Do not say that Leroy J. Thorpe Jr. fails to believe in man’s capacity for change.
“People make mistakes,” the veteran civic activist said in his Shaw rowhouse last week after one of his twice-weekly “red hat” patrols. “Look at some of the politicians,” he says. “George Wallace used to call people [anti-black slur], but when he got older, he changed.”
George Wallace? Mr. Segregation Forever? Sure, the Alabama governor repudiated his racist populism late in life, but plenty of folks a lot less strident than Thorpe deemed that a craven act of political expediency rather than a genuine change of heart.
“I don’t think the man died a racist,” he maintains.
Thorpe, 55, has good reason to put faith in the mutability of human nature. He’s claiming a metamorphosis himself, from a firebrand with taste for hateful rhetoric to a doting dad whose Muslim faith has helped him outgrow his “angry young man” lashings. He notes his master’s degree in social work, his published book of poetry, his world travels.
But there are a lot of people who have a lot to forget. I first encountered Thorpe in 2004, on my first day on the job at Washington City Paper. I was looking for a community meeting to attend, and the Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commission was scheduled to meet that night. So I called and asked Thorpe, the chairman, whether the meeting was on.
“Who wants to know?” he asked.
After telling him I was a City Paper reporter, I was treated to a minute-long profane diatribe about my employer’s many acts of alleged racism. Other run-ins would follow. As an editor, he called one of my reporters an “Uncle Tom” and a viler name for a fellow African American who didn’t meet his personal standards of blackness.
It wasn’t just reporters who attracted his rage. For years, residents of a changing Shaw have been routinely bullied by Thorpe, often with rhetoric carrying a homophobic or racial tinge. He ran the ANC with an iron fist, and in February, he ejected an elected official from a meeting of his East Central Civic Association. In 1999, he slung an anti-gay slur at D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) in a hearing. Eight years before that, he campaigned for Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) by telling residents his openly gay opponent “would cater to homosexuals and African Americans would be second-class citizens.”
Now, two decades later, Thorpe says he has put the hate, or at least the hateful language, behind him. “To me, homophobe means that you’re scared of homosexuality,” he says. “I’m not scared of no homosexuality, man. . . . I was an angry young man that didn’t know how to channel anger.”
The timing of Thrope’s claims seems politically convenient: Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), with Evans’s backing, appointed him last month to a seat on the D.C. Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, which develops strategies and reviews grant proposals for helping troubled kids. That has renewed neighborhood grumbles about Thorpe — grumbles that largely quieted down after he lost his ANC seat in 2008.
“I don’t see any evidence that Mr. Thorpe is a changed man,” says Alex Padro, a veteran Shaw activist who has absorbed his share of opprobrium from Thorpe. Padro says Thorpe “has demonstrated equal opportunity hatred” and has no place “potentially influencing policy and making decisions that would affect the lives of D.C. residents.”
But Thorpe, a longtime employee of the city’s juvenile justice department, has some powerful folks vouching for him, including Evans and several gay activists. Christopher Dyer, who is gay and white and served as former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s top liaison on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender affairs, says he has seen Thorpe “mellow” in recent years.
“Obviously some of the things he said in the past were problematic,” Dyer says. “My sense is that he changed. And his personal beliefs aren’t going to affect his ability to be on a commission, especially something he’s done professionally.”
The gay community “needs people who went through their own personal struggle and realize that some of their statements were horrible.”
But to those Thorpe spent years antagonizing, it’s going to take more than a declaration to convince them he’s a new man.
“I would certainly want to see him make amends to all the groups that he’s disrespected for decades,” Padro says. “If he’s really a changed man, let’s see him meet with members of the GLBT community. Let’s see him reach out to members of D.C.’s Jewish population. Let’s see him reach out to a battered women’s shelter.”
Thorpe doesn’t think there’s much to apologize for. He’s not big on apologies, anyway.
“Your acts should speak for themselves,” he says. “Do I wish I can take things back? Yeah, I wish I could take it back, but I can’t take it back. Only thing I can do is wipe a bad thing out by a good deed.”
Follow Mike DeBonis on Twitter: @mikedebonis