Essays on DC


Last call

One of the things you learn early as a writer is that the hardest parts of a story are the beginning and the end. The beginning of my story as a Washington journalist was over 50 years ago; the middle has encompassed all or part of one quarter of America’s presidencies, and the end will come sometime this year.

I will continue to edit the national edition of the Progressive Review, which has more readers than ever but my wife Kathy and I are moving to Maine where we have deep ties, for me going back more than six decades.

[Our DC news site – – will shortly be converted into a DC archives featuring such things as our almanac, timeline and interesting articles about the city]

I am leaving my birthplace, a town I have loved but also a place in which I have felt increasingly an exile as local values, culture and community faded – not because they lacked merit but because they did not produce enough power or profit for someone.

It has become a city where the police chief erects apartheid style roadblocks, where the deputy mayor hides a community library in a high rise like it was just another Starbucks, and where the government is spends over $600 million on a baseball stadium but can’t keep its recreation centers open all weekend.

It is a city of magnificent views and dismal viewpoints, wonderful communities and dubious egos, natural spaces and artificial words. It is a city that too often can’t tell the difference between intelligence and wisdom and, as Russell Baker once noted, the difference between being serious and being somber.

It is also a city in which all politics becomes office politics, and where imagination and free thought are restricted to thirty minutes on weekdays and violators will be towed.

Still, Washington has always been an unsortable amalgam of decadence and decency, undeserved profit and unrequited purpose, subterranean conspiracies and high ideals. Walt Whitman found himself “amid all this huge mess of traitors, loafers, hospitals, axe-grinders, & incompetencies & officials that goes by the name of Washington.” Even earlier, Captain Frederick Marry noted, “Here are assembled from every state in the union, what ought to be the collected talent, intelligence, and high principles of a free and enlightened nation. Of talent and intelligence there is a very fair supply, but principle is not so much in demand; and in everything, and everywhere, by the demand the supply is regulated.”

One of the things that affects the city’s crosscurrents of felicity and felony is what is happening elsewhere in the nation. As a weak colony filled with professional migrants, DC is a beta edition of both the good and the bad. Just as Washington was once deep into the civil rights and peace movements, today it accurately reflects national values sown in the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era that have caused the disintegration of the republic’s economy, its global status and its constitution.

You can feel it wandering around downtown, where every last centimeter of the zoning envelope is filled with the dull high rises of a second robber baron era. You see it in the endless piling on of new civil and criminal offenses in place of decent and effective policies. You find it in the official subservience and subsidy to those who already have more than their fair share. You observe it in a school system that values rigid tests and rules but not thoughtful questions and creative ideas.

You see it in the failure to lift a hand to help those unable to play DC’s harsh games. And you see it in the increasing division between free and locked down Washington, the former being those parts where you can still cross a threshold without having to prove you are not a terrorist.

Which is not to say you can not find many good things hidden beneath the hubris, behind the ubiquitous fear in the world’s most guarded place and under the false renaissance of a city that has spent billions on convention centers, stadiums, arenas, but which can’t even provide as many jobs for local residents as it did 20 years ago.

You just have to look harder.

You’ll find it still in the neighborhoods like the one I shall miss most: Capitol Hill.

You’ll find it in the little oases of commercial sense and service like Frager’s hardware store, Distad’s auto repair shop and all the other small businesses that get mainly bills and regulations from the city government while the favors go to the big guys.

You’ll find it over lunch at places like Jimmy T’s, Ben’s Chili Bowl and La Tomate.

You’ll find it in the files of the Washingtoniana collection at the DC Library, on a trail sign or in an exhibit at the Historical Society of Washington.

You’ll find it at the FDR Memorial late on a spring evening or in a quiet spot in some hidden corner high in Rock Creek Park.

You’ll find it in a black community that has bravely maintained its values in the face of repression, indifference and socio-economic cleansing. I first did as a young man going to the Howard Theater and as a 20-something member of SNCC, and later in so many ways and places as I was welcomed by, and learned from, those who used the power of decency and friendliness as bridges across cultures and to overcome pain.

You’ll find it among the activists of the DC Statehood Green Party who for nearly four decades have risen to the challenge presented by its first leader, Julius Hobson: “What do you want: a Disneyland for the rich or a state for free people?” Youll fine it in their refusal to be silent in a city so colonial, corrupt and contented.

You’ll find it among the teachers resisting the dismantling and corporatization of public education.

You’ll find it in the artists and musicians who take us away from bitterness and contentions and into better places, those still holding on in a city determined not to even leave them with a pad cheap enough to rent.

You’ll find it among those who seek to preserve not only open space and fine buildings, but great communities and wonderful institutions.

You’ll find it among those trying to help fill monstrous gaps in government services by working at a food bank or shelter, counseling former prisoners, providing free legal service, or teaching children what the school system can’t or won’t.

You’ll find it in a small band of journalists who haven’t deserted the real city in favor of grander stories and sources.

You’ll find it among the neighborhood commissions who still sometimes get those downtown to pay attention to things they would rather ignore.

And you’ll find it in the shared memory of those who give the city life instead of draining it, add to the local saga rather than diminishing it, and are there for us when so many others aren’t.

