DC in the 1970s

From “Multitudes: An Unauthorized Memoir”by Sam Smith

AUTHOR IN APPALLING 1970s WEAR, SPEAKING AT A PARTY FOR HIS BOOK, “CAPTIVE CAPITAL,” AT THE AFRICAN MUSEUM. JULIUS HOBSON AND JO BUTLER AT LEFT; GWEN REISS, MUSEUM DIRECTOR WARREN ROBBINS AND BOB BERG AT RIGHT.

Moving into the 70s

Memory can fool us. Up close the 1960s often lacked the romance that time has given them. After all, at the end of the decade Nixon was president; tens of thousands of young American men and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had died in a pointless war; charismatic leaders had been assassinated, and the cities were still smoldering. I missed much of the media’s version of the sixties because I was editing a newspaper in a neighborhood where, among other things, the riot of April 1968 left 145 businesses and 52 homes destroyed or damaged. In August 1970, I summed up the decade this way:

NOW that we’re into the new year a bit, we will finally get a respite from those churlish images of the sixties that the press has exhumed for us over the past few week. I don’t need to see another photo of Lee Harvey Oswald, riots or bodies in Vietnam to realize that at some point early in the last decade we should have stopped and taken it from the top again. It was all like the denouement of a Shakespeare parody: the plot forgotten, the actors merely set about to kill each other in geometric progression.

Even the “good” images didn’t help much. Their irrelevancy jarred: the Apollo rockets poised to goose space, the trivia transformed from black and white to living color, the $15,000 table model kitchen computer from Neiman Marcus. The same perverse pointlessness pervaded not only what we destroyed but what we created as well.

It was, all things considered, terrible. What was happening to people, to the country, was so unpleasant that even those fighting against it tended to lose both their humor and humanity. And small wonder . . . A blossoming police state. A bloody and bullheaded military misadventure. The concentration of economic power. Seemingly inexorable attacks on the environment. Our inability to change all those things — or even to wish them changed. We moved from “I have a dream ” backwards to a dream deferred. And the other night, at a friend’s house, I heard a record called “Tomorrow Has Been Canceled Because of Lack of Interest. “

Doubt

Later in 1970, with the city still failing to respond to the cries and lessons of the riots of two years earlier, I considered leaving Washington altogether.

The first days of fall are pleasant business. The gauze of noxious gas that stretches over the city all summer is suddenly pulled away permitting the sun a rare change to lounge unimpeded against the sides of buildings or to ricochet off spires. The air conditioner’s monotone is finally silenced. The hint of a chill is gently repulsed by a friendly jacket. Paces quicken, minds lighten, and smiles come more easily. The best thing that ever happens to Washington is the end of summer.

A few weeks ago I had veered close to leaving this town. Part of the inclination was rational: there is, after all, little hope for the senile metropoli that inordinately absorb our finances, distort our lives, kill our children and grind us into smooth featureless abstractions.

Those of us who piddle around in the “urban crisis” are just so many orderlies in a terminal cancer ward. We can’t cure anything, only help mitigate disaster – a valuable service, yet sometimes psychically carcinogenic to the provider. At some point we must escape in large numbers to new towns, old towns, empty land, anywhere where people can start again with their own foibles their major handicap rather than having to overcome the urban labyrinth of failure hat expands geometrically with time.

Part of my desire, too, was in the gut. I have loved Maine for more than twenty years, but I was educated to respect the city and to elevate respect above love. After driving through 400 miles of throat-grasping asthmatic fallout from the urban east coast on my way to spend a few weeks in Maine, I found I could no longer retain the pretense of respect. I felt a desperate urge to love rather than admire, to thrive rather than survive, to enjoy rather than just experience. As my vacation passed its way, I found fewer reasons for returning to Washington and while habit brought me back, I struggled as mightily as I ever had to accept or break a habit.

When I expressed my doubts, I was asked what I intended to do in Maine. That is the favorite inquiry in Washington: what do you do? I couldn’t answer the question; I had only worked myself to the point of beginning to recognize what I wanted to be; how it was to be done seemed a question of secondary importance, a mechanical matter like knowing that you wished to proceed to the west coast but being uncertain as to whether you should drive, go by bus, or take a plane. It annoyed me, that question, but because I could not meet it, I found my inclination wavering.

And the friends. Friends are more important than place, it was suggested. I wanted to accept the argument, yet wondered whether the city didn’t pollute friendships like everything else. I counted the friends I hadn’t seen or written for months because I was so busy doing something so important by the standards of the so busy, so important city. Yet I also counted the number I would miss should I leave.

Then, somewhere along the line, inertia took over. The old fights once again distracted me from introspection. Once again, specifics overwhelmed generalities. I was back changing bed pans in the ward.

The change in the weather made it much easier. It is hard to feel angry, frustrated and helpless here in the fall. Yet I still think that the bravest and best Americans may be those who leave the city to build new communities. The most sensible place to create a better Washington is somewhere else. But few are ready to make the change. The roof leaks, the plaster crumbles, the termites undermine the joists. We stay here together, through another season, and tell ourselves that if we can only get enough money, enough expertise, enough will, the urban structure can be rehabilitated. How long, I wonder, can we feed ourselves on hypotheses?

[A few weeks after this was written, I found myself deeply involved in the DC statehood movement and the question of leaving town was put aside for several more decades.]

Party

The most notorious party we ever gave not only made it into the Washington Post and Washington Star-News, but also into the hearing record of the Senate Judiciary Committee’ investigation into “subversion of law enforcement intelligence gathering operations.” The 1974 event was a fund-raiser for the Fifth Estate, a creation of Norman Mailer. The organization had not quite gotten off the ground since at its launch a year earlier at New York City’s Four Seasons, even the air in the room couldn’t have passed a breathalyzer test. “At the end of the glittery and boisterous evening,” reported the Star-News, “a sweating, bloodshot-eyed Mailer announced he was starting the Fifth Estate — a people’s counterespionage organization designed to spy right back at the CIA and the FBI to keep the nation from ‘sliding towards totalitarianism.'”

Later, Mailer merged his baby with a functioning public interest group called the Committee for Action/Research on the Intelligence Community and was ready to try again. Mailer was sober and the crowd serious. According to the Star-News, I “gazed around at the houseful of anonymous young men in turtlenecks, girls in black, and vociferous gray-haired ladies with name tags” and told the reporter, “We’re all part of the central cause. The central cause still exists, in spite of what you read in the papers.”

Earlier that day, my favorite high school English teacher had called to say he was in town, which allowed me to reply with something of the sort I had always wanted to say to him, “Great, Bob, why don’t you come over tonight? Norman Mailer will be here.” It’s not every night you can have Norman Mailer and your favorite high school English teacher in your house at the same time.

The Star-News wrote of the guest of honor:

“Finally he mounted a stair landing to speak. With one hand on the balustrade and the other gesticulating from the elbow, he spoke at great length about himself and his cause. ‘This idea came to me through the aegis of an angel,’ he said. ‘This angel said, ‘You are the dauphin. You must ride forth and bring this idea. You must save France.’ The angel was a drunk and he meant America.

“‘So I said, ‘Okay, anything to relieve my illimitable boredom . . . I am just Phineas T. Dauphin. If this remains my plaything, nothing will happen to it. I just want to be remembered as old Uncle Norman who had something to do with it.”

[It is reflective of the subsequent decline of Washington that the always well-reported Star-News died, while the Post — which claimed that Mailer had called himself the “dolphin” and was suffering from “inimitable” boredom — survived.]

Among those attending the party were ex-CIA agent Victor Marchetti whose new book had been enjoined from publication because of government objections, as well as a woman who said, “I’m a very bored radical right now, and I’d love to leave, but the person who brought me wants to ask Mailer something.”

The Post reported that, “many of the guests, mostly elegantly dressed, articulate antiwar activists, had come not knowing quite what to expect but with the thought that, as one woman put it, ‘wine and cheese and Norman Mailer were probably worth $10 a head.'”

Also on hand was a New York television director, Paul Jacobs, who told crowd that he didn’t trust men with “two last names and tasseled Bass Weejuns without socks” and added: “People are starting other conversations. People are dying to leave. Mailer talked too long. This is the wrong audience. There’s no social status to be gained here.”

