Something is being overlooked in the furor about the unexpectedly large outpouring of sentiment for the alleged slayer of a policeman -- a man who was himself shot to death by police.
What's being obscured is much larger than a small-time drug pusher named Bruce Wazon Griffith. What's being obscured here is a message.
It is more than the joblessness and hopelessness felt in some parts of the community. If you listen closely, you will hear that many people in Washington did not believe the alleged killer of D.C. police officer Arthur P. Snyder would ever come to trial. The feeling may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, but what's being communicated here is that many solid citizens in this town no longer believe due process exists.
That is the shadow left over the city by Snyder's tragic death, by Griffith's wasted life and by the response of the community to the blazing shootout: blacks of diverse walks of life took for granted that, in this case, the Constitution was a worthless piece of paper.
Listen to a couple of well-educated residents who did not join the emotional sendoff for the slain man, who did not join the throngs at the wake.
A doctor: "When he said he would kill anybody who came after him, I read that as "that's their cover for killing him."
A. Knighton Stanley, the politically well-connected and respected minister of People's Congregational Church: "There is another signal there. When we are at our thoughtful best, we know that there's where we belong, at Griffith's funeral." Why? "A nigger is a nigger is a nigger and we know that. We all get lumped together."
The plain, harsh facts is that the police of the District are distrusted by many citizens of the city. This may be warranted, or unwarranted, fair of unfair. But it is a fact of life.
Listen to some of the people who live in the 14th Street area: A student: "The police pick with you for no good reason at all." A 29-year-old man: "A lot of people up here aren't up to anything wrong but the police just like to hassel people." Another: "They gave the police a blank check a long time ago but now they're overdrawn." And another: "They [police] don't know these people. They don't know anything about the blacks here and they don't care."
It is different from '60s, when the roots of distrust were embedded in officially accepted patterns of discrimination, and the police were accustomed to ignoring black rights. At the height of allienation between the police and the community, officials rightly focused on how the people responded to police actions. The administration of Mayor Walter Washington instituted a policy of automatic administrative suspension of police officials who were involved in skirmishes with citizens. For 10 years, that little act helped somewhat in cooling off heated situations even though black persons filling complaints often did not expect a fair hearing.
Today the landscape of upper 14th Street is changing. Some riot scars have healed, but redevelopment is bringing displacement, housing is in short supply and illegal activity, particularly drug traffic, is a strong dynamic, which frightens the good people who live and work there. The mayor's "war on heroin" is the city's official response. But to hear people talk -- not just poor blacks but others who have escaped from poverty -- there is a general perception that the police are there not to protect him but to contain them.
Nobody seem really to know what the area's true dynamics are at this point. Some people are too frightened to talk and many of the business people and solid citizens do welcome the police presence. But reporters who talked to men and women on the street while the accused killer was at large found many who believed that Griffith would be killed when the police caught him.
Partly obscuring the problem is the fact that many of the official characters in this drama are black. But that is precisely the point: having black officials in charge does not necessarily guarantee either equal justice of due process. For the problem rests neither on personalities nor individuals. It doesn't even matter that the mayor in his civil rights activist days of the past was subject to police harrassment. The problem, and the answer, rest on the system and its guarantees.
One way to assure justice would be to reinstitute a police-citizen review board with power. The City Council must aggressively plan a legislative program to speedily set this up, and Mayor Barry must move to address the problems within the police force, including charges often heard about bias.
My mother used to say, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." Not very original, but true. We're seen the smoke.