One place you won’t find it much longer, though, is at my place. Sometime this year I’ll be off to write the rest of my story someplace else. Thanks for all the good times, the encouragement, the inspiration, the example and the dreams.

Just remember, despite what others would have you believe, a vote in the House leaves you no better off than Algeria when it also was a colony; Washington never was a sleepy southern town and it never was a swamp; there is a J Street (albeit hidden in Northeast and spelled Jay), and most of the people who do serious wrong in this fair city come from somewhere else. We try to teach them different but they never seem to get it.

Thanks for the fun and, as Adam Clayton Powell Jr used to say, “Keep the faith, baby.”

PS: Some random anecdotes from the past 50 years can be found here.


A DC musical

I recently came across a tape recording I had made for a journalist interested in a musical that Kathy Smith, Becky Brown and I wrote back in the 1970s: “Washington in Revue.”

It was performed several times, once with Mayor Barry in attendance, and featured Jim Vance as Frederick Douglass and a beat poet. The Washington Star listed it as one of its “Sure Things” for the weekend.

The recording is that of a musician rediscovering an old score and just trying to give a reporter a feel for the show – complete with awkward page turning and forgotten lyrics, but it’s the only version around so I’ve uploaded it.

Among the songs in the musical was a soft shoe number performed by Boss Shepherd and a pair of his henchmen:

“I’m the boss, I’m the boss of Washington
I can force anything that I want done.
I can plant a tree or pave a road or put a gas lamp up
So what does it matter if I’m a little bit corrupt?. . .

My favorite, however, was the tune I wrote for feminist Alice Paul which included the bridge: “We don’t find it to enrichin’ to be switchin’ in the kitchen, so if you want us to stop bitchin’, you had better start in switchin.'”

Many years later, Mayor Barry sponsored a contest for an official city song, which I entered with the musical’s “Washington, My Home Town”. At the beginning of the recording I relate what happened next.

I still think the tune would make a good city song, although the Speculation Rag might be more in keeping with contemporary trends.




The capital’s favorite crisis

IN ANOTHER OF ITS wonderfully fusty headlines, the Washington Post woke up readers today with the banner: Bracing for an Unwelcome Glaze. What with 28 reporters on the sleet story, that seemed a little timid even for the Post so it at least livened things up a bit on its web page.

Meanwhile, Matt Drudge was thrilled to report that a House hearing on global warming – like just about everything else in town – had been cancelled because of the storm. Just to avoid such joy, we have long argued that ‘climate change’ was a better term than ‘global warming.’ In any case, it certainly is fortunate that we’re not suffering from global cooling or Washington would have shut down long ago.

What the Post had actually sent out 28 reporters to cover was, according to Accuweather, exactly 0.92 inches of precipitation. But the Post takes such things quite seriously as your editor discovered two decades ago when he was still in the publication’s good graces. He had been asked to write a piece on the latest storm and sat in an office for half an hour as the editor of the Outlook section and the op ed page editor argued over who would get to run it. The amazing thing was that neither had read the actual article. What they were really arguing about was who was in charge of snow.

Washington has never handled snow well. The most tragic example occurred in 1922 and a January storm brought 28 inches. On January 28 the roof collapsed on the Knickerbocker Theater, occupied by 900 persons. 98 were crushed to death and another 158 were injured.

Not long after Marion Barry took office in the 1970s, the Post’s Milton Coleman rode the streets with the mayor and gleaned some disturbing information. Wrote Coleman: “The mayor is not dealing with this snow problem personally. He said he is confident that the chore is being capably handled by his two right-hand men — city administrator Elijah B. Rogers and general assistant Ivanhoe Donaldson. It is not a job for the city’s elected leader.”

Barry, who had just returned from a four-day vacation in Miami, told Coleman: ‘There are more important things for me to worry about than snow. . .’ He was asked how people should get to work. Barry said they should take the bus. It was pointed out that the buses weren’t running. Said Barry: ‘They can walk.’ He added: ‘There must be 5000 streets in the District of Columbia. You can’t clean them all.'”

Barry had equaled in indifference – if not in eloquence – the earlier thoughts of Mayor James Michael Curley of Boston: “The Lord brought it; let the Lord take it away.”

SAM SMITH, WASHINGTON POST, FEB 1, 1987 – Al Thompson is superintendent of roads in Freeport, Maine, with a population about 1 percent of that of the District. But what Maine lacks in people, it makes up in roads, so Al Thompson has about 12 percent of Washington’s asphalt mileage to look after.

Now Al doesn’t have anything like the equivalent of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in his charge, and the local politicians tend to realize that nature often is impervious to memos, directives and policy guidelines. On the other hand, he works without the benefit of Snow Command Centers, Computerized Cancellation Centers and Codes Yellow. What he does have is five trucks with 12-foot dustpans and 11-foot wings.

How long does it take his trucks to cover 130 miles? Says Al: “An hour and a half, an hour and three-quarters.” Then it takes another three hours for a second “cleanup” trip.

To put it in D.C. terms, that would mean, with the number of vehicles we’ve got (if properly equipped), you theoretically could sweep through the city in a couple of hours. . .