With this curious pitch, he started asking for funds as several bowls were circulated among the crowd. Mailer contributed $500. At 11:30, the Post spotted Mailer “standing on the chilly front porch, drinking ice water, still talking abut the Fifth Estate.”

A number of organizations that would actually survive held one of their earliest meetings on our front porch or in our living room, including the Center for Voting & Democracy and a bunch of pizza-munching activists who dreamed of some day starting a national Green party. Unfortunately, the Fifth Estate was not one of them. It was soon gone.

But not completely forgotten. In the permanent record of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s 1976 hearings there is this report from a committee intevestigator:

“Publicity [for the Fifth Estate] was provided at a March 23, 1974, fundraising wine and cheese party at the home of District of Columbia Gazette editor Sam Smith attended by some 100 guests, each of whom paid $10 each for the privilege of attending. Norman Mailer made a rambling 30-minute speech; the staffers, Timothy Charles Blitz, Perry Fellwock, also known as Winslow Peck, K. Barton Osborn, and Douglas Porter spoke of their counterintelligence activities, and the somewhat besotted liberals in attendance poured two bottles of Portuguese wine into a planter in support of African liberation.”


The Post Office pays a visit

Government censorship was never much of a problem. Other publications, however, did not fare as well. In B.W. (Before Web) the Post Office was the most powerful prude around. As a young radio reporter in 1959, I interviewed the Assistant Postmaster General on the subject of obscenity in his office, a space grandly baroque enough to have pleased a top official of the Mussolini regime. He guided me from his enormous desk to some comfortable chairs in a windowed corner for the interview. On the floor, randomly tossed in a large scattered pile, was the most magnificent collection of sex magazines I had ever seen. I wondered but did not ask why, given the hazard he told me they presented, he got to read them and I, for example, did not.

Thirteen years later, in 1972, I was visited by one Howard Roberts, a postal inspector, carrying the current copy of another local paper, The Daily Rag. As I later explained in a letter to an official of the ACLU:

“Roberts informed me that he was delivering my copy of the Rag, but that the Postal Service considered the cover obscene and that he was asking that I refuse the publication and return it to him. Naturally I was titillated by this strange proposal, but upon viewing the cover found it to contain only a dowdy cartoon lady with mammary glands bulbous but properly covered. She was wearing a button that read ‘Fuck the Food Tax.'”

“I told Roberts no at some length, reminding him of existing legislation that adequately provided for those who wished to refuse mail . . . I’m afraid I was angry and did most of the talking, cowing Roberts sufficiently that he refused to answer any of my subsequent questions. He said that since I wouldn’t refuse the publication he wasn’t going to tell me anything more . . . He departed, leaving me with my copy of the Rag. He still, as I recall, had two or three other copies with him. Incidentally, Jean Lewton, associate editor of the Gazette, was in the room during the discussion. Roberts carefully shielded the offending publication from her view.”

In short, the Postal Service was seriously proposing criminal prosecution not only of the Rag, but of those who read it. It was a classic example of the First Amendment problem Lenny Bruce had raised: “If I can’t say ‘fuck’ then I can’t say, ‘fuck the government.’ I called the Rag and other media and after a story or two ran and the ACLU got involved, the Post Office backed off and ever since the capital has been saying “fuck” without fear of criminal sanction.

The Attica that wasn’t

On September 13, 1971, 500 New York state troopers stormed Attica Correctional Facility on orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller to end a four-day standoff following a prisoner revolt that included the taking of hostages. The police fired 2,200 bullets in nine minutes and before it was over 29 inmates and ten guards were dead and at least 86 others were wounded. One year later, there was a prisoner revolt at the Washington, DC Jail during which the director of DC Corrections and a number of guards were taken hostage. But, unlike Attica, no one was killed. Perhaps this is why so few remember what happened on a night when judges, politicians, U.S. Marshals, prisoners, and hostages all gathered in Courtroom 16 to see what could be done – brought together by a single judge who wasn’t afraid to talk when others wanted to shoot. The peaceful resolution of the DC Jail uprising was one of the most extraordinary stories I ever covered and my contemporary account follows. I was planning to tell this story anyway, but the events of September 11 let it serve a new purpose – as a parable about the alternatives that are available to us even in the worst of times.

THE CAST

Marion and Mary Treadwell Barry are civil rights leaders. Marion serves on the School Board and is one of the most popular leaders in the city. He will later serve on the City Council and as mayor.

Walter Fauntroy is the city’s non-voting delegate to Congress.

Tedson Meyers, who is white, and Willie Hardy, who is black, serve on the DC City Council, a body appointed by President Richard Nixon.

Luke Moore is a popular local black figure, later U.S. Marshall for the city.

Charles Halleck is a white judge in the Superior Court, the son of a former Republican Speaker of the House.

Del Lewis is a black civic leader, later head of the local telephone company and then president of NPR.

Petey Greene is a black activist.

Judge William Bryant is a highly respected black judge.

Kenneth Hardy is the DC Corrections chief, being held hostage by the rebellious prisoners.

Walter Washington is the appointed mayor-commissioner. Four years earlier he had avoided bloodshed in the 1968 disturbances by refusing orders from the White House to shoot rioters.

Sterling Tucker is the city council chair.

Joe Yeldell is a member of the city council.

The courtroom, number 16, is crowded. Prisoners, lawyers, Marion and Mary Barry, Walter Fauntroy, Tedson Meyers, Willie Hardy, Luke Moore, Charles Halleck, Del Lewis, Petey Greene. People talking during the hearing, witnesses saying things seldom heard in court . . . When Judge William Bryant recesses court, people smoke in the courtroom . . . Ken Hardy, DC Corrections chief, hostage, is there, but you don’t notice him at first. . . . William Brown, facing an armed robbery charge, gets up before the judge and tells him of the inequities in his case:

Judge Bryant: The moving finger having writ, I can’t erase it.

Brown: I knew there was nothing that could be done for it. I’m thinking of the others – the little baby brothers of mine.

Bryant: The problem is that so many baby brothers have put people at the end of a pistol and shot them.

Brown: Then the alternative is to ruin them for life (Turns to audience, voice rising) You say nothing can be done about it. Our little babies are over at the jail and it’s really pitiful. You say they put a gun in their hand. No. Y’all put a gun in his hand. ‘Cause all you do is talkin’, talkin’ talkin’. You gonna put a gun in a 15 year old’s hand and the police will kill him like that boy with the bicycle. We’re tired over at that jail. A rat will get tired and come out of his hole knowing that death awaits him. We don’t want to harm Mr. Hardy. We love Mr. Hardy. We don’t want to kill nobody. We don’t want to hurt nobody. We are tired of people putting us in positions where we act like animals . . . Fauntroy, it was the first time we seen him. Walter Washington wasn’t concerned. Marion Barry came right away – he always comes but he doesn’t have the power . . . We’re going to keep on, and keep on, and keep on until somebody die. Then they gonna say, ‘Wow , they were serious.’

Applause, right-ons, a warning from the judge. Another prisoner: “What we came here for and what we’re getting is two different things. Nobody thinks this is real. We didn’t come down here to rap with you on your high pedestal. This was like a dry run.” . . . Hardy is leaving the courtroom, looks awful. Petey Greene is helping him. Outside a TV man tries for an interview. Greene screams at him: “The inmates let him go. That’s how good he is. Man’s up all night and you talk about motherfucking cameras.” Greene is crying. Hardy is on his way to a hospital with what seems to be a heart attack . . . Back at the jail, prisoners and other hostages await word of the emergency court hearing that had been called following the rebellion early that morning. Recess. Everyone is tired. Eyes seem to stare without seeing. Jail guard hostages sit at counsel table glum and silent . . . Judge Halleck starts to rap with some of the prisoners: “The first man who gets a hose on them, you get a habeas corpus and come into my court and I’ll stop it.” Says a prisoner: “They don’t pay any attention to courts. They’re ignorant over there.” Halleck to prisoner waiting eight months for trial: “Sixth Amendment guarantees right of speedy trial.” To another: “Last Friday I had fifty felony cases.” Learn later that Halleck offered to go down to jail to speed up processing of complaints . . . Sterling Tucker comes over, “The guards are talking about going out. Nobody is listening to them” . . . Reporter says there’s word of a disturbance over at the Women’s Detention Center. Prisoner comes up to reporter:

“Did you say they had another riot?” “Over at the Women’s Detention Center.” “Oh yeah, right on!”

