To get a free Thanksgiving turkey from Marion Barry in years past all you had to do was show up early enough with your hand out. You’d get a bird in a bag and a reminder to vote for the one that fed you.
This year, Barry had an epiphany: Those free turkeys were only perpetuating a culture of dependency among those who needed to learn how to become self-sufficient. So, when constituents showed up for his annual turkey giveaway in Southeast Washington on Tuesday, they had to show proof of having earned the bird by becoming more involved in the political life of the city.
That meant attending community meetings and PTA meetings — as well as registering to vote. In Barry’s view, this would be the start of Occupy Southeast, as he put it, where residents from the ward he represents on the D.C. Council would learn to occupy their neighborhoods and schools while fighting to stay occupied in their homes and apartments.
“This is different from Occupy Wall Street because those people are fighting to reform the economic system while people in Southeast are fighting for survival,” Barry told me. “The problem is, they really don’t know how to fight or even who to fight. That’s what I’m going to teach them. I want them to know how to pressure government into creating jobs.”
According to Brenda Richardson, who helped to organize Barry’s turkey giveaway, dozens of those who showed up for free turkeys had qualified for the bird by attending community meetings and getting health screenings.
Ida Tripp was among them.
“I started going to the community meetings knowing I would get a turkey, but I kept going because I was learning so much about what was going on in my neighborhood,” Tripp told me. “Then I started meeting people who were going through the same things, like complaining about groceries costing so much and rent going up and up but not your pay, and what could we do about it.”
Barry was pleased to hear this.
“My thinking is once people get accustomed to coming to meetings, they’ll get more involved in community affairs and start empowering themselves,” he told me. “I want to see them become more powerful and start putting pressure on jive politicians who don’t seem to understand how rough it is out here for poor people.”
With the poverty rate in his ward at an astounding 27 percent and the unemployment rate going through the roof at 35 percent, you’d think Barry would be high on the list for such pressurizing. But to constituents, he is hardly the one responsible for the economic debacle wreaking havoc on their lives.
“I think Wall Street has robbed us blind and then deprived us of any opportunity to make money,” Ruby Franklin told me after picking up her turkey at Union Temple Baptist Church. Then, after letting go of the hard feelings, she added softly, “This is such a nice thing for Marion to do. My granddaughter has a cold and I’m going to put this turkey into a soup and some stew and take it to her.”
Mary Cuthbert, a resident who was on hand to help out with the turkey giveaway, blamed a hatred of President Obama by certain members of Congress for the nation’s economic stagnation. “There are people in Congress whom I view as traitors,” she said. “They would rather see the nation destroyed than to see Obama succeed.” At least Barry was trying to feed people and not take food out their mouths, she said.
Tripp said she wasn’t sure what to expect from attending community meetings, but she clung to a belief that everything was going to work out one way or another. She’d been laid off from a job as a clerk at the Federal Communications Commission in September, but so far was managing to pay her bills and keep a roof over her head.
“I have friends who work in the church pantry and they say if I ever need anything let them know,” she said.
Tripp planned to take the turkey to a sister’s home in Laurel and cook it for Thanksgiving, grateful to both God and Barry.
In his decades as a glad-handing politician, Barry has probably handed out enough turkeys to feed every resident of the District of Columbia — not to mention the kin who show up for dinner from neighboring Prince George’s County.
“It’s amazing the thing that bird can get people to do,” Barry said with a chuckle.