As political theater, the clash between D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Black Lives Matter activists was compelling, even instructive. But you needed a playbill to really appreciate the drama as it unfolded last week.
The occasion was a media event during which Bowser addressed the city’s rising homicide rate, which was up 43 percent over last year. It was staged, appropriately, at the shuttered Malcolm X Elementary School in Southeast Washington — an educational facility named for a leading proponent of black self-determination that was closed two years ago because of low enrollment.
Erika Totten, who wore a shirt that read “#BlackLivesMatter,” thought the District could try something similar to the homicide reduction plan in the Northern California city of Richmond. After identifying youths and young adults who were linchpins in the city’s cycle of killing, Richmond paid them a monthly stipend of $300 to $1,000 to follow individually designed therapeutic education and job training programs for 18 months.
That’s a drop in the bucket when you consider the cost of a single homicide. According to a study published in a 2010 edition of the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, the average cost per murder tops $17 million — when factoring in a variety economic impacts such as autopsies, police investigations, prosecution, incarceration and loss of lifetime earnings and family support.
In Richmond, the result has been a 77 percent drop in homicides, from 47 in 2007 to 11 in 2014, according to city officials, not to mention more young black men in college and gainfully employed.
“Why does D.C. always have to be so small-minded, thinking that it takes police to make a community safe?” Totten asked me.
As often occurs when Bowser wants to make something clear to the hardheaded, she took on the persona of a schoolmarm, quick to point a condescending finger and scold with a wry smile.
“Some critics have said that today’s event will be about arresting black men,” Bowser said. “I’m here to tell you that’s not why we’re here. We’re not here to talk about arresting black men, but how we can save their lives.”
And just as she appeared ready to make her critics put on dunce caps and stand in the corner, the mayor unveiled a plan that contradicted nearly everything she had just said.
Deploy more police. Expand their powers of search and seizure. Target parolees. Spend more money on crime-fighting tools such as surveillance cameras, GPS tracking and forensic technology.
Totten, a 32-year-old former high school English teacher, stood on a chair and joined with other protesters in chanting their objections. “Give the people the tools, not the police,” she said.
Black Lives Matter activists were especially disturbed by the proposal to expand police powers. Making it easier for SWAT teams to raid the homes of parolees, people on probation or those awaiting trial if they are suspected of being violent is fraught with peril.
“She’d want to do that after what happened to Aiyana Jones?” Totten said, sounding incredulous.
In May 2010, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was shot and killed as she slept on a couch by a Detroit police officer who was leading a raid on her home in search of a murder suspect.
Bowser said there have been “erroneous reports in the media” about how much extra power she is proposing, saying police would not have “unfettered authority to basically search anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
She countered the protesters’ chant with: “Who’s with me?”
Bowser’s plan also would include what she called “a neighborhood-focused approach that expands the community stabilization.” Grants would be offered to “accountable community organizations,” she said, along with “trusted, effective individual community members who join us.”
Her supporters shouted back, “We’re with you.”
Bowser continued, “So here is the rest of the plan. So we have ramped up our efforts to find and arrest criminals, and take away their firepower.”
Protesters erupted again, shouting, “Jobs, not police.”
The theatrics were streamed live on various media outlets. One question about it seemed to predominate: Had the activists really tried to thwart Bowser’s efforts to reduce black-on-black homicides, as many contended, to keep the focus on blacks killed by police?
Hardly. In the end, the protesters probably helped the mayor by obscuring the reality that she had no plan.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.