As the drug and perjury trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry enters its final days, there has been a worrisome new heightening of the racial tensions that have characterized this city -- even hints of black violence in the wake of a verdict.
A couple of weeks ago, Ron Richardson, a politically active labor leader who is white, expressed his belief that the city was "about an inch away from violence," saying, "People are feeling pent-up and frustrated."
At the same time, Jesse L. Jackson was quoted as saying, "We're very close to broken glass and blood in the streets . . . . We're very close to the red button. I say this not as an alarmist, but as one who has walked among those who have pain."
Last week, the Washington Times reported that D.C. police have been told to make sure their riot gear is in order, and that other preparations have been made in anticipation of a riot after a verdict.
Lt. Reginald Smith, a police spokesman, denied that such special preparations are underway, saying the story was "based on erroneous information and speculations . . . and does a great disservice to the entire community by raising the specter of violence."
I agree with Smith that this is a dangerous specter to raise. I also believe that to compare the black community's reaction in the wake of a Barry verdict to its reaction in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a ludicrous misreading of where the black community is at this point. For while there are still dangerous pockets of poverty and feelings of fury on the part of many about the handling of the Barry case, this is not 1968, and Marion Barry is not Martin Luther King.
Not surprisingly, concerns about a riot are coming largely from whites, their worries, I suspect, rooted in the continuing bias and oppressive conditions under which many poor black and brown people are forced to live in this city. White guilt about these realities is producing deep fears that blacks will act out their rage in ways that whites do not.
" 'Quiet riots' are taking place in America's major cities," according to Fred Harris and Roger Wilkins in their 1989 book by the same name, an assessment of the years after the Kerner Commission analysis of the causes of the 1968 riots. The arenas of unrest: "Unemployment, poverty, social disorganization, segregation, family disintegration, housing and school deterioration, and crime."
The more these conditions keep blacks and other minorities as outsiders in society, the deeper their well of anger becomes.
But if there were to be violence again now, it is not the white community but the black community that would be most threatened. The riots of the 1960s that wreaked havoc on poor black communities across America were an example of blacks turning their anger at King's assassination back on themselves. Sadly, we blacks have often handled our anger at whites in that way. We spend our energies focusing on "the man" and what he has done to us, then we turn the anger back on ourselves and our communities.
Our challenge now is to change that pattern, alter attitudes that make us become the victims. While we are frustrated by our inability to change the macrocosm, we have the responsibility to change our own small universe and to hold back from letting our anger at the rest do it harm.
I have worked on focusing my anger outward instead of inward, accomplishing what I can and touching those people and events I can, while never losing sight of who the true enemy is. And to the extent that I succeed, I find myself feeling less like a victim and more in control.
My own view now is that in spite of enormous problems and legitimate rage, we must refrain from turning our anger against ourselves and our communities. We must not let 1990 be 1968.