Mother of youth in jail opens up. She has six children 22 to 16. She was separated from her husband when the baby was one year old. Now the baby is in D.C. Jail, swept up in the trouble. The mother works two jobs, one twelve hours a day, another on weekends. The kid is locked up on a charge of having raped and strangled a 7-year-old girl. Been over at the jail 2 months waiting trial. Kid was run over by a car when he was little. Never seemed quite right since. Only child to get into serious trouble. “If he didn’t do it, they should find the one who did ,” the mother says. “If he did it, I want him to be punished but I want him to get help.” . . . A few days later the Post would interview the mother of the victim. She has eight children, twenty down to ten. “I tried to raise them right. Many times I told them how easy it is to get in trouble and how hard it is to get out. And then I tell them, if you do get in trouble don’t call momma, ’cause there’s nothing I can do.”

The prisoners have their say. Judge Bryant offers to fix things up a bit. Just a bit. Segregate the juveniles. Do something about food and temperature. Hurry up the suit against the jail now pending In his court. Is it enough to save the hostages?

Back to the jail. The prisoners go in a white bus. The crowd outside the jail is smaller than it had been earlier in the day. Wait. Rumor that cellblock #2 has been seized. Wait to hear that denied. Joe Yeldell shows up with a psychiatrist to begin screening inmates to see who belongs at St. E’s [the mental hospital] . . . That’s about 10:33 p.m. . . Ken Kennedy, Northeast factotum, waits along the police line. Earlier he’d been inside. “Congresswoman Chisholm played a great role,” he says. Kennedy had brought six inmates from Lorton to the jail to help in the negotiations.

11:35 p.m. Mary Treadwell Barry comes out from the jail. “They want two brothers from the black press.” “What does that mean?” asks a white reporter.

Decide on one black reporter from print media and one from TV. Problem with TV crews. Union rules call for three men and at best only one is black. WTTG recruits a black minister behind the police line to serve as light man. Others follow suit. Union technicians are getting uptight. Crowd gathers around Mary Barry. Union man returns to police lines: “They’ve agreed to pay one day’s pay to a sound man and electrician at NBC and WTTG.” Susan Truitt of WTTG covers herself: “If I don’t get sound on film [from the amateur operator], I’m not paying for a soundman. ” . . . Nine hostages and a frigging union dispute is going on outside . . . Deputy Chief Owen Davis is playing out his role of being the top bully on the force, threatening a reporter who stood in the wrong place. But this is a sensitive situation, requiring subtlety, and they’re keeping Davis out of the foreground.

Now here’s Marion Barry. They’re going to let all the reporters in. “Show your press passes and go in quietly. Nothing is happening in there. Don’t rush in.”

Into an anteroom behind the front door. The door locks behind us. A dozen CDU men with tear gas are lounging in the room. The door to the visitors’ rotunda opens and there are the prisoners; the lawyers rushed down by Judge Bryant – 30 or 40 of them including James Heller and Ralph Temple of the ACLU; District Building types like Dugas, Duncan and Yeldell; Walter Fauntroy and Sterling Tucker; negotiators Ron Goldfarb and Julian Tepper; guards; cops; all milling around a cavernous room under huge, bad 1940’s murals including one of raising the flag at Iwo Jima. The echo is jamming out the voice of the prisoner who is on a table trying to explain that the man beside him had been beaten by a prison guard while the court hearing was in progress. They’re mad. What is happening? A turn for the worse? Why are we in there? Why are some of the most powerful and some of the weakest men in the city wandering around this towering hall listening to each other, shouting at each other? It’s like one of Fellini’s movies. And there’s nobody around to explain. Why have the prisoners seemed to be talking sense and the unjailed seemed bound and gagged? There’s a news conference going on, but you have to be at mike’s length to catch the words. There’s a prisoner yelling at jail head Anderson McGruder, who’s not saying anything back . . .

No it’s not a movie. But the set of a movie, maybe about Attica, during a break. In real life, congressmen, councilmen and newsmen don’t mill around a jail hall with two hundred prisoners. Prisoners don’t go up to the jailer like at some reception and tell him off . . .

The press has regrouped. Standing on a table, you can see a guard talking to the mikes: “I feel okay. They treated me all right.” The hostages are being released. It is real, after all. Julian Tepper says the inmates lived up to every commitment. They released the hostages because “we promised to stay until their problems were dealt with.” Earlier that day Charles Rodgers, deputy chief of corrections, had said, “If there’s one shot, we’re going in there and shoot all 182 of them [inmates in the rebellious cellblock]. Now negotiator Tepper is hugging Rodgers.

Time to go home . . . What had happened? Was it a real event – or just a commercial from the dispossessed – “We’ll be back after this brief reminder from the prisoners at the D.C. Jail.” Was it a victory for the jailed or a successful exercise in crisis management . . . Shirley Chisholm was beautiful. Marion and Mary were. So were Tepper, Hardy, Goldfarb, Petey Greene. “Judge Bryant, handled it beautifully,” said a civil rights lawyer. Beautiful. Beautiful. Unless you are still in cellblock I. . . .What’s beautiful about bailing out bureaucrats or a Congress too scared or mean to introduce simple decency to the city jail? It was just a dirty business compelled by the need to save ten lives. Ms. Chisholm, the Barrys, Tepper, Petey Greene don’t want cheers; they want something done about the jail.

FROM THE DC GAZETTE, PREDECESSOR TO THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEWAlmost running

In 1974, the capital colony of DC got to elect a mayor and city council for the first time in over a century. Although the city’s registration was overwhelmingly Democratic, the young DC Statehood Party, which your editor had helped to start four years earlier, decided to run a hefty slate. I missed the convention, having gone to Philadelphia to visit relatives. There I received a phone call from Jay Matthews of the Washington Post informing me that I had been selected as the party’s candidate for city council chair. I replied with one of my least felicitous responses to a press query, “Oh shit, I knew I shouldn’t have left town.” (The Post ran the response without the expletive). After a week of reflection, I decided to stick to journalism, but couldn’t resist holding a news conference at which I attacked my foregone opponent as a “Republicrat” and described the mayor and city council chair as “the political equivalent of Fruit Loops, sweet-tasting cereal circles comprised largely of additives and artificial flavoring wrapped around exactly nothing.” Nationally syndicated black journalist Chuck Stone took an avuncular interest in my brief campaign, writing after its demise: “The outside chance for a white city council chairman evaporated when Sam Smith, the irreverent and witty publisher and editor of the bi-weekly DC Gazette, withdrew after a draft (which included a large number of blacks) had been mounted on his behalf. ‘Oh dear,’ fretted a matronly white woman who had organized a candidates night, ‘we did want so much to have a least one white candidate for that office.'”

(Twenty-three years later I would be approached by some Statehood Green leaders about running for mayor. I asked my youngest son what he thought. “Terrible idea,” he said. Well, if I do run, I asked, what job do you want in my administration? He replied, “I want to be the incorrible son who gets all the bad publicity.” I didn’t run)

THE SWAMPOODLE PAPERSJosiah Swampoodle was an irregular contributor to the DC Gazette over the years. A few excerpts:

An “exchange of ideas’ is a term of art; it is the opposite of “a breakdown in communications,” which, if you listen carefully to the eleven o’clock news, you’ll discover is the source of all human problems viz: “Police officials blamed the accidental shooting of three orphans in a drug bust on 7th Street on a breakdown in communications.” An exchange of ideas is what we need to end breakdowns in communications. Personally, I’m a little skeptical. I tried to exchange an idea once with a high official and he said he wouldn’t accept it without a sales slip.

Beset by extremist snobs on one hand and an extreme Supreme Court on the other, Richard Nixon continues his search for the great American political center, which — Mort Sahl suggests — is like moving twin beds together and sleeping in the crack .

