Eating a gooey chocolate candy that melted in his pocket on the way home from elementary school, 11-year-old Bobby sat on a staircase with a man's gray and brown striped suit draped over his small shoulders. Bobby got the suit by looting a dry cleaning store during last week's snowstorm. Now he was looking for a buyer.
"You wanna buy a suit for $15?" he asked, wiping chocolate off his lips with the back of his hand.
Last Monday. after the heavy snowfall that clogged city streets and immobilized traffic, Bobby and his friends, other children from the public housing and subsidized housing projects around Southern Avenue in Anacostia, formed roving gangs that at different times, in different areas, vandalized and stole from about a dozen stores in their neighborhood.
Bobby was in on the looting that took place around Chesapeake and 6th streets SE. He was one of the first into Sergent's cleaners. And when Bobby left the cleaners he trudged across the deep snow with his arms full of men's suits, slacksand a leather coat. He sold the suits and slacks. His mother kept the leather coat.
Asked later if he felt he was wrong to have looted the neighborhood cleaners, Bobby sat quietly as if puzzled by the question and then said: "So what?"
That was the attitude a reporter found last week when he went to the area where the looting occurred to speak to store owners, police and persons who either bragged they were in on the looting or said they knew what had happened.
"There isn't too much housebreaking around here," said a 19-year-old who was in the Eastover Shopping Center on Friday. "You don't want to do all that. But these stores... if you can do it, you do it. That's the way I feel about it. It don't mean nothing to them when I don't have no coins to come in there. So what's it mean for me to take something?Everybody's out here for himself and you do what you have to.
"What are you supposed to say -- don't break in there 'cause the police can't come? Hell no. You get yours and I'll get mine and you better watch your back, cause I'll take yours, too... I know it sounds cold, but you think about it... That's the way it is, man."
For some in that section of Anacostia, with its gray and dirty brown buildings, some without doors and others with newspapers stuffed in broken windows, people don't own the kind of property known to Washingtonians on the other side of the river. Unemployed men, some drunk, others on drugs, walk the streets in the day. Packs of children wander in search of something to do.
Bobby lives in Condon Terrace, a few doors away from Condon Terrace Circle, where cars cruise slowly at any time of day awaiting a drug deal from someone in the apartment building.
Talks with two dozen teen-agers in that section of Anacostia that borders on Prince George's County showed that none of those interviewed felt guilty or ashamed of havingbroken into private property and taking things that did not belong to them. In fact, most of the youngsters, although they didn't want to tell a reporter their names, bragged that they had been able to "get in on a good thing," by participating in the looting. They told their stories of what happened with excitement.
The picture of the vandalism and thievery that emerged from interviews appeared to show that neither hunger nor desperation drove the teen-agers and adults to loot but rather a widespread indifference to the idea of a businessman owning property. There was no sympathy for the notion that a store owner invests his money and his effort in making that store successful. Stores are seen as faceless, invincible, corporation, rotten with money.
"No I don't know nobody who owns a store," said Bobby, still seated on the steps to his entrance of the Condon Terrace Apartments. "I don't know how they get what they got in there (goods for sale).But you have to pay for it, don't you? I got to pay for it and when we busted in we didn't have to pay."
In the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his sister and his mother, Bobby owns almost nothing. He does not own a comb. He shares that with his mother and sister. His clothes are hand-me-downs and he even shares a pair of gray hush puppies with his sister. It is their good pair of shoes.
Bobby, sitting on the steps with his blue nylon coat and his dirty Converse sneakers, says he gets what he can, where he can, when he can. Bobby says he does not feel deprived. He's having fun, he says.
Last Monday night Bobby and some of his friends went over to 6th and Chesapeake and played. There was a snowball fight. Then someone started looking at the candy in the front window of Sergent's dry cleaners and got an idea. They had heard about the looting in Baltimore and had seen people on TV running out of stores with boxes and liquor under their arms and no police in sight. And, the youngsters said, they felt the police weren't going to come through all that snow to get to 6th and Chesapeake.
So, a group of children began pulling at the gate covering the front of the cleaners. Then a crowd gathered in the back. They began pulling at a gate there and pushing on a door. A teen-ager brought a car into the lot and another attached a chain to the car to pull the gate down. Then the door gave in and children, with adults who had joined the crowd, swarmed over the clothes in the cleaners, picking clothes off the rack.
Bobby and other persons who took part in the looting say that a police car arrived about two hours after the alarm in Sergent's went off. Two policemen went into the cleaners, pushing looters out. But the crowd did not disperse. Instead, they attacked the police car, ripping out the radio and other parts. The police ran off, leaving the car, according to the looters, and the crowd returned to the store, larger than ever as word of free clothes spread through the neighborhood.
Bobby wanted to see the police cruiser.
"I'd never been in a police car before," he said. "They didn't have all I thought. I figured they had guns, big guns, rifles in the back, They didn't have nothing like that."