Now, before someone at the District Building picks up the phone to tell The Post about “complex urban problems,” let me tell you about George Flaherty. He’s director of parks and public works for Portland, Maine. Portland is about one-tenth the size of D.C. but has nearly 30 percent of its street mileage. He uses about a quarter of D.C.’s equipment and expects to have the job done in 8 to 10 hours.

I asked if he could explain the logic of a not-uncommon Washington scene: two snow plows working directly behind each other, sometimes with a Department of Public Works pickup truck in the lead. He just laughed and said, “No.” . . .

And you don’t wait until four inches have piled up before you start plowing. You start when you’ve got an inch and a half, and you stay ahead of the storm. And you don’t leave it to the Almighty once ice-covered streets become mushy. You run the plows through and get the stuff off. Here, even downtown, we let the streets freeze again so the morning traffic reporters will have something to talk about. . .

It will be argued that northern cities are willing to pay a high premium for clearing their streets because they get so much snow. But this year Portland budgeted, like most cities, for the best of all possible worlds: 25 inches, a winter roughly comparable to ours so far. With one-third the street mileage of D.C., Portland still planned to spend one-third more.

Why? Maybe because they know what bringing a city to a halt really costs. Here are some figures that will give you a rough idea of the costs of closing down D.C. for a day: the D.C. government spends $3 million a day on its payroll; the federal government spends close to $20 million a day for its D.C. payroll; private businesses spend another $30 million. What did D.C. budget for snow removal? Just under $1 million. Calculate the odds yourself.

From Chocolate City to Latteville

[From a talk at the Washington Studies Conference]

Despite the Supreme Court school decision and the Thompson Restaurant case, DC in the late fifties and early 60s remained a deeply southern city. As a reporter for WWDC News, I would call the Metropolitan Police dispatcher to find out what had happened overnight. It was not uncommon to be told – and I quote – “”Nothing but a couple of nigger stabbings.”” As late as the mid 1960s white cops were refusing to ride with black officers. Once, I covered a Brotherhood Week luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel and the only blacks in the room were the waiters.

In the white community people didn’t talk about such things. It was just the way it was. Silence is a powerful weapon. You can feel the same sort of silence these days if you listen carefully enough. It’s often what people don’t talk about that really matters.

But things were happening. In February 1960, four black college students had sat down at a white-only Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two months sit-ins had spread to fifty four cities in nine states.

By the end of June, I was covering the desegregation of lunch counters in Northern Virginia and a protest at the Glen Echo amusement park.

Meanwhile the House and the Senate were battling over civil rights legislation. In the House, Judge Howard Smith was czar of the Rules Committee. Judge Smith had once justified slavery on the grounds that the Romans and Egyptians had used it to build their civilizations.

He was not alone. Over on the Senate side, as a filibuster went into its 69th hour, I reported that “”This afternoon it was JW Fulbright who said the issue of discrimination was non-existent — raised every four years for political reasons.””

I had come to the story as an anthropology major. I had read people like Ashley Montague who strongly challenged the biological definition of race. Other anthropologists had argued the term ‘ethnic group’ should be used instead. I had also read a powerful book in college that wasn’t on any required reading list. It was called “”Stride Towards Freedom”” and was written by Martin Luther King Jr. I liked the book not just because of King’s moral cause but because he helped me solve a problem left over from my Quaker high school education: how to be both strong and peaceful at the same time. King wasn’t just speaking about civil rights; he was speaking directly to me and about my own concerns.

And so I was pleased when a girl friend suggested we go to the Howard University campus in the late 1950s, where we sat on the lawn outside the chapel and listened on speakers to King preach because the church had overflowed before we got there.

But I considered myself a journalist – not an activist. In one of the first issues of the alternative journal I had started, I published a report by a close friend who had spent the fateful summer of 1964 in Mississippi. In 1965 I went down there myself to cover the civil right Commission hearings.

Then the local Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee announced a one day bus boycott to oppose a fare increase. It would turn out to be – as far as I can tell – the largest protest ever by local residents over a local issue.

I carried 75 people that day in my car along the Benning Road route and wrote about it later.

The chair of the local SNCC read the article and liked it. Which is how a 20-something Marion Barry ended up in my apartment talking to a 20-something white guy about his need for help in dealing with an almost entirely white press over his new Free DC movement and how I ended up on endless street corners telling reporters that Marion would surely be there in just a few minutes if they would just hang on. Once a group of us stood in a church on H Street holding hands and singing 26 choruses of “”We Shall Overcome”” as we waited for him.

But things could also happen in a hurry. Barry had some friendly operators at the telephone company who would interrupt phone calls if someone was needed fast. Sometime the phone rang late at night to report that Marion had been arrested again.

And while Barry was an anathema to the white business leaders and considered a rogue by the local civil rights establishment, as early as 1966 a poll found him ranked fifth by black residents as the person who had done the most for blacks in DC.

