What does the Marion Barry jury verdict mean? No one knows what went on in the minds of the jurors, but if the Barry jury could issue a press release, I suspect it might read something like this:
We all believe that a misdemeanor conviction sends a signal to the youth of our city and the community at large that drug use will not be tolerated by anyone -- even the mayor, who is the chief law enforcement officer of the city.
Some of us believe that a misdemeanor conviction is sufficient punishment, especially following a public trial that brought out all the sordid details of Marion Barry's personal life for the whole world to see.
Some of us believe that the government overreached and piled on by loading the indictment with 14 charges and utilizing a sting operation.
Some of us believe that racial prejudice played a part in the prosecution of the mayor.
If the jury verdict was meant to send a message that the community will not condone drug use, why then, one might ask, do we see black people on TV cheering a convicted drug user? The answer is racial polarization. This polarization causes some black citizens to merge the Marion Barry drug-use issue with the racial issue.
The black community -- even the most ardent supporters of Marion Barry -- does not condone the use of illegal drugs. If a child of one of Barry's cheering supporters came home and announced that he or she had just been convicted of "just one" cocaine charge, there would be no cheers -- more likely there would be tears. A cocaine possession conviction is not an Olympic gold medal.
Marion Barry, who early in his career did a lot of good things for the city, has now chosen to hide behind the racial issue so that some black residents see the issue as one of race rather than of a mayor who happens to be black prosecuted for using illegal drugs by a legal justice system that is predominantly white. If the prosecutor had been elected by the citizens of the District of Columbia, Marion Barry would be history. It is true that there are racial aspects to the Barry prosecution, but there are racial aspects in most situations in America. This, however, does not excuse behavior repugnant to the community.
What the majority of the black community is saying loud and clear is: we do not condone the conduct of Marion Barry. We, the black community, have very high moral standards, and 200 supporters cheering Barry on TV should not be misinterpreted by anyone in this community, including Marion Barry, as approval of his conduct.
What does all of this portend for the future of this beautiful city? Marion Barry has elevated the word "heal" to an art form. Webster's dictionary defines "heal" as "to cure; to reconcile; to grow whole or sound; to recover." If we examine Barry's recent actions in light of this definition, we find a person who is doing all in his power to prevent the healing of the city or himself.
On Saturday, Aug. 11, Barry called on the city to heal its wounds -- wounds caused by his using an illegal substance and being caught. He also told the media: "Enough is enough." What then does Barry do? On Tuesday, Aug. 14, he calls the media to come down to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to see him change his registration from Democrat to Independent. The next day he calls the media again and announces he is running for the D.C. Council -- this from a man who blames the media for intruding in his life and this from a man who tells the citizens of Washington that his problems stem from trying to do so much for them that he has had no time to take care of his personal life.
These events are clearly not the actions of a person who truly wants to heal the city or himself; rather they are the actions of a politician who seeks to transfer compassion and racial polarization into a mandate for continuing leadership. For the sake of his own health, Barry should not run. Also, he has morally forfeited any right to a leadership/role model position by virtue of his drug conviction. I say on behalf of thousands of residents of this community -- black and white -- Marion, please go home and "grow whole and sound," "recover" from your addiction and "cure" yourself. By keeping yourself in the political limelight, you perpetuate the racial divisiveness that will prevent the city and you from healing.
These comments are not intended to excuse the white community, for it is its action or inaction -- long before Marion Barry -- that has largely created this climate of racial polarization. If this city is to truly heal -- with or without Marion Barry -- then the community must put the racial issue on the table and take immediate steps to eliminate this problem.
Some of the reasons for the existence of racial polarization lie in the fact that many black citizens of Washington do not share in the economic benefits of this city; many black citizens are continually subjected to racial slights and indignities; and all black citizens live in a colony largely controlled by white outside forces with their own interests. These grievances are legitimate and must be addressed in order for the city to fully heal. The task is urgent and the time to begin is now.
The writer, a Washington lawyer, was a member of Mayor Marion Barry's Transition Committee in 1978 and a member of Mayor Marion Barry's Campaign Finance Committee in 1986.