Lt. Clarence Dickerson of the Seventh Police District, which dispatched a cruiser to the cleaners, confirmed that looters broke into the car that responded to the cleaners burglar alarm. But he denied the looters' statement that the police officers had "run away."
"They broke in and took two microphones out of the car," Dickerson said. "All they had to do was unscrew them. The officers were inside the cleaners when it happened."
Dickerson said that when the policemen learned that their car was under attack they returned to it and were able to drive away. He said other police cars responded moments later to the scene in an attempt to recover the microphones but were unsuccessful.
Dickerson denied that police in that area take two hours to respond to calls for police help: "Oh, my God no," he said. "I don't know what the response time is on average but I'd say it was two to three times what it normally is in that snow. I guess it would normally take us two to three minutes to respond to an alarm at that cleaners."
Earlier on Monday, groups of youngsters looted stores nearby in the Eastover Shopping Center on Indian Head Highway. There they broke into Radio Shack, J.C. Penneys, People's drug store and other shops.
And late Monday night youngsters from another part of that neighborhood broke into an A&P, a sporting goods store and Jakes' Carry-out store on Southern Avenue, looting those stores.
"They took everything out of here," said Randy Scott, the manager of the cleaners. He said store employes caught a 9-year-old boy returning to the store through the still-open back door Tuesday night, apparently to continue the looting. They turned the child over to police, Scott said.
"They came in here so bad," Scott said, "they ripped some of the pipes out. Back here (by the back door) we had a foot of water flooding. They even got into the safe and I didn't think they could get in that. They got about $8,000 out of there... They tell me they were in packs, packs of kids just running wild."
"They had to be hungry, poor or something to take other people's clothes like that," he said.
Robert Milhouse, a barber whose shop is around the corner from the cleaners, said he thinks unemployed people and drunks may have urged the kids to loot.
"I don't want to think that the kids did that by themselves," Milhouse said. "Unemployment is bad around here. Money don't come easy. Really, I don't understand how some of the people around here survive. If you go up the street and knock on some of the doors up there you'll see 10, 11 kids living in one room."
Milhouse said most of the young-sters in the ueighborhood are good kids. He said, however, that some of the older teen-agers fall into a lifestyle of pursuing women and depending on welfare checks.
"You come up here some nights," said a man across from the barber shop, "and you see heat (guns) everywhere... dIt's nothing to find a young dude with a pistol now. They call it hardware.They got their hardware hanging off their hip, showing the handle out of the pocket."
At Linda Pollin Memorial Housing apartments, James Barrow, 16, said the teen-agers who broke into Jakes' Carryout and the A&P on Southern avenue were between 12 and 16.
"Hey, like everybody around here be getting high on reefers (marijuana) or beer and some them was bored, that's all," Barrow said. "They didn't have nothing to do. Some of them looking for jobs. There are no jobs."
Barrow said the teen-agers who broke into the Southern avenue stores have broken into other stores before.
"A snow like we had, a blackout, that's hip, too," he said. "That gives a reason. But sometimes they don't need a reason."
The looting has made merchants in the area fearful. Michael Eisenberg, owner of South Capitol Liquor, Delicatessen and Other Things, slept in his newly remodeled store Tuesday night to make sure his store was not looted.
At Eastover Shopping center, manager Bill DeVincent said two security guards were on duty when the looting started. DeVincent said one police car responded to calls for help jbut while police cleared persons out of the Radio Shack store, looters broke the show window for the J.C. Penney department store.
"It is hard to sit here and say a bunch of animals came in here and tore the place up," DeVincent said. "These people around here aren't animals. We've got a good community here. If the whole community had been in on this you wouldn't see a shopping center standing here."
DeVincent said watches, rldios, stereo equipment and other items were stolen.
"It wasn't like they took clothes and food," he said. "It wasn't need -- it was want. They took what they wanted."
Residents of the area said they were surprised when they heard the looting had come so soon after the snow.
"I really can't understand it," said Dorothy Ensly, resident of the Linda Pollin Memorial Housing tenants association. "I don't know who started it. I would like to say that the adults started it and the kids zeroed in on the opportunity to get what they wanted.... But you know what I can't understand is that they hit the stores right around here. Lots of time I can't get out, I don't have transportation. The stores are convenient. We can walk to them. We don't have to bother anyone
"This all takes me back to the riots on 14th Street," she said. "Black people on 14th Street," she said. "Black people tearing up black people."
Other adults were not so surprised at the looting, some admitting to urging their little brothers and sisters to go and get something.
"I told (him) he better get... out there," said one woman, who said that, she and her 10-year-old brother were among the looters at Eastover.
"See, even if he gets arrested what are they going to do to a kid? He's only 10."
A 14-year-old boy who said that he was among the looters and the persons smoking marijuana on a bus stalled in the snowdrift said the whole thing was "fun."
"Just like the song says, we was busting loose," he laughed.