And it was about far more than just protests or local self-government. Among our futile plans was the infiltration and takeover of the Greenbelt Cooperative turning it into an inner city operation. Another project – in days long before laptops – found us sorting endless little pieces of paper on dozens of tables in a large room at Trinity College – as we tried to discover slumlords, lawyers, front corporations and their interconnections. The project never got much beyond that. Perhaps the separate directions in which various participants were rapidly going was a factor, In any event, the days of the Free DC Movement were just about over.

Years later, when Barry became the object of ridicule I would explain to people that what they saw was like a wreck of an old car abandoned in a field. Nothing about its current state told you what it had once been.

I wrote about it in a City Paper article, recalling what Jack Burden had said about Willie Stark in All the King’s Men: “”I have to believe he was a great man. What happened to his greatness is not the question. Perhaps he spilled it on the ground the way you spill a liquid when the bottle breaks. Perhaps he piled up his greatness and burnt it in one great blaze in the dark like a bonfire and then there wasn’t anything but dark and the embers winking. Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together that what was adulterated was lost.””

I lost contact with Barry as black power came along. More and more blacks were listening to Stokely Carmichael who argued that “”Integration is an insidious subterfuge for white supremacy.”” He told a crowd in Greenwood, Mississippi, “”We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years and we ain’t got nothing.””

I was one of a handful of whites at a meeting one day in the SNCC headquarters when Stokely Carmichel came in and announced that people like us were no longer welcomed in the civil right movement.

It wasn’t just an announcement; it was a fact. I had been helping to open doors for others and now I was staring at one with a great big lock on it. It wasn’t just at SNCC; all over town black and whites stopped seeing each other.

I had started a neighborhood paper on Capitol Hill – annoying the local restoration movement by calling it the Capitol East Gazette and including an area that was 75% black. In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East in a novel neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended the first meeting on January 31 1968: 7 white and 7 black

In February, 1968 I wrote, “”As contrary as the thought is to our national self-image, it is entirely possible that we are giving up the struggle to solve the deepest problems of our cities.””

On the evening of April 4, 1968, the city started to burn.

For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Later I would describe the city as a place where the American dream and the American tragedy passed on the street but did not speak. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration and helplessness washed up on my mind’s shore.

The strange ambivalence of the riots — the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds and smoke of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple’s home four blocks and a half blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation, — made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out

Some people even seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been or was still with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.

In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street.

During the riots, Mayor Walter Washington had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington had refused, saying that “”you can replace material goods, but you can’t replace human beings.”” Hoover then said, “”Well, this conversation is over.”” Replied Washington, “”That’s all right, I was leaving anyway.””

Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers held a sunrise service outside on a charred 8th Street, refusing what Albert Camus called the sin of despair.

And one year later they gave us an elected school board.

In 1970, I was invited to a meeting to discuss the candidacy of Julius Hobson for non-voting delegate to Congress, another token that the federal government had thrown our way to help calm the city down.

We met in a barren church basement hall on East Capitol Street. Just a few of us, our chairs pulled in a small circle. After a while, Julius asked on what platform we thought he should run. Someone in the room mentioned an article I had written four months earlier calling for DC statehood and explaining for the first time how it might achieved without a constitutional amendment. It was only the second time I had heard anyone mention the article. A reader had sent me five dollars, asking that it be contributed to the cause if it ever got going. That day it did. Julius listened, we discussed it for a few minutes and then he said, that’s what I’m going to run on.

Julius Hobson is probably the most underrated civil rights leader in recent time – another example of how colonies not only lack power but respect for their stories.

Throughout the years of Washington’s awakening, no one individual had changed the course and the psychology of DC more than Hobson. In a city where it could be said that never had so many sold out for so little, Hobson refused to compromise. Even prospect of an early death from multiple myeloma failed to chasten the man. He described the conversation he would have with the Lord, if there turned out to be one, as Hobson presenting a bill of particulars on behalf of the oppressed people still back on earth. And he concluded, “”That’s what I’d have to say to the Maker. And if the Maker doesn’t like it, to hell with him.””

Between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson had run more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated campaigns that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers, black auto salesmen and dairy employees and directed anti-discrimination efforts against the public utilities, private apartment buildings, the Washington Hospital Center, and private business schools. In 1967, Julius Hobson won a suit that outlawed the existing rigid school track system, teacher segregation and differential distribution of budgets, books and supplies.

In some important ways, the Statehood Party that Julius had created was an extension of the biracial politics that had grown during the anti-freeway fight. The anti-freeway movement had started among white and black homeowners in a threatened Brookland. It spread across the city, one rally featuring Grovesnor Chapman of the white Georgetown Citizens Association and black activist Reginald Booker. You didn’t see that often in DC or anywhere else in the country.

The movement was led by a graphic artist and old time leftist Sammie Abbott who once obtained a secret map of a planned freeway down U Street. Sammie created a huge poster headlined “”White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Home”” which featured a blowup of the map with the planned freeway in red identifying all the major buildings that would be destroyed including the Howard and Lincoln Theaters. The posters were plastered all over the threatened area and within a few weeks the planned freeway was dead.

