A 1969 photo of Mayor Marion S. Barry was identified incorrectly as a 1979 photo in Sunday's Outlook section.
ONE OCTOBER MORNING some 13 years ago, activist Marion Barry stood at the District Building to speak on an issue that was like a calling card: heavy-handed tactics by District of Columbia police in the city's black community.
Barry had come to protest the use of tear gas during a minor disturbance along the 14th Street corridor, when no tear gas had been used to end a similar incident on M Street in Georgetown. Kid gloves were used when whites took to the streets, Barry said, but were taken off for blacks. He said the reason was racism.
Of then-police chief Jerry V. Wilson, Barry said: "(He) knows white folks are better organized than blacks." And of the officers, most of them white, who had fired the tear gas at the black crowd on 14th Street, Barry said: "It's a psychological thing. No one has to give them orders."
Last Saturday, Mayor Marion Barry gave the orders. He sent his police officers into black neighborhoods to set up roadblocks -- about 30 of them, all across the city -- that had two purposes. On the secondary level, they were to cite motorists for unregistered cars or expired licenses and to nab the few who happened to be carrying drugs (along with the occasional true wanted criminal whose luck had suddenly expired). Primarily, though, the roadblocks were set up as a diversion, police said, so they could surreptitiously observe key centers of the open-air trade in illegal drugs and arrest buyers as they drove off with their purchases.
More than 400 persons were arrested, 80 of them jailed over the weekend.
The sweep was not aimed at the affluent drug buyers and sellers of Georgetown or Capitol Hill, whose transactions usually are consummated indoors and with discretion. Rather, it was aimed at the public curbside trade in nickel bags of marijuana that is conducted in black neighborhoods. It was precisely the kind of police overreaction -- and not exactly an equitable overreaction -- that Barry would have howled about barely a decade ago.
But last week there was no howl -- none from Barry, of course, since he authorized it, and none to speak of from anyone else, either. The American Civil Liberties Union and City Council Chairman David Clarke cleared their throats, but that was about all. Others, including those who would seem to be the natural heirs to activist Barry, were more inclined to cheer on the police.
Obviously, the use of police power in black neighborhoods is a different kind of issue these days.
There seem to be several reasons why, and 14th Street itself -- site of one of Barry's roadblocks last weekend -- seems a logical starting point.
Thirteen years ago, the wounds from the 1968 riots were still fresh in several neighborhoods, nowhere more than along 14th Street. Commercial activity was virtually nonexistent -- storefronts were burned out and boarded up -- and neighborhood life was ghetto life. Those who had stayed in the area after the riots were still there because they had no choice. Those who had other options left.
Racial tensions lingered. These were the pre-home rule days when the District was run by appointed commissioners, and black citizens, increasingly in the majority, felt increasingly disenfranchised. The police force, point of contact between the city and its government, was mostly white; to some, it carried the connotation of being an occupation army.
Today 14th Street hasn't yet made it back, but the trend is there. The "urban pioneers" -- young white and black professionals seeking solid, affordable, close-in housing -- have transformed side streets into pockets of gentrification. Theaters and antique stores have sprung up, amenities for neighborhood residents who, more and more, are people living where they want to live.
The city government has razed a square block of decrepitude at 14th and U and is building a big new municipal office building. Developers have assembled large tracts nearby and are poised to transform them. The Metro subway's Green Line will arrive whenever the courts finish haggling over it.
The black activist of a decade ago is now mayor. Laws are written by a city council, the majority of whose members are black. The chief judges of the city's courts are black. The police chief is black, as are an increasing number of police officers, whose presence in the area is welcomed by local residents out to rid their rebuilding neighborhood of prostitution, violent crime and, above all, drugs.
If you go up 14th Street looking for angry, unemployed, disaffected young men, you are likely to find them gathered on street corners, selling drugs. This surprises no one in a city where unemployment among black youth runs 45 percent or higher. But the new arrivals to the neighborhood are not shelling out their four-figure monthly mortgage payments for the privilege of a closer look at the seamier side of free enterprise, and old-timers see getting rid of the drug scene as a much- needed step in bringing the neighborhood back. Both groups have been haranguing the police, the city council, the mayor -- anyone they can force to listen -- to do something.
Most of the anti-drugs ruckus has been raised by black, middle-class Washingtonians. It's true that white newcomers have been especially vocal and have gotten a lot of press, but they are greatly outnumbered by blacks; if whites had been the only ones complaining, a mobilization like last weekend's probably never would have happened.
It is blacks who complain loudest and longest about drugs and street crime at neighborhood meetings with police. Black neighborhoods gave overwhelming approval last year to a citizens' initiatiative setting mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of crimes, including some drug offenses. If ever there was a time and place where blacks have become conscious, even militant, regarding black-on-black crime and decided that almost any method should be used to fight it, Washington, D.C., in 1983 is that time and place.
The city government's band-aid remedy for the drug problem has always been to shove it from one street corner to another, frustrating police officers and neighborhood residents. The latest solution, conceived by police officials and endorsed by the mayor, was last Saturday's roadblock extravaganza.
But what did it really accomplish, besides shutting down a portion of the drug traffic for a portion of one day? The answer seems to be public relations.
The public was informed that the city was doing something -- anything -- to combat crime. Police officers were allowed, temporarily, to pull out all the stops and round up as many bad guys as the wagons would hold -- a tremendous morale boost. Marion Barry became a tough, lock-'em-up mayor who's not afraid to offend the sensibilities of a few civil libertarians or inconvenience a few law-abiding citizens in order to send a message to a bunch of thugs.
Never mind that prosecutors had doubts about the sweep and at first declined to prosecute the nickel-and-dime marijuana possession cases, only to relent when police officials threatened to hold a press conference and denounce them.
Never mind that few, if any, of those arrested will spend any significant time in jail.
Never mind that the pushers and buyers are, in fact, already back on the street -- yes, they are already back.
Never mind that both police chief Maurice Turner and Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I pointed out before the sweep that it would add to already serious overcrowding at the D.C. Jail.
Do it, the mayor said.
"What police did is legal," Barry said last week. "If it takes roadblocks and other legal means to get at the drug dealers, pushers and users, we're going to do it. The temporary inconvenience to citizens is worth it. The public is ready for the city to move on ridding the city of drugs."
The city changes over the years. So does the public relations line.