Marion Barry, who rose to prominence a decade ago as a protester, encountered mass civil protest from the other side of the barricade yesterday for the first time as mayor of Washington.
Talking calmly from his office on the top floor of the District Building, Barry said he saw no reason to panic as thousands of protesting farmers rolled their tractors, trucks and trailers into Washington.
"There's no crisis, no emergency," Barry said. "For people who have been in this city as long as I have, national protest has been here a lot. I think people understand that. Ain't no big problem."
Barry had to contend with the demonstration on his 34th day in office. He said he delegated most of the responsibility for hour-to-hour decisions to police officials and other administration aides.
"That's what you pay employes for," Barry said. "Let me get involved when nobody else can make a decision or when one of the decisions goes against my policy."
But some police officials involved in the effort to minimize the disruptive effect of the protest were unhappy with Barry. They said the mayor overstepped his bounds by meeting with four protest leaders in the afternoon. They felt he was searching for a way to accommodate the demonstration rather than to contain it.
The mayor, by comparison, said he saw the situation as a basic problem of striking some kind of balance. "Since they came to protest, and I've protested in my life, I know there may be confrontation, but we ought to see if we can avoid that," Barry said.
"I told them I had no beef with them... On the other hand, we have to protect the city and they can't just go where they want to go."
Barry said he had nothing to do with a police decision to try to barricade the tractors in the Mall area to avoid an evening rush-hour traffic snarl. "I didn't get involved in that. I leave all these things to the police," Barry said. "It looks like it was (a) good (decision)."
The four farmers who dropped by to see the mayor delayed Barry's scheduled appointment with a visiting Libyan government official, who was paying the mayor a courtesy call.
For about 20 minutes, the four protesters sat around the oak-topped, chrome-legged table in the mayor's office, complaining about alleged "overreaction" to the demonstration by city police. At one point, they invited the mayor to speak at a protest rally today. Barry declined.
Still, the mayor said he saw shades of himself in the demonstrators. For example, police had trouble last week identifying the protest leaders because the protesters purposely hid their leadership as a means of confusing officials, Barry said. "That's a good tactic. I understand it, I used to use it myself," Barry said, adding that he still is not satisfied that the city has identified the real farm protest leaders.
Barry said part of the problem is that "the mood of the farmers is much tougher this year than it was last year." But even that, he said, he understands.
"I understand the problems of not being able to survive. I understand that in this country, the media and others force you do do something [like this]."