In trying to understand how a biracial Statehood Party could arise in the wake of the black power movement, I eventually concluded that it was the strength of both its issues and its individuals that made ethnicity less important. The Statehood Party emphasized the pragmatic over the ideological, and implicitly shared Hobson’s view that class and power often trumped race.

It wasn’t that Hobson didn’t see himself as a black man; he was just first and foremost Julius Hobson. I have seldom been in a group of such strong individuals who still got on together. It helped me learn that ethnicity is often inversely important to whatever else is going on.

The Statehood Party would elect officials for 25 years, despite its underlying cause being repeatedly sabotaged by a coalition of colonials, manipulators and the merely naïve. This coalition convinced many DC residents that salvation lay in one puny vote in the House – or what Hobson called sending a eunuch to an orgy.

In fact, representation had been used as a distraction for over a century. In 1888 Thomas Noyes had written in the Washington Times that “”National representation for the capital community is not in the slightest degree inconsistent with control of the capital by the nation through Congress.””
This is still true today.

When we almost got George McGovern to endorse statehood in the 1972 presidential campaign, some in the DC establishment successfully lobbied him not to do it. They would also be behind a failed drive for a constitutional amendment that – by ensconcing the one seat provided – would have made it impossible to get senatorial representation without yet another constitutional amendment. Some even aided in the federal seizure of the city in the late 1990s, which amounted to the greatest disenfranchisement of citizens of this country since post reconstruction days. And, of course, we have just experienced the failure of latest expensive and distracting efforts to get a token vote on the Hill.

Now I fear that the gentrification of DC is bringing with it a further acceptance of colonialism. . . . an attitude of who needs self government with all the powerful names I have on my Blackberry? We have moved from Chocolate City to Latte Ville. The silence and the lack of interest in real self government reminds me of DC in the 1950s. I hope I’m wrong but I fear DC will remain for the indefinite future, corrupt, colonial and contented.

John Wiebenson playground

Comments at the dedication, Mary 22, 2006

SHORTLY AFTER IT OPENED, I spent a week inside the National Air and Space Museum working on an article for a British magazine. It was the only such institution in the history of Washington that had opened three days early and a half million dollars under budget. As I wandered about, I began noticing something else unusual: the people who created this museum enjoyed it as much as I did. There was a mini-exhibit about the starship Enterprise. And there was a pie tin from the Frisbee Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. I mentioned this to the deputy director. He immediately got up from his desk, went to the closet, pulled out a Frisbee, and then commenced to give me a pleasant lecture on the aerodynamics of the device. Later, I noticed some model plane kits shoved amongst the data in a lateral file, apparently waiting for someone to open them up and start building them over lunch.

At the end of the week, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, rudely remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in his museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, “There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them.”

Those who knew John Wiebenson know why I tell this story, for Wieb similarly understood that childhood was not something to grow out of but to build upon.

He also understood some other things. Such as Albert Einstein’s shrewd observation that imagination is even more important than knowledge. And the point columnist Russell Baker made that too many people in Washington think they are being serious when they are only being somber. John Wiebenson clearly understood the difference.

And in how many different ways did these wise perceptions manifest themselves: Planning of Resurrection City on the Mall for nearly 3,000 members of the Poor People’s Campaign just a few weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Helping mightily to save the Old Post Office Building. Drawing one of the niftiest maps of the city. Bringing Bread for the City a new headquarters. And creating the country’s first urban planning comic strip, Archihorse.

My friendship with Wieb was easy, my working relationship a little more complicated. He was my landlord and I rented his back office for 23 years. But I was also the editor who published his cartoons and, perhaps more importantly, had the only fax, copier and bathroom on the floor. So, as long as I paid the rent, I remained slightly ahead.

When I walked out of my office I looked directly into his at the end of a short hallway. Sometimes Wieb would be bent over his high desk figuring how to where to put the bathroom or skylight. . . Sometimes he would be talking to a contractor with a remarkably detailed knowledge of the work to be done. . . And sometimes he and his partner, Kendall Dorman, would be sitting around a low coffee table, covered several times over with books, folders, and samples of window moldings, bricks and other construction effluvia, reading the paper, drinking coffee, and discussing a recent comic strip. While contributing to the office’s enthusiasm, skill, or public concern, Kendall also added some Midwestern sanity to the aura of the Wild West that floated around Wieb, who was a true son of uninhibited and then mostly uninhabited Colorado.

Wieb’s approach to fatherhood was as interesting as some of his designs, including the infamous Wild Man Nights when the family ate steak with their fingers, mashed baked potatoes with their fists, and read and discussed comic books at the table.

And what did this produce? Well, there’s son John, director of operations at Martha’s Table, so competent and kind that his first name is “Let’s Ask” as in Let’s Ask John. There’s Derek, director of product development for something that I can’t even pronounce. And then there’s Sam, whom I have to constantly remind is only the penultimate Sam on this planet, but who has risen from being, while in high school, John’s and my combination trash hauler and computer expert to becoming a highly skilled something or other at the Rand Corporation. I’m not cleared to know exactly what but strongly suspect it involves creating a hybrid RV. About a year and a half ago, Sam told me how to deal with a laptop malfunctioning during a damp summer. He said to put it in the oven. Initially stunned, I then thought: well, that sounds like something his father would have said. Since it was either Best Buy or the oven, I put it in for an hour at 150 degrees and it still functions to this day.