Crime is very much in the news. President Nixon is pushing for a preventive detention bill that would allow the court to lock up dangerous looking people for sixty days without a trial. Senator Tydings has his own version: he wants detention limited to one month. So you see, the New Left is quite wrong when it says there is no difference between conservatives and liberals. There is a difference: 30 days.

Remember that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, a good lawyer, and the right skin color.

It’s time for another report from Pretoria on the Potomac, where the gentle folk gather on balmy summer evenings to watch their neighbors getting arrested. In July and August, Washington becomes a vernal wonderland. There is something for everyone. The National Park Service has a program called Summer in the Parks. [The local electric utility] is planning a program called Summer in the Dark. The Health Department is running Summer in the Waiting Room. The Welfare Department is running Summer in the Red and [the mayor] has a program for himself called Summer in the Command Center . . .

The Food and Drug Admninistration prohibits the sale of meat containing more than seven parts per milion of DDT. Recent figures indicate that the average American contains twelve parts per million of DDT. So do your part for the environment and don’t eat Americans.

Several people have asked me whether we are really getting out of Vietnam like the President says. Of course we are. He never promised, however, which way we would go when we left. Our invasions of Laos and Cambodia are part of an orderly withdrawal procedure that includes, according to secret documents that have come across my desk, a defensive incursion into Tibet next fall and a limited interdiction of the Great Wall of China in spring of 1972 . . . It is obvious to the experts that you do not cure addiction to warfare by going cold turkey. You substitute. Laos is the military’s methadone treatment.

Some people are uneasy about the use of American air power . . . The rationale is simple, though. Congress ruled out land troops in Laos and Cambodia, so the White House decided to go over their heads.

That’s it for now except for this warning: The DC crime bill has become law. Avoid pot, telephones, meetings, loose talk, thinking, Jesuits, and hippie looking fellows wearing London Fog raincoats who blow their nose with clean handkerchiefs. Keep a dime scotch-taped to your driver’s license and remember: you can’t count on William O. Douglas still being on the job by the time your case reaches the Supreme Court.

I’m worried. The other day an innocent lady walking near the White House was struck by lightening. It’s frightening. Even the Lord is losing his sense of direction.

The President has proposed legislation that would permit DC residents to be preventively detained. The Chief Justice wants to do way with the Fifth Amendment. And my wife has started opening my mail. But I say, keep calm. There is no need to worry until the trains start running on time. . .

There’s a bright side to everything. Just the other day it was discovered that there was more DDT in mother’s milk than in that produced by cows. Immediately, the Agriculture Department assigned a task force to determine whether warnings should be printed on each center spread of Playboy magazine. So you see, we are making progress. In case of enemy attack, however, just follow the big black limousines with the telephones in the back and I’ll see you next month. If there is one.

Josiah Swampoodle, purveyor of split infinitives for over 30 years.

The police riot of May 1971

The nicer, smarter, more sensitive police department of Jerry Wilson concealed a dangerous fact: it posed a far more serious threat to the freedom of the city’s residents than had the force that preceded it, For as the department’s size, skill, and technology expanded, so did its potential for political control. Seeing Washington under its blanket of blue one could understand what University of Maryland political scientist Ralph Stavins meant when he said, “The country is turning into a schoolroom where everybody has to raise his hand for permission to do anything.” Whereas before it had been the fact of crime that put limits on behavior, increasingly it was the fear of crime, expressed through mechanisms for its control, that altered the lifestyle of the city. . .

Most distressing and frightening were the three days of May 1971 when the DC police department literally ran amuck. In a searing report on the police department’s reaction to the anti-war Mayday protest, the American Civil Liberties wrote:

Between May 3 and May 5, more than 13,OOO people were arrested in Washington, DC– the largest mass arrest in our country’s history. The action was the government’s response to anti-war demonstrations, an important component of which was the announced intention of the Mayday Coalition, organizer of the demonstrations, to block Washington rush-hour traffic. During this three-day period, normal police procedures were abandoned. Most of the 13,000 people arrested — including law-breakers caught while attempting to impede traffic, possible potential law-breakers, war protestors engaged in entirely legal demonstrations, uninvolved passers-by and spectators — were illegally detained, illegally charged, and deprived of their constitutional rights of due process, fair trial and assistance of counsel. The court system, unable to cope with this grand scale emergency caused by the police, was thrown into chaos.

During the Mayday police riot, people were beaten and arrested illegally, locked up by the thousands in makeshift holding pens with inadequate toilet facilities and food, or stuffed into drastically overcrowded cells. People on their way to work, patients going to see their doctor, students attending classes, reporters and lawyers were all caught up in the sweep arrests. Most of those stashed in the DC Jail exercise yard were without blankets throughout a night in which the temperatures fell below forty. And in the most symbolic display of contempt for the law, more than a thousand persons were arrested in front of the Capitol where they had assembled to hear speeches, including several from members of Congress. When Rep. Ronald Dellums tried to keep a policeman from arresting a member of his staff, saying, “Hey, that’s a member of my staff. Get your hands off of him. I’m a United States Congressman,” the policeman replied, “I don’t give a fuck who you are,” then hit Dellums in the side with his nightstick and pushed him down some stairs.

It was the grimmest display of mass police power — not just selective brutality against a few — this city had seen. And it was a clear warning of the fearful danger inherent in Washington’s acceptance of police power as a form of government. The fact that neither the black chief executive, Walter Washington, nor the white liberal newspaper, the Washington Post, could summon up either the wisdom or the courage to denounce what Wilson and his men, acting under orders of the Justice Department, had done made the affair all the more dismal. More and more the city was listening to sirens luring liberty onto the rocks of safety. — Sam Smith

Art and politics

In the 1970s, art in Washington was more than just something you used to decorate the walls of big law firms. It was central to the city’s culture and politics. Among its practitioners was Gaston Neal, dubbed “the most important unpublished poet in America,” by Amiri Baraka. Neal was an activist as well as a poet. Once he gathered a score of his friends and stormed the fusty citadel of the Corcoran Art Gallery while it was giving a large, formal fundraising dinner. “Who will feed the people?” they loudly demanded to the distress of the museum’s staff and guests. Walter Hopps, the director and no mean cultural influence himself, figured he could answer at least part of the question by at least feeding Gaston and his friends, so he asked for donations and sent the protesters off with $450 to celebrate what was perhaps the only profitable demonstration in history.

Then there was Topper Carew, later a nationally known filmmaker, who ran an operation known as the New Thing Art & Architecture Center. Annoyed by a Washington Post critic that had compared his work unfavorably to that of “wild Indians,” Carew marched into the city room of the Washington Post — the city was still permitted there in those days — marched to the offending critic’s desk, cleaned it off, placed the trash can on top, mounted the desk, lit the contents of the trash can, and performed a mock tribal dance around the container.

iN 1975 THE DC GAZETTE PUBLISHED THIS COMPARISON BETWEEN A DC JAIL CELL AND A VOLKSWAGON, CONCEIVED AND DRAWN BY WASHINGTON ARCHITECT RICH RIDLEY

Before the Drug War

DC Gazette, November 22, 1970

The Public Safety Committee of the [DC] City Council held two days of hearings this month to hear scientific and public testimony month to hear about marijuana. Most of what it heard was expectable: scientifically, marijuana is a mild conscious-altering drug; it is not addictive, nor does it lead to the use of addicting drugs; it has been known and used and studied for literally thousands of years, and no physiological damage whatsoever has been discovered; instances of adverse mental effects from its use are extremely rare.

Most significant to the council’s hearing — and to a good number of kids who are in prison on pot convictions — was the fact, reiterated by Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld, that “in the case of marijuana, legal penalties were originally assigned with total disregard for medical and scientific evidence of the properties of the drug or its effects. I know of no clearer instance in which the punishment for infraction of the law is more harmful than the crime.” . . .

[Activist Petey] Greene “testified” on behalf of his grandmother, whose opinions on marijuana are based on practical experience. She once told her grandson to quit: “Petey, you gotta stop smoking those reefers because they make you too hungry, and I can’t buy all that extra food. Later, on comparing its effects with those of alcohol, “She said she’d rather me smoke reefers and just sit and smile at people than drink that old wine and come in throwing chairs around. ” . . .

