It started Monday night with the wake, more than 4,000 people streaming in and out of the Jarvis Funeral Home at 14th and U streets NW to pay their last respects to Bruce Wazon Griffith.
Then yesterday, the emotional send-off for this man, the accused murderer of D.C. police officer Arthur P. Snyder, reached a peak as the soloist at his funeral began singing the theme from Muhammad Ali's movie, "The Greatest."
First, the congregation, which included garbage men, mechanics, day laborers, school teachers, preachers, cabdrivers and a cadre of street dudes, began to sob and weep. Then, voice by voice, they joined in the singing, drowning out the soloist as he sang the last refrain:
"Everybody's searching for a hero; people need someone to look up to . . . I decided long ago never to walk in anyone's shadow . . . No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity. . . ."
Many Washington residents may have difficulty understanding this kind of sentiment for a small-time drug dealer turned suspected cop killer, a man gunned down in a shootout with police.
But for the thousands who attended his wake Monday night, Griffith was larger in death than in life, his end, in some way, symbolic to them of their own struggle to survive in a changing and increasingly hostile inner city.
"Horrible the way they killed him," whispered one of the middle-aged, middle-class women who came to the wake Monday night.
"They were going to get him anyway," her friend said, sadly and with resignation.
The first women then added bitterly, "Regardless."
"Most of the D.C. cops live in the suburbs anyway, hunting deer and rabbits then they come into the District to hunt niggers," James (Baby James) Morgan, 22, a boyhood friend of Griffith's said later. "They just want to feel like they have power over you."
Morgan's sister Francine, a student at the University of the District of Columbia and former typist at the National Education Association, added, "They'll stop you and jack you up against a wall no matter if you're a woman or a child."
Outside the funeral, where a crowd had gathered and cars were double-parked, the talk went beyond complaints about police. There were out-pourings of frustration about a city of poor schools, inadequate housing and no jobs for men who see their inner city world slipping away in the renaissance of Washington.
"We would have a much better city if our leaders were better focused," said one elderly man.
Griffith, 29, was a tall and rangy athlete, a swimmer and a jogger who adhered to a vegetarian diet, according to his family. Outspoken and argumentative, he was well liked around the notorious 14th Street strip where everyone called him "Reds" because of his ruddy complexion and brownish red hair.
Once, when police began their crackdown on drugs in the area last year, trying to discourage people from congregating on corners by issuing tickets for loitering and jaywalking, Griffith confronted a policeman and began a shouting match with him.
Other youths stood behind Griffith, nodding agreement each time he spoke.
"He would say things that other people would be feeling," recalled Amin Hassan Muslim, a close friend.
Griffith was described by Muslim and other friends as something of a street philosopher who would quote from Kant and Marx and recite impromptu personalized poems about his friends as he met them on the streets.
He had grown up in the Shaw neighborhood in downtown Washington. His father, William, worked at Walter Reed Hospital, his mother, Ada, is a laundress at Washington Hospital Center. They ran a strict home with curfews and spankings, laboring to shield their children from the influences of the mean streets of Shaw.
All the children went to the Catholic schools of nearby Holy Redeemer parish. The girls and the two older boys went off to college, becoming teachers and government workers and joining the new black middle class in New Orleans and the suburbs of Washington.
Bruce, the youngest of the boys, strayed at an early age. His father recalled recently the first time Bruce got in trouble with police. He was 13 years old and showed up at home accompanied by an officer for the National Zoo police. The officer said Bruce had been seen teasing a lion cub. The officer told William Griffith there was no need to spank Bruce because they had already scared him to death. They had threatened to put him in the cage with the lions.
As he got older, the problems with the law got more serious. He got into heroin and was arrested twice on charges of selling small quantities of it. Then when he was 23 years old he was convicted of robbing a bank and was sent off to prison in Virginia. His father had a heart attack.
"I've thought about it a thousand times," his father said recently, shaking his head. "I don't know where I went wrong."
Bruce Griffith was released on parole from prison in October 1978. For months after that he knocked about the streets, sometimes working as a day laborer on construction jobs. Last June he was arrested and charged with possession of heroin, but was set free on personal bond because a failure of a police computer prevented the judge from learning of his previous record.
He never showed up for trial on the herion charge, and remained a fugitive until he was killed by police bullets last Thursday.
Hours after the shooting of Officer Snyder, police accused Griffith of being the assailant and they began one of the largest manhunts in this city's history.
A reward of $5,000 offered for tips leading to his arrest and conviction resulted in a stream of calls to police.Police threw a dragnet around the inner city and conducted raids at numerous residences of freinds and associates of Griffith.
For three days he eluded police and became a legend on the streets. According to family members and friends who saw of said they spoke to him during those days, he would pop up on playgrounds near his home in an inner city Shaw neighborhood with candy for the children of his friends, then go jogging with his head down through Rock Creek Park, smiling tensely as he passed U.S. Park policemen.
He spent a night at the bus station, with $325 cash in his pocket but refused to leave town, friends said. He boasted to drunkards that he befriended on the streets that he would never be taken alive.
"It didn't look like he was ducking police to me," his father said. "He would come and go like usual, get his basketball and go shoot and come home and change clothes. I remember him asking me if I wanted some sodas and so he went right across the street and got some drinks for me and bought a quart of juice for himself. I though to myself if they really wanted him they could catch him. He wasn't hiding."
Thursday afternoon, less than an hour before Griffith was killed, a black and orange Capitol Cab stopped on Hanover Place, a two-block-long street near North Capitol and O streets near Griffith's home and a place where he often hung out. The usual crowd was there.
At first, no one recognized the man who jumped from the cab. He had on big dark glasses and a scarf obscured his face. He began to talk nervously and then they realized it was Griffith.
He insisted that he had not killed the policeman, recalled Michael Green, 20, one of the regulars on Hanover Place. But, Griffith told them, he was tired, confused.
"I'm going in," he said before getting back into the taxi, "I want all y'all to come to my wake."
Employes at the Jarvis Funeral Home said calls came in all Monday inquiring about the wake. Some asked about "Reds", others wanted to know when the service would begin for "The guy who killed the cop." One person asked, "When does the show start."
From 5 p.m. Monday until 9:30 p.m., a half hour after the wake was scheduled to end, they streamed in, most in Sunday dress but some still in work shirts -- construction workers, city ambulance service employes, cabdrivers, a man in the uniform of the solid waste Department of Environmental Services.
Quiet and sullen, they walked stern-faced up to the open coffin, some talking to Griffith as he lay partially covered by a filmy maroon veil trimmed with Spanish lace. Some saluted him; others shook their fists, giving him the Black Power sign.
Griffith's wife, Vanessa, appeared dazed as the mourners filed in and out of the funeral home. The couple's two children, an 8-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, seemed unaware of what was taking place around them.
The funeral home chapel was filled with floral sprays of yellow mums, white mums, pink gladiolas. Some were sent by inmates at prison where Griffith had served time. Some were from family friends.
One large spray of red carnations was shaped like a heart. A red ribbon hanging from it said in large gold lettering, "From Baby James, Family and Friends."
James Morgan, "Baby James," said he had the florist shape the flowers into a heart because Griffith had died on Valentine's Day.
Morgan had a small Polaroid camera strapped to his wrist, and every now and then women, and some men, would come up to him and say, "Baby James, take my picture when I go and kiss him . . ."
At one point, a young man in jeans, work shoes and a heavy windbreaker stepped before the casket and gently lifted the veil from Griffith's face. He kissed the dead man, bent over close to his ear and said in a husky whisper, "They got you, hustler. They got you."