Even now, 20 years later, Ronald Chacon hesitates when he talks about his role in the Mount Pleasant disturbances. Then 17, he ignored his girlfriend’s pleas and rushed into the crowd of rock-throwing, fire-lighting youths at 16th and Irving streets in “an explosion of anger.”
It was May 6, 1991, the second of three days of violence that began as a protest to the shooting of a 30-year-old Salvadoran immigrant by an African American police officer. The demonstrations soon spiraled into a frightening display of mob destruction, with youths looting stores and setting police cruisers on fire. Newly elected Mayor Sharon Pratt (D) declared a curfew to keep people off the streets.
Chacon, then a student at Bell Multicultural High, said he was holding hands with his girlfriend when they came upon the chaos.
“ ‘I have to see what’s going on,’ ” Chacon recalled telling her. “People had congregated here, and then the cops were all over the place pushing people and harassing us aggressively. I thought, ‘I’m in the middle of a riot.’ ”
It was a seminal moment, as the District’s burgeoning Latino community, which felt mistreated and neglected by the blacks and whites who governed the District, made their voices heard.
On Thursday, community leaders and D.C. government officials marked the 20th anniversary with a rally in Lamont Park, where the immigrant, Daniel Enrique Gomez, was shot. Organizer Pedro Aviles, founder of the Latino Economic Development Corporation, said he hoped to use the memory of those dark days to reenergize the community to fight for improved city services.
“There’s been some regression,” he said. “We used to have very strong community advocacy organizations.”
Much has changed since that Sunday night 20 years ago, when two police officers walking the beat in Mount Pleasant came upon a group of inebriated immigrants and told them to put away the alcohol. When the men grew combative, an officer drew her revolver and shot Gomez in the chest. The police report said Gomez had drawn a knife, a contention disputed by witnesses.
Word spread quickly, drawing crowds of protesters who threw rocks and bottles. The rioting subsided after midnight, and the next day Pratt held a news conference in an effort to allay the protesters. Jesse Jackson was among the national leaders who arrived to march with demonstrators the following day.
But the calm didn’t last long. After school let out that Monday, swarms of youths, including many who reportedly did not live in the area, began looting stores and setting fire to police cruisers. D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, a rookie officer at the time, was among those who responded to the scene and had difficulty controlling the crowds.
Police shot tear gas into the mobs and arrested 230 people, according to news reports at the time. Pratt declared a 10 p.m. curfew in Mount Pleasant. On Tuesday, May 7, the rioting was finally brought to an end.
Lori Kaplan, who has run the Latin American Youth Center since 1978, recalled leaving the center open so that teenagers could wash off the tear gas. She noted that the video of Los Angeles police beating motorist Rodney King had been playing heavily on television networks and distrust of law enforcement was high. But there had also been some other high-profile controversies in the Latino community, including some immigrants who were evicted from an apartment complex.
The violence was sparked by the shooting, but its undercurrents lay in the deteriorating living conditions of many residents, Kaplan said.
After the disturbances, Pratt formed a Latino task force and established a Spanish-speaking police unit. But the city’s financial troubles of the mid-1990s set back the efforts.
And the city’s recent fiscal woes have continued to hurt: Kaplan’s youth center has lost about $1 million in funding in the past year. She said the Latino high school dropout rate remains high.
At Thursday’s rally, Beatriz “B.B.” Otero, D.C.’s deputy mayor for health and human services, told the crowd of about 100 that progress is coming and cited her appointment as evidence. Among those listening to her were white neighbors walking their dogs and pushing babies in strollers. Though Mount Pleasant still has Latino businesses, it has gentrified, forcing many of those who grew up there to move out.
Chacon, who arrived in Mount Pleasant from El Salvador when he was 8, has moved to New Carrollton.
“I can't afford to live here anymore,” he said.