The testimony of representatives of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was notable for its meekness. Although the narcs still refer to marijuana as a killer drug before high school audiences, and still try to imply that pot inevitably and immediately leads to heroin, and still pass out 1930’s posters of marijuana as the Grim Reaper — they backed off under Council questioning. The narc’s Dr. Milton Joffe even allowed that although “legalizing simply for hedonistic purposes” was not warranted, “I’m not against pleasure. . .

Judge Charles Halleck recommended more realistic penalties, since present laws tend to cause the community “to lose faith in the entire system of justice.” James H. Heller of the National Capital Area Civil Liberties Union called for the legalization of pot. He said he saw no reason that it should be treated any different from alcohol. (He admitted to having tried grass once, “but it didn’t have any effect.” “Maybe you just didn’t know how to smoke it,” Councilwoman Polly Shackleton consoled him) . . .

Terry Becker, a Quicksilver Times reporter, surprised everyone by calling for more stringent penalties and stricter enforcement. Becked wanted “everyone to turn on everyone to get busted;” it would hasten the revolution, he said . . .

Noting that Surgeon General Steinfeld had referred to the famous Alice B. Toklas marijuana or hash brownies but claimed the recipe was not to be found Alice’s cookbook, [the Council’s Republican chairman] Hahn opened the second day of hearings by setting the record straight. You will find the recipe on page 273 of Alice B. Toklas, announced Hahn, and having fulfilled his public responsibility, he ordered the proceedings to proceed.

I wrote the Catholic bishop of Washington objecting to something of public concern that the church was doing. On April 9, 1969, I received the following reply

This is to acknowledge your letter of March 27 and to thank you for the opinion it expresses. Each such manifestation of viewpoint is like a stone in a mosaic. Only after all the stones are in place is one able to get a true picture of the representation.

With all good wishes, I am
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend John S. Spence, D.D.,V.G.
Auxiliary Bishop of Washington

[The following letter was written to the editor on May 16, 1977 from Rural Retreat, Virginia]

Dear Soul Brother: Abbie Hoffman’s book states your my underground press contact. I’m in deep trouble and need five soul brothers and sisters for aid. There is bread in this deal if the soul helpers can work me right. I got framed and need 5 witnesses. Anyone willing — If I get off innocent with their help, I’ll file a $1,000,000 suit against firm so there’s bread in it for some help. Contact me at above address — soon and fast.

oWhen Cleveland Park decided it wanted to become a historic district I was one of the few who stood up at meeting attended by about 400 residents to raise concerns about the idea, base on my experiences with the restoration movement on Capitol Hill in the 1960s. I knew of people who ran into trouble changing the design of windows on the back of their homes or putting air conditioning compressors on their roofs. I wasn’t opposed to a historic district, but I thought people should know what they were getting into.

About a year later, Kathy was nominated to be vice president of the new district. The chair of the meeting asked if there were any questions for the nominees. One woman arose and said, “Yes, I have a question for Kathy. Do her views reflect those of her husband?”

Kathy bristled slightly and said that no, she had her own views on the matter.

“Then,” replied the questioner, “I would like to nominate Sam to be vice president.”

Fortunately, I was home watch Larry King and so could not seize my opportunity.

oCleveland Park had a community club that featured a swimming pool of roughly family size. Given the number of members, use had to be controlled, including a ten minute adult swim every hour. I didn’t find that particularly useful since it was seconded by the lap swimmers who gave no room to idle paddlers.

At a meeting of the Cleveland Park Club, some neighbrhood lawyers had produced a bylaw change that would exclude summer tenants in the neighborhood without being otherwise discriminatory. It began something like this:

A member is an adult resident of Cleveland Park and his or her spouse, or such other person acting substantially in the capacity of spouse.

An older member in the back immediately raised his hand. His question: “How can we tell?

oBefore Howard Stern became nationally famous, he had a show on Washington radio. I knew my young sons were listening to it despite widespread adult concern, so I thought I better check it out. I switched it on to find Stern excoriating a recent newspaper column that had unfavorably compared Washington to Baltimore in some aspects. “Who is this jerk who wrote this thing?” he asked. I knew the answer. It was me. I decided I had better recuse myself from lecturing my sons on the evils of Howard Stern.

Sgt. Young

Early in 1971, 26-year-old Sgt. Gordon Young was named Airman of the Quarter at Washington’s Bolling Air Force Base. Young’s group commander wrote him, “Your outstanding duty performance, military bearing and appearance, knowledge of the Air Force and personal accomplishments are worthy of the greatest praise.”

A few weeks afterwards, Sgt. Young made a request that would drastically change Col H. Wayne Hodges’ opinion. Young wanted permission to distribute an anti-Vietnam war speech by Rep. John Seiberling. He was turned down. Then he requested permission to distribute the DC Gazette (the former name of the Progressive Review) on the base and he was turned down. Then he signed an anti-war ad published in a local newspaper.

By this time, the Air Force was becoming thoroughly agitated. His civilian boss wasn’t happy, either. In a letter to his attorney, Young explained, “Word had been passed along to him, unofficially, down the chain of command that trouble was brewing in his shop. Mr. Clark did not have any specific information about what the ‘brass’ was concerned with, except that it to do with a ‘DC Gazette’ or something.”

On September 27, the base commander recommended Young’s immediate discharge, one of the grounds for which was that he had “sought permission to sell a newspaper on base, in barracks, inside the Commissary, inside the Base Exchange, as well as other places. This newspaper contained articles highly critical of Department of Defense policies. His disruptive influence on others is evident in that he induced eight airman and one officer to join in his request.”

Young contacted Senator Sam Ervin who wrote the Secretary of the Air Force the next day on his behalf, to which the Pentagon responded three weeks later by agreeing not to discharge Young.

Rappahanock County

Rappahanock County, VA is less than two hours away from Washington, and has a population of approximately 25 people per square mile. If Washington had a similar density, there would be fewer than 2,000 people in the city. What Rappahanock lacks in people, however, it has in acres. In fact, it was originally part of Culpeper County, 5,282,000 acres of which were owned by Lord Fairfax. The reason Lord Fairfax knew he had 5,282,000 acres was that he hired a 16-year-old to survey it. The 16-year-old’s name was George Washington. Later, after George Washington had become an anti-British terrorist, his colonial colleagues seized all of the 5,282,000 acres from Lord Fairfax. Which may be why, to this day, people in the area warn you to be careful when choosing a surveyor.

The other notable early figure was Governor “Extra” Billy Smith, who got his nickname by extracting ever larger payment from the government as his mail-coach business grew. In those days, apparently, contractors ripping off the feds were considered something of a novelty.

Others who have spent some time in the area include baseball hall of famer and Culpeper native Eppa Rixey, Clara Barton, who performed her first field duty in the Battle of Cedar Mountain, George Custer, who liked the area so much that he brought his new bride here for his honeymoon, Daniel Boone, JEB Stuart, Ulysses Grant, who plotted his final campaign while in Culpeper, Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse in Culpeper, Patrick Henry, Robert E. Lee, and Lafayette. Finally, we have Richard Thompson, whom, as we all recall, was Secretary of Navy under Rutherford B. Hayes.But aside from the Civil War, things were pretty quiet until the 1960s, during a period in which the US Department of Interior was declaring that the region one of the seven most desirable places in the nation to live. Among those who believed the department were various people collectively known as “those goddamn hippies” and a more sedate crowd of exiles from Washington including Gene McCarthy, David Brinkley, and James J. Kilpatrick.

We bought some land in Peola Mills around that time. When I went in for the settlement, I was surprised to find my attorney, Jim Bill Fletcher, representing the seller as well. I later mentioned this anomaly to a lawyer friend who reported a similar experience, during which he had been told by Fletcher, “I am the lawyer for the situation.”

Rappahanock adapted well to its new diversity. I once went entered the H&J Grocery store and found a group of men drinking coffee, including a fully uniformed and armed game warden holding his coffee in one hand and a copy of Foreign Affairs in the other. I learned that Gene McCarthy had been in earlier.