Now, it is true that having so much talent, imagination, and fun in one home is actually a violation of the DC Housing Code, but they never got in trouble thanks to a critical factor: Abigail Wiebenson, wife, mother, and luckily a wonderful educator well used to dealing with boys with various attention disorders. She added peace to chaos and direction to anarchy, though it must be admitted that it often had the feel of Rostropovich trying to conduct the Rolling Stones.

One of the times I miss Wieb is when new issues com up. Like the reports that a city government that helped chase over 100,000 children out of town over the past three decades thinks that small schools and playgrounds aren’t cost effective. And so a lot of them will be closed. This despite evidence such as the study that found “when students from similar backgrounds are compared, those in smaller schools are safer, have higher graduation rates and test scores and are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities. They’re also likely to have involved parents and more satisfied teachers.”

I know something about this because I went to an elementary school just about the size of Ross. It was, in fact, also on R Street just 13 blocks to the west of here. But unlike Ross, at Jackson we only had 4 teachers for 160 kids. Two of the teachers were maiden sisters, known to everyone as the Fat Miss Waddy and the Thin Miss Waddy. The Fat Miss Waddy was sweet and kind, the Thin Miss Waddy was tough as nails, and together with the other teachers at this understaffed and inefficient school, they helped produce – just among my contemporaries – one head of the Catholic University art department, one director of energy in Puerto Rico, one professor of urban planning, and a NY Times reporter.

And here’s another interesting thing: the DC city government actually closed Jackson in an economy move two weeks before the start of a school year. All the furnishings were removed. But the parents petitioned and managed to reverse the move and classes resumed only two days late.

When I heard about the proposed new school closings, I thought about Wieb. I imagined suggesting to him that all the students in endangered schools be given T shirts that read, “DON’T LET A LOUSY CONDO REPLACE MY COOL CLASSROOM’ and then have them stage a mass march on the school headquarters. An image leaped to my mind of Wieb stopping his work on a new house, pulling out some of that strange textured architect’s paper and sketching a design, complete with Archihorse’s face. And then arguing with me over the words ‘lousy’ and cool.’ It made me miss him all over again.

Then the old labor song came back

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We’re fighting for our children,
We shall not be moved

Especially now there is this great playground from which we shall not be moved, the ultimate school without walls. Yes, to succeed one must pass those tests inside, learn to spell and count, and get your work done on time. But out here is where the body is strengthened, happiness blossoms and dreams are born. I ask the teachers to remember this when you are little slow coming back in. Certainly Wieb would understand if not, in fact, being a co-conspirator in your delay.

Out west they say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens on the Ross playground can be with you the rest of your life. Use it well and if you want to thank Wieb, just make somebody smile.

DC’s law fetish

NOW THAT a man has been stabbed to death during a fight in a club at 17th & L NW, we can expect any of the following from the city council

– A curfew in downtown DC

– A ban on knives in the city.

– A TSA style inspection of all customers entering night clubs.

The police have already acted. As the Post reported, “D.C. police used emergency powers to shut down the Ascot for as long as four days while investigators review past reports of violence connected to the club. They took a similar step after the shootings near Kili’s Kafe.”

These closures are without any constitutional foundation. Furthermore, they’re not going to work.

If more laws were DC’s salvation from crime, they’d have worked a long time ago.

Here are a few things, officials, the media and citizens ignore when considering violence in DC:

– DC is a violent city. It has, for example, three times as many murders per capita as Dallas.

– It has gun control but it doesn’t work. In fact, gun control doesn’t work well anywhere. For example, DC has many times more murders and gun violence per capita than the state of Maine where guns are ubiquitous among the population thanks to the interest in hunting. High gun countries like Sweden and Switzerland have much lower murder rates. It ultimately is the culture and not the guns that matter.

– In 1985, only 65% of the city’s homicides involved guns. After 1995, the figure jumped to 88% even though there was no significant change in the number of guns reported in the city. In fact the number of murders – with approximately the same density of guns – went from 148 in 1985 to 454 in 1993 and then down to the 200s in 1998.

– The clearest cure for violence is growing up. Nationally, forty-six percent of all those dying of gunshots in 1997 were between the ages of 15 and 34. Presumably guns work mechanically the same way for this age group as they do for others, thus something other than safety would appear to be involved. These are also the major crime and drug use years.

– A study we did in the 1980s found that if you weren’t buying or dealing drugs, you’re chances of being murdered in DC were about the same as being murdered in Copenhagen. If drugs were legal, it would be a much safer city.

– DC doesn’t have a mob. Mobs actually can keep crime down, especially that caused by competing minor league criminals. The relatively small business nature of DC’s drug trade is one of the reasons it is so deadly. If you chase drug dealers out of one neighborhood, they turn up in someone else’s and things get nasty.

– You stand a 57% greater chance of being murdered in the south than in the northeast.

