D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. recently volunteered a theory to explain why his community on Washington’s eastern edge and other African American neighborhoods across the country have suffered.
“Historically, there was an era where especially the federal government, including presidents and the CIA, were involved with the Contra war and putting drugs in major black cities all across the United States,” White (D-Ward 8) said in early March on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
“Pretty much crippled the black families by putting the drugs in the community and then declaring a war on drugs with mass incarceration,” White said, at one point alluding to “military planes” transporting the drugs.
Three weeks later, White’s remarks on a different subject thrust him into a political crisis, one that drew national attention after The Washington Post reported that he had posted a video on Facebook in which he asserted that the Rothschilds, the Jewish banking dynasty, control the climate.
The ensuing criticism — from the city’s political establishment to the Anti-Defamation League to Fox News — was swift and intense. After first saying he was unaware that his remarks were anti-Semitic, White expressed contrition and promised to devote himself to studying Jewish history.
Yet in his own ward, an area that includes Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, the response to the council member’s remarks has been far more mixed, with some expressing embarrassment and others remaining loyal, citing White’s record of advocacy for the community. In fact, a group of allies — including some who themselves have used incendiary rhetoric — hoped to rally on his behalf at an Anacostia church.
White, 33, declined to be interviewed for this article.
To his defenders, White’s public invocation of well-worn conspiracy theories, while perhaps inadvisable, is not altogether unusual in a community where people often seek the unseen hand behind economic and social injustice.
Growing up, the council member heard older generations subscribe to a theory known as “The Plan,” which depicted whites as secretly plotting to retake power in the black-majority District. A reference point was the 1950s urban-renewal project that displaced thousands of families in Southwest, many of them black, and became known as “Negro removal.”
As for the CIA pushing drugs into black communities, that notion first emerged during the 1980s, when the intelligence agency was accused of helping the Contra rebels in Nicaragua traffic in cocaine. The allegations resulted in an array of federal investigations, from Congress to the Justice Department. While CIA-supported operatives were involved in drug dealing, no evidence materialized that top officials gave their blessing, though that possibility has remained the subject of heated debate.
“I don’t believe in weather-making machines — I have my own conspiracy theories that would make people think I’m crazy — but I don’t begrudge him that,” said Aristotle Theresa, an Anacostia-based lawyer who has fought developers alongside White. “When things happen to a community that are hidden from public view, and it comes out later, you’re going to be prone to believe something like that. Sometimes you bark up the right tree; sometimes you’re wrong.”
Philip Pannell, a Ward 8 activist, was also a guest on the radio show on which White, during a discussion about former mayor Marion Barry, alluded to the CIA pushing drugs into black communities. Pannell said he disagreed with White but felt no need to respond because “I’ve heard that so many times. I have heard so many theories.”
In the days after White’s weather comments, Pannell said, he heard more chatter from friends about a news report on the council member driving with a suspended license than “whether Jews can cause it to snow.” Pannell himself expressed shock over White’s remarks but predicted he would not suffer politically “because the people of Ward 8 generally believe in giving people second and third or fourth chances.”
Beyond his ward, White’s missteps made him the target of international attention, some of it mocking. “DC Lawmaker blames Jews for Bad Weather” was the headline in the New York Post. “Lawmaker Sorry for Spreading anti-Semitic Weather Conspiracy” was the BBC’s rendering. Tucker Carlson, the conservative Fox host, chortled as a guest referred to the “Big Jew Weather Machine” and speculated that the Rothschilds had “bought the weather from God in 1929.”
Even White’s admirers wondered aloud about the origin of his information and why he would broadcast unfiltered thoughts on social media. Another video showed White asserting at a public meeting in February with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and council members that the Rothschilds “pretty much control the federal government.” No one at the meeting challenged his remark.
Rock Newman, the boxing promoter, television host and veteran of District politics, said he had one thought as he absorbed White’s commentary last week.
“What in the hell is Trayon talking about?” Newman asked. “Everyone was just bug-eyed.”
Newman described himself as a White supporter and expressed hope that the storm created by his remarks would not define him. “To be generous would be for me to say it was a knucklehead thing to say, and who hasn’t been a knucklehead?” Newman asked. “I would really like to talk to him because the question I’d ask is, ‘Where did it come from?’ ”
Rabbi Batya Glazer asked White that exact question on Monday when she met with him at his office. The rabbi said she came away convinced that White is not a bigot and that he does not “personally dislike Jews.” But she said she remains mystified about the source of his information on climate control.
“I did not get an answer that gave me clarity,” said Glazer, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “I’m not sure what the answer was.”
The following day, White released a two-page letter to his D.C. Council colleagues in which he said he “ran with false information.”
