When George Storey thought about the year that was, l968, he closed his eyes and held his head in his hands like a man with a migraine. Seated in an easy chair at his rowhouse on 14th Street NW, where he has lived for 20 years, Storey sighed with anguish, "A hell of a year."
But what made his head hurt was how little had changed.
"The question is not whether they can burn it down again," Storey said recently. "People do things either because they have a reason to--or because there is no reason not to. The question this time is: Do they have a reason not to?"
Storey, 53, had been president of a neighborhood self-help group called "Build Black," which was similar to another group called "Pride," except that Storey went on to become a chemist with the Food and Drug Administration while the leader of Pride, also a chemistry major, went on to become Mayor Marion Barry.
Storey's organization had tried to ensure that the riot-torn Upper Cardozo area was developed in a way the residents wanted. He wanted to minimize the possibility of a fire next time by involving blacks in the remaking of 14th Street. In June l968 his staff conducted block-by-block surveys of the neighborhood, asking residents, "What would you like to see changed in Washington?"
The results from the staff surveys were published in Build Black pamphlets and called for an end to mom-and-pop stores, the "Welfare Gestapo," slumlords, "honkie unions" and "slave wages and slave trader" employment agencies.
It was rough stuff. But it was what the community wanted. Residents said they would not be content with the notion of simply "rebuilding" 14th Street, arguing that the word implied a return to predominantly white businesses along the street. Build Black called for "formation of business organizations, unions, cooperatives and individual proprietorships in which black people have a substantial economic interest and the black community has a substantial voice."
By l970, however, Build Black was dead, its funds from local churches and business groups suddenly dried up. With time, the notion of building black faded into apathy.
Today, from his front window, the consequences of Build Black's demise are apparent. 14th Street has stayed virtually the same. Except for a few apartment buildings, most owned by out-of-town syndicates, there are virtually no new buildings along the street. Koreans own most of the mom-and-pop stores. A few West Indians have opened record stores. The Tivoli Theater is still closed and the city is trying to tear it down, and there are many abandoned and boarded-up houses along the side streets.
There is one bar in the area, called Chuck's, where people sometimes meet to discuss community affairs, but only, says Storey, "if they perceive a clear and present danger and can see an immediate solution that carries with it some status for them."
It is a sad state of affairs.
But what makes it as ominious as in l968 is the sight of scores of unemployed black men meandering aimlessly along the sidestreets. "Dope has made them lethargic, for now," Storey says.
And the city, despite so-called home rule, is powerless to do anything about it. "Many residents perceive the District Building as sitting on a mythical island unreachable by the ordinary man," Storey says. "The advent of home rule has turned the District into a plantation within a plantation." He says blacks in government have emerged as a "new class."
If anyone fiqures that a prominent black figure has to be assassinated before the fire next time, Storey figures they are dead wrong. The blacks who burned and looted in l968 did not do so just because King was killed, he said.
"The guys who rioted were not at the Monument in l963," Storey said, referring to King's march on Washington for jobs and freedom.
And neither were the guys who looted and battled police when the Ku Klux Klan came to Washington last November, either.
They are simply people who act when there is no reason not to.