Convinced that there are two stories unfolding at Mayor Marion Barry's drug and perjury trial, but only one that is being covered exhaustively, I went to court last week determined to look at the government and its sleaze factor. I walked away feeling sickened by the sleaze in both arenas.
First, let me say that Marion Barry is not the man I want as mayor; I said long ago he should step down. Nevertheless, I've wondered why so few have been calling the government to task, especially considering the following:
The way the government has fashioned its case, seemingly intent only on painting a broad picture of the mayor as sleazy. Since that was achieved early on, much of the later testimony simply chisels that picture in deeper and deeper, resulting in the case appearing to be over-tried and Barry gaining sympathy in the community.
The cost of the federal government's prosecution of Barry. While federal prosecutors say that the $42 million figure floating around in the black community is incorrect, and that $2 million to $3 million is the accurate number, many reliable sources, citing the 10-year investigation of Barry, say the higher figure is accurate.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's bad decision to bar Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Imani Temple Bishop George Augustus Stallings Jr. as spectators in the trial, and his reversal after the American Civil Liberties Union interceded and the U.S. Court of Appeals slapped his wrist.
The anti-Barry bias of the judge, shown in such actions as allowing into the testimony a demonstration of how Barry allegedly used a drug.
While I don't want to get into the total paranoia that is raging in some parts of the black community, it is also clear that justice in America has always been capricious -- especially for blacks. This dates back, at least, to Dred Scott in the 19th century, the lynchings in the 1940s and earlier, the conduct of the FBI during the civil rights movement and the disproportionate number of death sentences for blacks in the 1980s and today.
Because of all this, I had reserved a little measure of sympathy for Barry. But sitting in court last week and hearing testimony from his former friends about how they allegedly used drugs with him, that tiny measure just about evaporated.
My response was to events past and present, especially when former city employee Darrell Sabbs testified that he had used cocaine with Barry numerous times over several years.
When he said that they used the drug together at the 1989 Congressional Black Caucus legislative weekend, I recalled talking with Barry that weekend. At the time, I thought Barry was sincere when he spoke of his concern that our city was now the murder capital of the nation. Now I felt that he was being hypocritical.
When Sabbs said he often went to Ninth Street NW to purchase drugs for the mayor and himself, my thoughts were of the young black men who have died on such streets of the District -- at least 669 homicides, many of them drug-related, in the past 18 months.
Yet somehow neither Sabbs nor Barry seemed to connect these street deaths to themselves. Somehow they didn't seem to see themselves as part of the problem. But they are. The middle-class snorter is no different than the street user. Both are lining the same big-time drug dealers' pockets; both are responsible for the same deaths.
While I believe that Marion Barry was addicted and that addiction is an illness, I also believe he had a moral responsibility to deal with his problem sooner, and he didn't. While giving lip service to the problem to me and to others, he apparently ignored his own role in intensifying the problem.
Whatever the consequences of the trial, Barry's new responsibility must be to help heal this community. He is in a unique position either to exploit his following or to ennoble them -- and himself -- by releasing his emotional hold on the community and admitting the consequences of his actions.
For as much as this trial is likely to reflect the continuing capriciousness of our legal system and the inappropriate use of prosecutorial resources, the mayor's ordeal should help us understand the peril to America of the addict in the suites and in the streets. Then, perhaps some good will come out of this long nightmare.