As for the hippies, G. Brown Miller, from whom we bought our place, once told me, “You know, partner, your friend Erbin, is a mighty fine fellow.” I agreed. “He gave me one of them marijewwana cigarettes the other day.” “How’d you like it, Brown?” I asked. “Well, it seems like to me, if you’ve lived on moonshine all your life, it don’t do much.”

There was at least one other thing that happened in the region. That was back in 1960 when Lyndon Johnson was running for vice president. He was in Culpeper on the first of 47 whistle-stops between Washington and New Orleans. He talked too long and his aides instructed the engineer to start pulling slowly out. As the train began to move, LBJ cried, “And tell me, good people, what has Richard Nixon ever done for Culpeper?” An old man raised his cane and shouted back, “Hell, what has anyone ever done for Culpeper?”

   The accordion

One of the nicest things that happened over the holidays was that my youngest son asked me whether I still had my accordion. It was the first time in about two decades that anyone had inquired after my accordion and even then it was only with derision. The accordion is an orphan instrument not unlike the oboe, which has been called an ill wind that nobody blows good. It is an instrument so derogated that one of its affinity groups is known as the Closet Accordion Players of America. And it is an instrument that, six months after our marriage, brought my wife running down to the basement crying, “I can’t believe you have one of those” after I had discovered it behind some boxes and taken it out for a spin.

Kathy, after all, had been raised in Milwaukee and too many of her friends had taken accordion lessons at Lo Duca Brothers and then stood on risers at the Milwaukee Auditorium with 200 similarly possessed youths playing interminable choruses of tunes like “Lady of Spain.” She was unwilling to follow the woman described by Yeats, and “barter that horn, and every good by quiet natures understood, for an old bellows full of angry wind.”

My curiosity about the accordion went back to college days when I played drums with Larry Yanuzzi, already so proficient a musician that he had the stage name of Larry Vann. Larry actually played a Chordavox, which was not really an accordion at all, although it looked like one, since electronics had supplanted the need to push and pull the bellows.

Later, when I was getting interested in the piano again after a disastrous childhood introduction, I was assigned as navigator on a Coast Guard cutter and bought an accordion as my sea-going piano. I would practice on the bridge — the only space far enough from the rest of the crew — while on duty in home port.

The accordion player’s right hand is directed to a small keyboard, the left manipulates up to 120 buttons that play the bass notes and chords. On my accordion, the C note button has a small inset fake diamond to provide a tactile clue to home base. The buttons above and below it are not the next notes in the C scale, but rather five notes distant based on the scale of the lower button. Thus the buttons immediately above C are G, D A, and E. From each root note there extends a diagonal row of buttons which play the major, minor, seventh, and diminished versions of the chord.

The five note gaps are anything but arbitrary; in them lie some of the most profound magic of music, part of a journey around what is called the cycle of fifths. In fact, the history of western music is in part that of exploration ever further around and across this circle. If one is playing an accordion, it is also a trip ever further away from the little button with the fake diamond inset.

Despite some years of piano lessons, I had little sense of the true structure of music. I was unable to absorb it intellectually. But as I pressed the little black buttons, I soon became aware of what was going on. What had been, at the piano, a seemingly arbitrary collection of notes revealed their meaning in my left hand. With surprising frequency, the buttons I needed to push were close to each other and part of a pattern. I thus discovered that there was, after all, a system, as I learned music theory through my fingertips.

I also learned why the accordion was no longer so popular. If you play a simple folk song you will perhaps use only the C, G, and D chords, but if you are playing modern jazz you may be hopscotching around the cycle of 5ths in a manner that would be extremely difficult on a squeeze box. Further, as music developed so did the number of chords. You will not find a button for a C augmented 9th chord on an accordion. It is an instrument best suited for traditional music faithful to traditional rules.

After the Coast Guard, my accordion rested untended. Even after I gave up drums entirely in favor the piano, it only came out occasionally. One of the few paid gigs in which I used an accordion was a 4th of July parade in Hyattsville, Maryland. I had protested to the leader of our band that I couldn’t really work a whole parade on accordion, but he pointed out something I had missed having never been in a marching band: in a parade you really only need to know one or two tunes. So I played “Maryland My Maryland” and “Bill Bailey” 62 choruses each on a trailer pulled by a John Deere tractor. Then the accordion went back into the basement.

Now it will soon by going to San Francisco where it may eventually make the eclectic rock sounds of Captain Tonic even more so. It’s a good idea, for rock is a throwback to simpler chordal times, which helps explain the squeeze box’s recent revival. I’m glad my Scandalli will play again. A soundless instrument is like an empty house. After all, if you had 120 buttons including one with a fake diamond, mother-of-pearl decoration, a case lined in shiny blue velvet, and the ability to play endless choruses of “Lady of Spain,” would you want to end up silent in somebody’s basement?


THE SCENE FROM OUR NEWARK STREET PORCH. WE WOULD PLACE CANDLES ON THE RAILING AS A SIGN THAT NEIGHBORS WERE WELCOME TO SPEND SOME PORCH TIME.

Quaker school

Not all Quaker schools are the same. I went to one under the watchful eye of the Germantown Friends Meeting in Philadelphia. These were not folks to trifle with. After all, in 1688, just six years after arriving in the New World, they issued the first formal protest against slavery in US. They have been telling people what they thought ever since.

So I wasn’t fully prepared for Washington’s Sidwell Friends, which was started as a propriety venture by a Quaker and which by the time I became a parent was struggling to maintain Quaker values at ground zero of the military-industrial complex. Even other Quakers looked somewhat skeptically at Sidwell. It was, a Baltimore Friend said, a place where Episcopalians teach Jews how to act like Quakers. Some of us thought that having an evening on the topic might help. It turned out to be quite moving as two teachers, two parents and two students described what Quakerism at Sidwell meant to them. I was feeling pretty good about the project until the first question came – from a suit in the back of the room. “When,” he asked, “did Sidwell decide to take this new direction?”

Dear Senator Leahy. . .

DEAR SENATOR LEAHY: I am writing you because Corporation Counsel Judy Rogers told me to. I ran into her in the District Building the other day and mentioned that I had been waiting a year and a half for the city to pay me for the damage a Department of Environmental Services truck did when it backed into my car. She said, “Only a year and a half?” Then she told me to go to you and ask you for more money for her staff.

So here I am. Actually, I’m a little embarrassed about it because the city truck only did a few hundred dollars worth of damage and I don’t want the mayor to get mad at me because I went complaining to Capitol Hill. But I suppose if his own Corporation Counsel tells me to do it, it’s all right. It was really a rather simple matter. I was stopped and this truck just backed up without looking and squished the fender. So far as I can tell I’ve done everything I should have like taking my car down to city hall so one of the investigators from the CC Office could film it, ,. getting all those, forms filled oulj then getting them notorized so they’d be legal and all, and, most importantly just waiting.

I haven’t heard too much. Back about a year ago, when Walter Washington was still in office I got a letter from then-executive secretary Martin Schaller acknowledging my letter “in connection with an incident alleged to have involved your vehicle and a District of Columbia Government vehicle.” That “alleged” gave me a sinking feeling, even though I always knew Marty was a pretty cautious type. At the time of the accident, everyone – me, the other driver, his supervisor, the police, the courts, and the city investigator – all sort of assumed the incident had occurred. The repair shop certainly did and charged me accordingly. But now, with the passage of time, the accident was wandering into mythology. So I waited some more. Then Marion Barry got elected and after he’d been sworn in I thought maybe I’d write another letter. I wrote it to David W. Harper, Investigator, DC. Here is what I said:

Dear Mr. Harper: In fust one week we shall celebrate the first anniversary of the accident at the corner of 34th & Highland in which a city truck, backed into my car. You know this incident as I.C. File 20052. How are we coming along in this matter? Time marches on, bills need to be paid, a new administration is in place, purportedly filled with competence and compassion.

I suggest we celebrate this new spirit and this old accident with some incremental movement towards resolution. Any ideas?

I never heard again from Mr. Harper. From time to time I wondered what had happened to him. I didn’t want to rush things but I didn’t want to be forgotten either. Then I ran into Judy Rogers and she made me think that the whole problem must be that Mr. Harper has been laid off because Congress won’t give the city enough money.

