The setting for Mayor Marion Barry's first public controversy over police conduct -- the drug-abused, riot-scarred 14th Street corridor -- is ironic.
Fourteen years ago, a year after he came to town, Marion Barry himself became a major target of the police force he now commands -- in the same target area.
In those days, Barry was a street militant in a $3 Panama hat, the leader of a meddlesome "Free D.C. Movement" and organizer of a protest against proposed bus fare increases.
At 9 p.m. Thursday, May 26, 1966, Barry was arrested at 14th and Girard streets NW by District police for "failure to move on." Arresting officers spoke "very roughly" and had a "growling" dog, Barry complained. He was leaving a civil rights meeting.
On March 30, 1967, at 12:25 a.m., Barry was arrested for jaywalking at 13th and U streets NW. This time, the 31-year-old charged, he was beaten and police called him "boy." There were "four or five" officers around him, he said. "A couple hit me on the side of my head with a short blackjack and twisted my arm. They picked me up and threw me into the wagon."
At the police station, they cursed him, punched him in the stomach and threw him in a jail cell, Barry alleged. Barry ended up being charged with destruction of government propoerty for allegedly kicking in the paddy wagon door. He was later acquitted.
Police said the arrest had been handled "properly and routinely."
Things are somewhat the same on 14th Street today. People are being stopped, ticketed and even arrested for pedestrian violations. The reason now is Barry's "War on Heroin."
Dope dealers and junkies are not the only people stopped. Two choir members on their way to rehearsal and day-care teachers are among those who were ticketed for jaywalking and other are being arrested, community workers say. Issuing tickets and stopping people for the slightest provocation are essential weapons in the mayor's war, which, in large part, is a struggle to scatter the street people clustered on the sidewalks.
Policeman Arthur P. Snyder, zeroing in to make a durg bust, was killed Feb. 11, in the early evening as he was about to arrest small-time drug dealer Bruce Wazon Griffith. Three days later and a mile away, Griffith was killed in a shootout with police.
Nearly 4,000 people turned out to mourn Griffith. He had become a popular hero in the 14th Street area, and many were hard pressed to believe that his killing was anything less than terminal police harassment.
But the mayor does not believe that was the case.
"What you have," Barry explained to a reporter last week, "is people who are pushing hard drugs, selling dope," he said. "I'm opposed to hard drugs being sold in our community. When you confront these people they don't like it."
Some innocent people may be getting stopped, Barry acknowledged. "That is wrong," he said. If so, they should feel free to call him. But, he added, "There are not many people who are on 14th Street who are not involved with something. It seems to me if there are people on the street who don't like the presence of the police, they ought to call me and tell me."
Barry said he was confident that Griffith was the one who killed Snyder and that police had acted properly in the circumstances that led to Griffith's subsequent death.
In Snyder's case, he noted, there was enough evidence to swear out a warrant for Griffith's arrest, and police had witnesses to the shooting to buttress their claims. In Griffith's killing, Barry said, it was "clear" that "for whatever, reasons, he shot first.
"Whether he did anything to anybody, it is illegal to have a gun in the first place, and it is illegal to shoot at a police officer. Police officers have no recourse when shot at but to shoot back."
It will be up to a grand jury to decide if the police and Barry are right. But all those deliberations will take place in private, far from the skeptical eyes of many in the neighborhood where Griffith grew up and died.
Do you see a need for a public inquiry, Barry was asked.
"Do you see any need?" he reacted. "I don't see any need at this point. I don't see any need, period. I don't see any evidence to suggest that the officers did anything but to defend themselves."
Some of the mayor's closest associates say privately that his coolness on the issue is merely a facade. He is, one said, a man caught between trying to be responsive to the community, and not alienating a police force already plagued by low morale and still distrustful of its commander-in-chief even though his candidacy was endorsed by the policemen's union.
"He's very concerned that a police backlash could develop in terms of police brutality," one confidante said. "But in light of his background, he doesn't want to appear to the police that he is jumping on them without cause."
When pressed, Barry concedes that more and more visible and aggressive police will not solve the drug problem on 14th Street -- or anywhere. He admits that there's "probably" tension in the community because of the increased police presence.
But right now he sees more police as the only weapon he's got. And his War on Heroin, which has already led to hundreds of related -- and unrelated arrests -- must go on.
"It might heat up around here," Barry said from his office the other day. "But I'm going to do all I can to reduce the selling of hard drugs in the community."