that the two top men happen to be black.
"With Cullinane, it was raised in a different aspect. With him, it was raised after he had received the pension. They're raising it now (first the press and then Eagleton) before the men get disability to try to hamper them from receiving it.
"The questions are valid questions, but I just don't agree with the timing."
This is one man's opinion. For the record, Barksdale is a die-hard supporter of and aide to mayoral assistant Joseph P. Yeldell, who has himself laid much of the criticism of his days in public office to opposition to black leadership in the city. Barksdale also makes no bones about his political preference for Mayor Walter E. Washington, some of whose supporters contend has also been a victim of racist detractors.
But other blacks in the city share those views. They note with some concern, for example, that the more intensive press coverage of city government brought on by the advent of limited home-rule has come at a time when blacks are in visible -- if not always actual -- power in city hall for the first time in more than a century. The white population in the city is growing as the black population continues to shrink, they also point out.
It is coincidence, they suggest almost sarcastically, that blacks after years of waiting are just now getting to a point when they, too, can have some of the traditional free rides of public office, and whites are now saying everyone should pay. And some complainants even suggest that all this coincidence is not really coincidence at all.
To be sure, it is an argument that in some ways' oversimplifies the situation and at times misstates the facts. Cullinane's disability retirement was written about before it was granted and before it became effective. Eagleton's hearing was in the works before the pension controversy reports in the news media began.
Also -- by coincidence -- many of the people complaining about the short-comings of city government and home-rule city officials are also black, for example. And the financial burdens of the city's archaic pension system are borne by black as well as white taxpayers.
Still, this often subconscious and narrowly focused feeling of racial resentment is an ever-present factor that complicates politics in this city, because some issues are more likely to be received as controversies created by the white-owned news media and white-dominated Congress than cut-and-dried concerns for improvement in government.
That may help to explain why there has been no rush of city officials calling press conferences to denounce the police and firemen's retirement system, even though most city leaders are otherwise quick to shout their approval for anything that will help reduce the city's budget.