“Amazingly, I did not know that my comments, nor the related theories, were even remotely anti-Semitic,” he wrote. “Even with all of this, there is still no excuse for my comments.”
In the coming days, the council member’s study of Jewish history is to include meeting with a Holocaust survivor, a council gathering with rabbis, a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and attendance at a Passover Seder.
When he first ran for council in 2015 as an underdog against a candidate backed by Bowser, White was unknown to most across the District.
Yet in the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia river, where he grew up, White had built a reputation for guiding youngsters and activism that brought him to the attention of leaders such as Barry, whom he describes as a mentor.
Like many of his constituents, White graduated from Ballou High School in Southeast and comes from a family that was poor. Earlier this year, he told the Washington City Paper that in middle school, he bought a gun for self-protection. He has also discussed stealing cars as a teenager.
Along the way, he resolved to make something more constructive of his life. After high school, he got a degree in business administration from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore before returning to the District and starting a nonprofit to work with kids. In 2011, after the urging of another mentor, William Lockridge, White entered politics. He won the State Board of Education seat that became vacant when Lockridge died.
His network of relationships in Ward 8 is vast, which is why Attorney General Karl A. Racine hired him as a community outreach worker in 2016. Over the years, White has attended dozens of funerals for victims of violence — nearly 100 was his count at one point last year — many of them friends and associates. He also has had his share of run-ins with the police, including summonses for driving with a suspended license or with an unregistered or uninsured car.
One altercation with a police officer resulted in a $1 million lawsuit that White filed in 2014 while he was on the Board of Education. In his complaint, White said an officer, “without warning or provocation,” used the door to the trunk of White’s car to repeatedly slam his head and shoulder. The incident occurred as White, trying to maneuver around a truck that was in his way, parked illegally while delivering meals to seniors as part of Barry’s annual Thanksgiving turkey drive.
White and the District reached a settlement last year for $75,000.
By then, White had won his council seat, defeating incumbent LaRuby May, Bowser’s choice, who outspent him by nearly a factor of five.
“People like him because he shows up and follows up,” said Ron Moten, a longtime community organizer and co-founder of Peaceoholics, an anti-violence youth group that has disbanded. “People trust him because they feel like he tells them the truth. They feel like he’s genuine.”
White has also expressed a fearlessness about political combat.
In a 2012 interview, as he was running for the school board, White said leaders “get attacked because you’re on the front lines. . . . Eventually, they’ll attack you by killing you. That’s just the honest truth. Dr. King: homicide. Gandhi: homicide. Jesus Christ: homicide. Malcolm X: homicide.”
“When people advocate lies and try to slander my name, I understand that it’s part of the journey,” he said.
The council’s youngest member, White delivered his first State of the Ward speech at Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church, whose minister, Willie Wilson, a onetime mayoral candidate, was among the supporters organizing a rally for him last week.
As he took the pulpit for his speech in September, White described Wilson as “legendary” and praised his leadership.
Wilson, an ally of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, has his own history of incendiary remarks, warning in a 2005 sermon that “lesbianism is about to take over our community.”
Reached on his cellphone, the reverend said White “should not have said what he said” about Jews controlling the weather. But Wilson said he stands by White because “he is working very hard in this community.”
“He asks for forgiveness, and that should be the end of it,” Wilson said. “What do you want him to do?”
White’s allies also include Jauhar Abraham, a Peaceoholics co-founder whom a judge ordered to pay $639,000 after ruling that he misused city grant money. (Moten, in a settlement, agreed to pay the District $10,000 but admitted no wrongdoing.)
White recently teamed up with Abraham to stage a protest against a project under construction in Anacostia that is to include affordable housing and retail such as a Starbucks. White and Abraham have criticized the developer for not hiring laborers from the ward.
In a video posted on Facebook before the protest, Abraham accused Bowser of aligning herself too closely with developers, describing her as “sitting around with all these white dudes popping champagne.”
Abraham, in an interview, offered no apologies for his language. As for the storm provoked by White’s remarks about the Rothschilds, he suggested the criticism signifies that the council member has “arrived” as a formidable political presence.
“They’re going to make Tray a hero if they try to vilify him over something that isn’t indicative of who he really is,” Abraham said.
Abraham said the rally that he and others were trying to organize for White would be an opportunity for supporters “to make sure everyone in the city knows he’s our councilman and to make sure he knows we love him.”
“When people start attacking our leaders, we need to make sure they’re not by themselves,” he said.
White, when asked whether he would attend the rally, wrote in a text that it was not his idea to hold one and that he would ask for it to be canceled.
“I’m in support of prayer,” the council member said, “but not a rally of any type.”