Contemporary account of the Hanafi siege from 9News Now. Marion Barry appears around :51.
It’s a strange tale barely mentioned in the many articles about the former D.C. mayor since his death on Sunday: In 1977, Marion Barry was shot by a group of radical black Muslims. The New York Times gave the shooting two sentences. Even The Washington Post’s Bart Barnes, in his terrific obituary, didn’t devote many inches to Barry’s misfortune:
Charismatic, irrepressible and engaging, Mr. Barry always seemed to get up again. In 1977, while on the council, he was shot during the siege of the District Building (now the John A. Wilson Building) by Hanafi Muslims, who also had taken over the Islamic Center and B’nai B’rith offices.
Mr. Barry’s wound was superficial, but it nevertheless enhanced his mystique. After a brief hospitalization, he returned to the political arena and in less than two years was mayor of the District.
Record scratch. Say what? Why did 12 Hanafis coordinate a siege of three buildings, taking 150 hostages in the nation’s capital on March 9, 1977, and shoot the future mayor of our city? Was this 9/11 in miniature?
Not really. The Hanafi Muslims who took over the John A. Wilson building weren’t foreign nationals motivated by decades-long United States involvement in foreign wars. Instead, the violence stemmed from a bloody beef between African American Muslim groups.
“To the extent that any outsider could understand the anger behind this three-pronged attack,” The Post wrote in 1977, “it seemed to originate in a bitter sectarian feud between two groups that are both black and call themselves Muslim — the Hanafis, who consider themselves orthodox, and the nation of Islam, followers of the late Elijah Muhammed [sic], better known as the Black Muslims.”
Four years before the siege, on a winter day in 1973, gunmen linked to the Nation of Islam stormed a home on upper 16th street in Northwest Washington. Their target: Hanafi leader and former Nation of Islam national secretary Hamaas Abdul Khaalis.
Khaalis was not at home — but seven unlucky people, including five children, were. Three were shot. Four were drowned. All died — and seven men were later convicted in the slayings.
Khaalis wasn’t satisfied. More than four years later, he and 11 others took over the headquarters of B’nai B’rith, an international Jewish service organization, on Rhode Island Avenue NW, the Islamic Center of Washington on Massachusetts Avenue NW and the D.C. City Council chambers.
They demanded satisfaction — and wanted the men convicted of the 1973 killings turned over to them, “presumably for execution,” as WETA put it. Other demands included repayment of a $750 fine imposed on Khaalis for contempt of court during the trial of the 1973 killers, and an end to the release of the film “Mohammed, Messenger of God” (also called “The Message“), a movie the Hanafis deemed offensive.
“We have told this government to get busy and get the murderers that came into our house on Jan. 18 and murdered our babies,” Khaalis told The Post during the siege. “And our children. And shot up our women. … Tell them the payday is here. We gonna pull the cover off of them. No more games.”
At B’nai Brith, attackers wielded machetes.
“They had big huge swords,” Andrew S. Hoffman, a 20-year-old student from George Washington University, said after being released. “They kept saying they were gonna cut people’s heads off … They all said they were going to die, but they were going to die for a cause.”
Outside of D.C. Council chambers, the gunmen “blasted away,” as The Post wrote. Barry was hit by a ricochet shotgun pellet.
Councilman Marion Barry staggered into the Council Chamber and fell into a chair, clutching his bloody chest,” according to the paper. “He, too, cried out: ‘I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot.'”
After almost 40 hours, the siege ended — partly thanks to the ambassadors from Egypt, Pakistan and Iran, who quoted the Koran to Khaalis.
“And let not the hatred of some people in once shutting you out of the sacred mosque lead you to transgression and hostility on your part,” one said. “Help ye one another in righteousness and piety, but help ye not one another in sin and rancor.”
Khaalis initially proved uninterested in talk.
“Don’t teach me the Koran,” he told the ambassadors over the phone. “I know it better than you. Do you know that there are occasions when blood calls for repayment by blood?”
Eventually, he relented. After in-person meetings with ambassadors, Khaalis and his group surrendered on March 11.
The Post marveled at the unexpected end to the unexpected hostage crisis.
“The strange circumstances that brought Moslem ambassadors — one of them from an Arab nation technically at war with Israel — into the B’nai B’rith headquarters to negotiate with an American black professing Islam have rarely been matched in the annals of either diplomacy or law enforcement,” the Post wrote.
All 12 gunmen were later convicted for the siege. Khaalis got a 41-to-123 year term.
Barry, who was not held hostage, was not the siege’s main victim — indeed, as Barnes wrote, the bullet, which just missed his heart, may have helped propel him to the mayor’s office. But at the District building, WHUR reporter Maurice Williams was killed.
“I believe this incident was one of the more traumatic incidents in the history of this city, and the fact that he was the only African American journalist ever killed in the line of duty … makes it a very special occasion,” Paul Brock, WHUR’s news director when Williams was a student intern, told The Post in 2007.
The siege took place a generation before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — and bore little resemblance to them. The siege was instigated by a domestic group with a specific, local grievance. But some said the attack presaged future events.
“This was an early wake-up call about violence and terrorism and the extent to which groups will go to engage in violence either for the sake of violence or to make a point,” Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, told The Post. “Little did we know 30 years ago that this kind of issue would be a daily concern for all of us, not only here in Washington but abroad as well.”
Though he emerged relatively unscathed, Barry told The Post the Hanafi siege made him think of his own mortality.
“That God’s in charge,” he said. “Life is not promised. You could be gone in a flash.”