FROM ACROSS THE school yard you could see them fighting swinging their arms and then, finally, a puff of dust as one of them went down. They rolled over and over and then on kid got on top and started to punch away, hitting the guy on the bottom at will, until someone stepped out of the crowd and kicked him in the back. He was a friend of the guy on the bottom and although it was no longer a fair fight no one made a move to stop it. Friendship excuses a lot.

We felt very strong about friendship then. We believed that there was nothing more important, that without friends you were nothing, alone against a hostile world, and that your friend was also your ally. Right or wrong did not matter when it came to friends and you did not ask them questions, doubt them or fail to come to their aid when they got into a fight. I cannot tell you how high we ranked friendship but I can tell you this: for a friend, you would pass up a woman. If this was the movies, an organ would have just rumbled.

All of this brings me to Walter Washington and Joseph Yeldell, but it brings me, too, to Walter Washington and Lorenzo Jacobs and Walter Washington and James Baldwin and Walter Washington and his police chiefs. It brings me, in fact to Walter Washington and the whole city government and how there are ties of friendship that outsiders do not understand and now some of this - not all of it - goes back to the days when this city was ruled by white men who lived in places like South Carolina or the suburbs and who ran the city for the benefit of people like themselves.

But something needs to be said and the place to start is with Yeldell. The mayor appointed Yeldell, director of the city's Department of Human Resources, a gargantuan agency dealing with nothing less than intractable and maybe insoluable problems that may be beyond the administrative capabilites of anyone. It certainly was beyond Yeldell's. In fact, the department was a mess and the city's only municipal hospital, the place where poor people go when they're sick, lost its accreditation. No matter, Joe Yeldell remained Walter Washington's friend and he remained in office.

Things got worse. Yeldell was accused of nepotism and favoritism in hiring. The mayor said nothing. The pressure increased and when the mayor finally did act, the long-run solution was to take Yeldell out of DHR and into the mayor's inner circle where he became, as the saying goes, a trusted adviser. Now there is no sense and no justice in trying a man in the newspaper, but suffice it to say that the indictment brought against Yeldell last week was a surprise to no one and neither were the charges. They had been aired for the most part in the newspapers and the best that you could say for the mayor at this point is that he was waiting to see if Yeldell merely had a conflict of interest or was indictable.

The point is not that Yeldell is such a bad man or that the mayor is a fool, but rather that the Yeldell case is not unique to Walter Washington's administration. When faced with a problem or a conflict or a crisis Mayor Washington resolves it by placing personal loyalty or friendship first. Often he will simply do nothing, but what he almost will never do is take the part of the people against the bureaucracy, slap someone down and says, in no uncertain terms, that this or that will not be tolerated. It was not, for instance, a major scandal when his Human Rights commissioner acknowledged a violation of the city's code of ethics by using official stationery to recruit students to a private college, but it was at least worth a comment from the mayor. Silence is what we got.

There's more. When the police chief left office on the wings of a windfall, the mayor attacked the press for attacking both the police chief and the silly law that allowed a man with a desk job to leave office under a disability claim. Nothing said about the obvious rip-off. When the city's housing chief acknowledged that he purposely made it difficult for city residents to apply for federal rent subsidies, the mayor said nothing. Housing may be this city's number one problem, but the mayor slapped no wrists. He is an exceedingly loyal man.

We plunge on. The city's emergency numbers get you nothing for your dime but a constant ring on the other end, and the mayor says nothing. He promises no cleanup of anything. No heads will roll for this - or for anything, for that matter. The federal government accuses the city of waste and the mayor is mum. The city's budget chief doesn't tell either the city council or the mayor that $10 million will be cut from the federal payment and this moves the mayor to heights of silence. A television station reports that food is rotting in a city warehouse and the city councilman rushed out there to denounce those responsible. The mayor stays where he is.

You could go on, but the point is made. Whenever the mayor had to choose between his appointees and the people he was elected to represent, he comes down on the side of the bureaucracy. He draws up his wagons and closes his circle and rejects criticism and thinks, apparently, as we once did on the school yard that friendship changes all the other rules. But the mayor is not a kid and this is not a school yard fight and there comes a point where friendship ends and cronyism begins.

Walter Washington passed that point on the run some time ago.