Now I happen to agree with the mayor and Rogers that Congress doesn’t give us enough money. It shortchanges us on the federal payment, makes false economies in social services and hurts worthy programs like the neighborhood commissions. But I never dreamed that Congress would try to save money by not paying for the damage that truck did to my car. That’s just downright mean. You seem like a pretty reasonable fellow so maybe you can do somethng about it. Would you please see that Judy Rogers gets enough staff to write the check for the money the city owes me?

Thanking you in advance, I remain just another rinky-dink DC voter.

SAM SMITH

P.S. On second thought it might be quicker and cheaper if you all down on the Hill would just send me the check direct. That would be fine with me, top.

Politics at home

Sam Smith
DC Gazette, March 1978

NOW the Honorable Gary Kopff can get all the phone calls. My term as an advisory neighborhood commissioner has expired and Gary has been elected to succeed me. Gary is a real grassroots politician. He didn’t decide to get into the race until three days before the election and then easily defeated two other write-in candidates. No one had petitioned to be on the ballot. Perhaps it was because politicians are not in vogue these days, especially ones that get no pay, little power and a lot of work. Perhaps it was because the petition period neatly bracketed Labor Day, with some potential candidates winding up vacation and others more concerned with finding new hightops for Wilbur than fighting city hall. Perhaps it was because the neighborhood had gotten lazy and so self-absorbed that even what was happening down the street didn’t matter that much. Perhaps it was the reverse, that the neighborhood was so busy surviving, advancing, and doing other things that there wasn’t time.

Perhaps all that. But something more, too. Perhaps because the neighborhood was still not accustomed to the idea that it might be possible for politics to be as accessible to the urban voter as it is to the resident of Livermore Falls. Washington DC’s two year-old advisory neighborhood commissions represent a unique counter-trend in American politics, away from the century-long growth of political institutions isolated from constituencies, city governments made unwieldy by consolidations and rising population, a ballooning federal government intruding increasingly into local affairs and the development of regional agencies controlling such matters as transportation and sanitation, transferring the local franchise to a new elite of administrators and planners.

In 1816, Columbus, Ohio had one city councilman for every hundred residents. By 1840 the figure was one per thousand; by 1872 it was one per five thousand; one hundred years later it was one per 55,000. Before the neighborhood commissions, the lowliest elected official in DC represented 90,000 people. I was chosen to serve 2000.

Neighborhood Commissioner Smith playing drums in a Cleveland Park Halloween Parade

By contemporary American urban standards, having a politician represent only 2000 people is a radical idea although Jefferson thought that about one pol for every hundred voters was about right. Two hundred and one years after it all began many still find the thought that demcracy can be trusted to people a scary one. Traditional politicians find it worse. Neighborhood commissions were, they grumbled at city hall, “another layer of bureaucracy,” and the papers from time to time picked up the theme, ignoring the obvious point that we weren’t bureaucrats at all, that we didn’t get enough money to establish a bureaucracy if we wanted to, and in fact were able to spend less per capita on our neighborhoods than some of the more conventional politicians had spent per voter on their campaigns.

My own career as a commissioner got off to a rocky start. It was reported in the Washington Post that I had won my race for advisory neighborhood commisioner by 179 to 112, for a total of 291 votes, the highest turnout in the city. In fact, I won by 168 to 37, meaning a total turnout of 205, one of the highest but not the highest. And I almost won by only 103 to 100. If you added three zeroes to each of these figures you’d have a major scandal.

On election night after spending most of the day at the polls, I decided to go down to the Sheraton Park Hotel and watch the count. My wife said to me, “Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too seriously?” But she was holding a Sunday school teachers’ meeting and I figured that if she was going to be tied up with the spiritual I could attend to the temporal a while longer.

So I drove down to the Sheraton Park, took a couple of escalators to the catacombs where the count was underway and chatted distractedly with some of the other candidates who were also waiting for word of victory or defeat. Finally the sheet with the morning results for my district — familiarly known in these parts as 3CO7 — turned up. My opponent had slaughtered me 75 to 11 in the morning count.

Since I had counted some 35 people coming to the polls before two pm whom I had personally encouraged to vote, I was apparently on the way to one of the most humiliating defeats imaginable. At least two dozen people had smiled pleasantly at me, mumured encouragement and then gone in and voted for my opponent. I had — with flyers, coffees and telephone calls — organized the neighborhood against me. My opponent had barely campaigned. Harold Stassen never had it so bad.

I found Norval Perkins, the affable head of the Board of Elections. and tried to explain why a candidate with only 13% of the vote wanted a recount. He was noncommittal but added my district to his growing list of requested recounts.

Meanwhile I found the table where the evening ballots were being counted. Something was wrong. I won the evening count 93 to 26. I had checked each ballot. It was true.

I found Norval again. He tried to soothe me: “Maybe, Sam, you just have more evening friends than morning friends.”

I preferred to soothe myself. Even with the wrong count I figured that I had won by three votes. Later, local polling wizard Al Gollin would explain to me that it was statistically improbable to have more evening friends than morning friends.

I found the table where my recount was going on. I had indeed won, but all my ballots had initially been given to my opponent. I went to have a drink at a friend’s house.

The next day I went down to the Board of Elections to compile the results of the various elections. Recording the results, I found myself writing down 179 votes for myself and 112 votes for my opponent. Where the hell did those numbers come from? I looked at the figures again. There were three columns instead of the normal two. Whoever had computed the total had added the three columns together which, I figured out, represented (1) the incorrect morning count (2) the correct recount and (3) the evening count. The morning ballots had been counted twice — once rightly and once wrongly.

It still makes me shiver to think that two things had happened to me that aren’t even meant to happen in Chicago: my votes were given en masse to my opponent and nearly half the votes were counted twice.

In all the years I had covered politics I had never paid much attention to the counting. It always seemed like the most boring end of the business and besides there seemed to be enough people involved to prevent anything bad from happening. Now at last I knew what politicians mean when they warn: watch the count.

Out in the neighborhoods, the new commissions met with enthusiasm in some quarters and indifference in others. Some of them deserved the enthusiasm, some the indifference, but during the past two years I didn’t have much chance to check out which was which among the thirty-six commissions around the city. I was too busy with my own.

It began the morning after the election. A congressman who lived nearby who had taken a paternal interest in my electoral efforts was on the phone: “Why hasn’t my damn trash been picked up?” A professional politician was taking me seriously. A good start, I thought. I spent much of the day trying to find out why the congressman’s trash hadn’t been collected but the number downtown was always busy or unanswered. The next morning I checked my constituent’s driveway. The cans were gone. “Well,” I said when I reached him at his Capitol Hill office, “I see we got your trash problem cleared up.” He never asked me who we were. I had followed one of the first rules of politics: exploit serendipity.

My second problem was not so simple. Several homes had been flooded. The culprit was a conduit that fed water from a public playground near a row of houses. At issue, it quickly became apparent, was the question of whose conduit it was: the city’s or the property-owners’. The city staunchly maintained that it was the property owners; I, as District Seven commissioner, just as staunchly maintained it was the city’s and that the government should pay for the damage.

To win I needed proof, which unfortunately was lost in the mists of history; city hall merely needed to say no. The letters flowed back and forth, lawyers were visited, engineers appeared. I alerted the press to what I called the “Macomb Street Flood Disaster Area,” but nothing happened, except for the cracking of walls and sinking of foundations. I recalled that Richard Neustadt had spoken of the power of the presidency as being primarily the power to persuade; I was quickly learning that the power of a neighborhood commissioner was entirely the power to persuade.

The neighborhood commissions were established at the same time Congress gave DC the right to elect a mayor and city council. The prospective candidates for these offices had not taken kindly to the prospect of home rule being distributed to others as well as themselves and had campaigned quietly to have the commission section removed from the home rule legislation. But Rep. Donald Fraser of that eminently sensible state of Minnesota had prevailed with his bill, noting that it was not likely that the newly elected city government would voluntarily share its power with the neighborhoods were it left to it to decide.

The enabling legislation was quite broad, but in coming up with the operating rules the council and the mavor managed to restrict the commission’s powers, denying them the right to sue the city, to act in concert, or to incorporate.

