While last weekend's massive drug raid did not turn up much in the way of illegal substances, it did spotlight a state of emergency in the streets. At the same time it showed off new police capability to deal with it.
Operation C-Note Sevenfold was billed as a drug bust. But it gave police an opportunity to take the pulse of the town. The city is suffering under a heroin epidemic with a record 15,000 addicts on the street, along with high unemployment and attendant social and economic maladies.
The police action occurred just a month before the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington when thousands of people are expected to gather here to again underscore the persistence of those ills nationwide.
If there is any doubt these problems have increased frustration in the streets, note that in the Shaw area, which bears the brunt of the city's heroin problem, residents have marched for months with placards declaring a war on drugs.
Hours before last weekend's raid, D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, who has led the marches told a group of residents, "We expect the police to slam-dunk anybody arrested from this area."
At the meeting held Saturday at Walker Memorial Baptist Church, in Shaw, Fauntroy proposed a "comprehensive assault on drugs" that would include drug-education classes in schools and churches, rehabilitation programs and pressure on the U.S. attorney's office to prosecute more criminals.
At the same time that they are fed up with this plague on their neighborhood, however, some of the leaders in that war are perceptive enough not to see it as an isolated evil.
As Ibrahim Mumin, head of the Shaw Project Area Committee, warned, "This drug problem is symptomatic of other problems--housing, jobs and justice."
"The worst thing that could happen is for people to feel so frustrated they don't believe the law works for them," Fauntroy said.
"We have a crisis situation, but we don't want people taking the law into their own hands."
Residents at the meeting said they were becoming increasingly tempted to do this, however.
Mumin, for example, said that when his wife was threatened by a junkie he did not report it to police but confronted the junkie and gave him a stern warning.
Among the problems associated with the drug epidemic are increased incidents of burglaries, assaults and threats of violence on the streets.
At 11th and O streets NW, for example, more than a dozen persons have been shot this year and several killed as they rode in from outlying jurisdictions to make heroin buys, according to police.
"We've had about one shooting every week since January," D.C. police homicide Detective Lt. Dale Watkins said.
The day after the police raid the corner of 11th and O streets appeared clean. People sat out on porches playing cards and listening to radios as if nothing unusual had happened.
But while some residents of Shaw applauded the crackdown, there were others who insisted that police action did not change the fact that for many the street life is the only way they know to survive. And the police are stuck in the middle with their billy clubs and guns.
City officials had not yet analyzed all the results of last weekend's effort, nor decided whether to test the streets again soon. But one thing the raid has shown is that crime remains a major concern in Washington and the dramatic short-term solutions, such as police raids, do momentarily raise the morale of citizens and police.
But the problem is sure to return as long as the underlying conditions that nourish it continue to fester.
The new Municipal Center going up at l4th and U Streets NW is expected to attract a different clientele to the area and relieve some of the pressures in Shaw.
But just a few blocks away, pockets of poverty remain. And they are being squeezed tighter than ever, by the high cost of living, by gentrification and by other efforts to eliminate the surface effects of drug and alcohol abuse rather than digging out the cause.