In short, there’s a lot more to lower crime rates than more laws and police. In DC we are long past the utility in adding either. At some point, we have to admit and understand that the nature and extent of crime is a reflection of a community’s culture as much as anything. Here are a few examples of things we could do to improve matters:

– Teach children how to deal with problems verbally rather than physically. Expanding the limited teaching of mediation in schools would be a big help.

– Improve our public schools so crime doesn’t look like such a reasonable alternative.

– Make respect for law a community, rather than a downtown, matter. When a young person commits an offense, the first thing that happens now is that he or she is removed from the community and forced to deal with the rules of the citywide system. This is the wrong message. It doesn’t have to work that way. For example, we could have neighborhood constables – officers who lived in a neighborhood and knew the young people there and worked with them before they got into trouble. We could revive the 1960s roving leaders program in which trained Recreation Department employees worked with gangs and other youth groups. And, most importantly, we could have neighborhood justice centers, so that minor offenses would be handled by the community against whom the offense was committed through various forms of community-directed restitution.

– Create alternative routes for the young to respect other than drug dealing such as offering EMT training, much better arts programs, or vastly improved sports and other competitive programs in high schools.

– Have a job for each high school graduate. If you don’t have jobs, people find other things to do, including crime.

– Lower the value of crime by lowering the price of drugs through an end to our futile, brutal drug prohibition.

– Stop making the exercise of power the primary cultural raison d’etre for the city. Consciously find ways to teach cooperation, decency, and community and make their benefits available to all citizens. Declaring war, police abuse, or evicting someone for a baseball stadium are just forms of street crime raised to a different level.

DC has umpteen more laws and cops than when it first got an elected mayor and council. Nationally we have passed more laws in the last quarter century than in our first two centuries. In neither case is it doing us much good.

It’s not surprising. Communities work because they work well for most in them, and because people understand the advantage of cooperating with others and treating them decently. There isn’t a community in the world that works because of the mere weight of law enforcement or laws. And as soon as we start to value a decent city, we will find that it will be a more law abiding one as well.


When police riot

What happened during the recent Washington demonstrations – just as a couple of years earlier in DC, Philadelphia and Seattle – can properly be classified as a police riot. In all four cases, the major crimes were committed not by the protesters but by law enforcement.

Most recently, approximately 650 peaceful protesters were arrested in Washington on one day, the third largest mass arrest in the city’s history and the second greatest on a single day. The offenses with which they were charged were almost all minor misdemeanors that in a civilized society would have been handled with a ticket or a summons. Instead the protesters were manhandled, assaulted, dragged, handcuffed and then incarcerated under conditions that constituted deliberate mistreatment in some cases bordering on – as in the case of those left cuffed long hours from hand to foot – a form of torture.

Many, if not most, of the protesters had committed no offense at all. They had simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time when the DC police decided to coral anyone within a certain area and take them off to jail.

In doing so, the police committed a number of serious criminal offenses including false arrest – seizing those who had been given no lawful order to disperse and, worse, physically preventing them from leaving the scene. The police also engaged in assaults on protesters. These were not just “violations of civil liberties” but actual criminal attacks that within another context – with the offending party out of uniform – would have been easily seen as a felony. In uniform or not, however, those engaging in such offenses should be confronted not just with civil actions but with criminal complaints. Further, the fact that the offenders were in uniform aggravated the assaults on at least three counts:

” The offenses were not only against the victims but against the laws and the Constitution the officers had sworn to uphold.

” The offenses damaged the reputation of those law enforcement officers who try to enforce the law fairly.

” Worst, the offenses intimidate those who wish to express their constitutional rights, clearly discouraging them from doing so.

The media has made sure, however, that most people don’t understand this. Through endless TV police shows and the blasé manner in which the press covers police brutality and misconduct, the media has encouraged the public to accept criminal excesses by the police and has encouraged the cops to engage in them. In the Washington example, the Washington Post prior to the demonstrations beat the drums for a police crackdown and afterwards, the so-called alternative weekly, City Paper ridiculed the protesters and had no substantive criticism of the police.

We could find only one mainstream journalist – Adrienne Washington of the Washington Times – who spoke up for the First Amendment and one local law professor who wrote an op ed piece criticizing the police.

In such ways has the media deeply enabled the sociopathy of contemporary law enforcement, the end of constitutional government, and the growing and completely rational fear of law-abiding citizens that speaking up for one’s rights has become too dangerous to attempt.

One of the best descriptions of the proper role of a law enforcement officer was that delivered by Alexander Hamilton to the first group of officers of the Revenue Marine, later the US Coast Guard. Said Hamilton:

While I recommend in the strongest terms to the respective officers, activity, vigilance and firmness, I feel no less solicitude that their deportment may be marked with prudence, moderation and good temper. . . They will bear in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and as such are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of domineering spirit. They will, therefore refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of hautiness, rudeness or insult. If obstacles occur, they will remember that they are under the particular protection of the laws and they can meet with nothing disagreeable in the execution of their duty which these will not severely reprehend. . . This reflection, and regard to the good of the service, will prevent at all times a spirit of irritation or resentment. They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty — by address and moderation rather than by vehemence and violence.

Little so well measures how far this country has fallen than the archaic sound of these wise words.