For someone who had long believed that urban neighborhoods should be granted semi-autonomous powers, I found the law excessively timid, but consoled myself with the thought that for once people in the colony of DC were ahead of the rest of the nation in something: we were the first major city with elected and funded neighborhood commissions. Besides, the commissioners were elected by single-member district and, if they acted with political sagacity, they could make their knowledge and influence in these small districts a base of unlegislated power. They could become, in effect, non-partisan precinct leaders, unbeholden to a machine or to the politicians at city hall. The ward and at-large officials had not had time to develop precinct machines of their own and, with working neighborhood commissions in place, it might become difficult.

In our ward, the representative on the city council seemed to understand this from the start and instead of trying to control the commissions, worked with them, using them as an information source and constant referendum on ward opinion. Perhaps she saw that lurking behind the commission idea was a principle eloquently laid down by Chicago’s Vito Marzullo, 25th Ward Alderman, in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times:

I ain’t got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we’d beat you 15 to one. The mayor don’t run the 25th ward. Neither does the media or the do-gooders.. Me — Vito Marzullo — that’s who runs the 25th Ward and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them.

The prospect of 300 neighborhood Vito Marzullos telling people in their districts how to vote in ward and citywide races is a disturbing one to traditional politicians. Fortunately for them, the neighborhoods and their commissioners are so new to electoral politics that for the most part they have failed to recognize and use poltiical potential. When the neighborhoods discover that they have it within their grasp to counter not only the citywide special interest groups but the debilitating effect of the media on politics, conventional politics could be in for a shock. Neighborhood government, it may be found, is not merely a new way of running neighborhoods, but a new way of running cities as well.

But that’s all theory and when you’re a working politician you don’t have much time for theory. Back on 34th Place, they wanted parking stripes. I took a poll of the street to make sure, then petitioned the Department of Transportation. No problem. The parking stripes appeared. Score one for neighborhood government.

So let’s try a little harder situation: the traffic on 34th Street, a secondary arterial that divides our neighborhood with a steady flow of suburban comuters. It goes right by our elementary school and every so often a child gets hit. One morning a car jumped the curb at 34th & Newark, ran right over the spot where the mercifully absent school safety patrol should have been standing, bounded off a stone wall, back across the street and into a neighbor’s elegantly aging Volvo. Distress at the corner; anger. Then the next day another accident. The now not so elegantly aging Volvo was struck again. I checked with the school safety police officer who produced a computer printout that showed there had been about two dozen accidents at that and near-by corners in the past year. Called up Transportation. Met two engineers early one morning at the corner. They produced a chart that showed (at least it did to them) why traffic could not go slower than 30 miles an hour in a fifteen-mile-per hour school zone. More letters. More accidents. A call from the chair of our commission’s transportation committee saying that the Transportation Department had reviewed its files on the situation and decided the corner was not sufficiently accident-prone to warrant action. Hung up the phone and went on errands. Couldn’t get across 34th Street. The corner was blocked by an ambulance and two smashed cars. Neighborhood government, I thought, means using your eyes instead of your files. Score one for the old way.

As time went on, I stopped trying so hard to be an ombudsman. It was a role my constituents expected of me, but both they and I tended to forget that as an individual I had little more power than they. When I called to get the ice cleared off an alley, my complaint was merely added to the list of other citizen calls. There were a few exceptions, but only when the commission acted as a body did we make any impression.

This, of course, was handicapped by the prohibition on taking legal action. But when the alcoholic beverage commission ignored our insistence that seven liquor licences were enough on one block of Connecticut Avenue, we decided to challenge the prohibition. We sued the city as ten individual commissioners and the court gave us standing.

When the commissions were being established, a citizens coalition had met to propose regulations. At one meeting someone suggested that the rules require that the city give the opinions of the commission “great weight.’ A lawyer asked the legal meaning of the phrase. I replied, “Damned if I know, but let’s put it in and find out.”

We did and the term made its way into the official regulations. It was on these grounds that we sued the city. It wasn’t easy for me. The new Irish pub, whose license we were challenging, was in my district. So was the home of one of the owners and his lawyer. But so were the 150 people who signed a petition in opposition to the license.

I wrote the lawyer suggesting that the owner appear at the next meeting of the commission, that perhaps we could work things out. The lawyer told the owner not to come. Thus I found myself opposing, on my constituents’ behalf, one of my deepest held beliefs: that an Irish pub was a good thing. We eventually won in what became a landmark case. The court said the city could reject a commission’s advice but had to put in writing its reasons for doing so, answering point by point each argument. This seemingly weak requirement has altered the politics of development and licensing, because, when you come right down to it, the city often has a difficult time putting in writing logical reasons for what it does.

A new hearing was held on the beverage license and it was granted. We had lost the battle while winning the war. As far as I was concerned, however, we had really won twice because the commissions were now more powerful and I could start using the pub.

My main function on the commission was as chair of the education, recreation and agriculture committee. (This latter role I had insisted upon after I discovered that we had over 200 garden plots in the commission area – more arable land, I claimed, than any other commission in the city)

My biggest problem was The Wall, a 17-foot high, 40-foot long cinderblock apparition that suddenly turned up on the Hearst playground, obstructing the view of the softball fields for the people across the street. The wall and accompanying fence and asphalt playing surface was, we learned, a tennis backboard area that the recreation department had built with funds from the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. The department, however, had not consulted anyone before doing so.

Within a few days, over a hundred signatures had been collected from the immediate neighborhood demanding the removal of the wall, fence and asphalt. Not only was it unsightly, but the neighbors complained the fenced-in area would block a favored sledding slope.

Word soon drifted back to us at the commission that if we would vote to tear down the wall, the recreation department would have it down in 24 hours. This was stunning news and an opportunity for constituent-pandering that we could not pass up. We voted to tear down the wall and it fell shortly thereafter.

At this point, the tennis players became organized. They presented us with a petition with over a hundred names demanding that the wall be put back up. Meetings were organized, proxy votes collected, and venom volleyed across the community’s court. I attended one session that included representatives of the warring factions as well as a sizable delegation from the recreation department; the session lasted four hours and solely concerned the backboard. It was painful and tiring. But out of it came a compromise. Tennis players and neighbors would go along with a soundproofed wooden backboard, situated at a ninety-degree angle from the offending monster — with no fence around the playing surface so the kids could still sled, if with more difficulty. Everyone gave up something but when the matter came to the commission for a vote, with it was a petition signed by over 100 tennis players in support of the compromise. I couldn’t recall from my observations of more significant city controversies an occasion when people had actually petitioned for a compromise.

I retired with my fellow commissioners for our usual post-meeting reflections at the Zebra Room. I was happy. Not just because a compromise had been worked out, but because perhaps a few more people understood how differently things happen if they are decided by the people directly concerned. Downtown, the sheer use of political power is standard operating procedure; in a neighborhood it doesn’t work. Neighborhoods are built on the antithesis of bullying power; they are constructed with sharing, cooperation, mediation and compromise.

I’m glad we saved that open space, that the recreation department has agreed to build the new wall in the right plate and of the right materials, that Hearst School got a reprieve from being closed, that we were able to help get the city to reopen a food stamp office it had precipitously closed, that the curbs have been cut back down the block so you can turn the the corner without running into the oncoming traffic, that we’ll be getting a new neighborhood park, that we were able to fund a community-drafted long-range neighborhood plan, that we perhaps helped slow the flood of development, that we were able to buy textbooks for our schools when the downtown system ran out of money, and that the planes from National Airport won’t be flying over our neighborhood.

And I’m also glad that those on the commissions could participate in a politics that was conscientious, unassuming and productive, the kind you get when you keep politicians within walking distance of their constituents. The kind you get when pressure is neighbors demanding you vote against a license for an Irish bar when you’d rather be in it, when a special interest group is a bunch of irate tennis players, when you know you’ve made a mistake because the guy across the street tells you, and when the whole business is treated not as a career for a few individuals, but an institution for everyone. And, I have to admit, I’m very glad that it’s now time for the Honorable Gary Kopff to have the pleasure.

Copyright 1997 The Progressive Review

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