But what I didn’t see coming was the masses of people who, even in death, were willing to simply overlook or deny the importance of that grainy FBI tape shot of the four-term mayor smoking the drug at the Vista hotel. Those concerned, though, have started started a Change.org petition to encourage TMZ to remove the headline. As of Wednesday, it had 19,000 signatures.
Obviously it angered many around town. But it was a wholly appropriate headline.
Let’s be clear about something: nationally, Marion Barry is known as the mayor from D.C. who was caught on camera smoking crack with a prostitute (the woman in question was actually a former girlfriend). TMZ’s managing editor explained as much this week.
“When you talk about what the headline is in a situation like that, I get it. I mean, I understand that there are some people who are probably pretty upset with it. The fact is that a lot of people think of Mayor Barry when they think of that video, that’s what kind of triggers it all,” TMZ creator Harvey Levin told WTTG-5 this week. “It’s almost like Richard Nixon. When you think Richard Nixon, you think Watergate. So, there’s an incident that defines him, but he was president of the United States. He did many other things as well.”
But does the headline automatically alter Barry’s legacy as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, locally elected officials that pushed for black urban empowerment? Of course not. I’m not worried about what a national tabloid site thinks of him in the larger context of his career. And none of us who admired him should, either.
“We want his legacy to be honored the right way. Show respect to his family friends and supporters,” the petition says, indicating a larger concern about his overall personal story rather than this specific headline. And it’s a fair point, in many ways. But it also reflects a defensiveness about the reality of Barry’s life that fuels the very image many supporters are trying to destroy.
To minimize the role of addiction in his life is harmful for two reasons: For one, it legitimizes the largely racist stigmas about crack, which we know have disproportionately negative impacts on the black community, and more specifically the District’s. There’s a reason why the minimum sentencing laws for rock versus powdered cocaine were what they were. People allowed themselves to believe that it was somehow worse to do one version of the drug, mainly because it was ostensibly black people doing most of the using.
Secondly, by hiding or downplaying the role of drugs in Barry’s life, is to do the same for the many people who dealt with or overcame similar issues while continuing to be functioning members of society. Maybe it’s easy for you to consider affiliation with the word as inherently negative, if you never had neighbors who were addicts or family members whose lives were taken as a result of the dangers of selling it. One of those people was former Washington Post reporter Ruben Castaneda. This year, he wrote a book about his battles with addiction.
In 2007, he initially told the story in The Washington Post Magazine. He talked about how his use paralleled a larger issue that effectively defined the city.
“I realized that my passage mirrored what was happening in the parts of the city wracked by drug dealing and the concomitant violence. Some neighborhoods in the eastern half of the city seemed on the verge of being devoured by crack-inspired violence, with shootings over drug turf and deals gone bad begetting retaliatory attacks, which, in turn, sparked more payback,” he wrote. “My addiction grew dramatically in 1990 and 1991; so did the street violence. In 1989, the city recorded 434 murders. In the two ensuing years, nearly 1,000 people total were murdered in the District.”
As a child who grew up in D.C., I don’t ever want to forget how devastating the effects of that era were. And yes, Barry is a large part of that memory for me. Not only because he used, and recovered, but because he was the mayor. Was I happy with TMZ’s approach to commemorating the “Mayor for Life”? Of course not. But to call it tasteless is akin to effectively calling Barry tasteless. He used drugs. It happens. As we mourn this week for Barry, we shouldn’t whitewash his controversial past. If we’re going to give him credit for recovering from his addiction issues, we shouldn’t get mad when a news organization mentions it prominently.
Barry was the largest local personality this city has ever seen. His identity as a mayor and a drug user gave him national fame. But to deliberately overlook his crack use is an insult to everyone else — especially the regular people whom he unashamedly fought for. A large part of the reason why my perception of who a drug user is isn’t mired in negative associations is in fact, because of Barry. The lessons learned about drug abuse as harmful to public health versus passing judgment on personal decisions were critical pieces of societal development that helped change how we deal with these issues now. I give Barry a lot of credit for being a part of that, albeit not maybe in the way that many way have wanted. So let’s not erase the truth of his addiction.
Crack cocaine is not a joke or something to make fun of. Anyone doing that in Barry’s name deserves reproach. But its devastating effects and the lives it affected and claimed, well beyond Barry’s, are something we should never be afraid to discuss openly.