Shaw. . .

From Why Bother?

In the wake of the Civil War, an area north of Washington’s downtown now known as Shaw experienced a building boom. Originally occupied by both whites and blacks, with Jim Crow and the coming of the streetcar, whites increasingly moved beyond the center city and blacks increasingly found themselves isolated. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.

Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.

Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theater (opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem’s Apollo was converted to black performances) and two first rate movie palaces.

There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club that produced a number of professional photographers, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.
Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.

This was a proud community. “We had everything we needed,” recalls one older resident. “And we felt good about it. Our churches, our schools, banks, department stores, food stores. And we did very well.”
The community shared responsibility for its children. One of the most familiar stories went like this: “There was no family my family didn’t know or that didn’t know me. I couldn’t go three blocks without people knowing exactly where I had been and everything I did on the way. It wasn’t just the schools. We learned from everyone. We learned as much from Aunt So-and-So down the street, who was not even related to us.”

All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.

Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found then around U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.

Years later, while serving on a NAACP task force on police and justice, I would go to a large hall in the organization’s headquarters — at the same address that was on the 1940s flyers calling for civil rights protests. In that hall, except for the addition of a few plaques, nothing much has changed in decades. We only needed two tables pushed together so there was plenty of room for the ghosts of those who once sat around such tables asking the same questions, seeking the same solutions, striving for some way for decency to get a foothold. Basic legal strategies for the civil rights movement were planned along this street. Did perhaps Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Mitchell once sit at one end of this hall and also wonder what to do next? Just the question lent courage.

With the end of segregation, as free choice replaced a community of necessity, the area around U Street began to change. Eventually it would become better known for its crime, drugs, and as the birthplace of the 1968 riots. The older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride — not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were worst. Some of the people in this community were only a couple of generations away from slavery, some had come from Washington’s free black community. But whatever their provenance they had learned to become self-sufficient in fact and spirit even as they battled to end the injustices that required them to be so.


Give me liberty
or give me a tax cut

In 1775 Patrick Henry stood up in the Virginia House of Burgesses and said, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” A version of this sentiment would later be delivered as a toast written by General John Stark of New Hampshire for a Revolutionary War veteran’s reunion in 1809: “Live free or die.” Stark, as a young man, had been captured by the Indians who made him run the gauntlet. He did so using a long pole with which he attacked Indians swinging at him with sticks, allegedly yelling “I will kiss all your women,” although the phrase may have been slightly bowdlerized by timid historians. The Indians eventually tired of Stark and accepted a ransom of $103 to get rid of him. By the time of the veteran’s reunion, Stark is 81 and too infirm to attend, but he writes a letter telling his former comrades that they had “taught the enemies of liberty that undisciplined freemen are superior to veteran slaves…” Noting that “the lamp of live is almost spent,” and that he will remember them “until I go to the country from whence no traveler returns. I must soon receive marching orders,” Stark closes with, “Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils.” In 1945 the phrase will become the state motto of New Hampshire and later placed on NH license plates.

In recent months, the colonial capital of Washington has placed part of another a revolutionary motto on its license plates – “Taxation Without Representation” – but as is often the case in this fair city, it has both the history and the politics wrong.

The politics are wrong because DC’s lack of congressional representation is far less critical to its well-being than its lack of self-government. Even with congressional representation, Senator Helms and Clinton would still get to decide not only the city’s budget and tax rates, but all manner of other matters including who gets to have an abortion and whether popular referenda will be observed. The colony of Algeria, for example, had representation in the French National Assembly but decided to go for liberty or death as the more workable alternative. Over the years, each time that DC citizens have begun agitating for equal status with other Americans, the local establishment has come up with another drive for congressional representation.

Unfortunately, a good many decent hearted citizens of DC are fooled by the representation diversion, and go around with a slogan on their car that few realize actually was a concern of the pre-revolutionary mercantile class, but was soon replaced by the more far reaching and vigorous sentiments of people like Patrick Henry.

The slogan stemmed from a major complaint of the business and upper classes against the British crown. Historian Gary Nash found by studying tax lists that 5 percent of Boston’s citizens controlled close to half the city’s wealth. It was this group that both Nash and Howard Zinn say were most affected by the Stamp Act. Much like corporate mantras of today, such as “free markets,” the “no taxation” slogan has gained a currency far broader than its applicability. While New England businessmen were seeking representation in the English parliament, Henry was speaking of the right of the Virginia legislature to approve its own taxes. In other words, Henry was taking the side of full democracy rather than accepting insignificant representation in a national legislature that still held plenary powers over Virginia. It is this critical distinction that current use of the phrase “taxation without representation” obscures.

Besides, Henry, who was described once as “a Quaker in religion but the very Devil in politics” had more immediate concerns, such as the removal of gun powder from the local magazine by the royal governor. Henry used his speech to help organize the militias to get the powder back.

In fact, there are relatively few contemporaneous references to the phrase “no taxation without representation.” It appears to have been first raised by James Otis in 1764 and then appears in a few pamphlets between 1765 and 1768. But in the latter year came a far more important document, a letter circulated by John Hancock and a few others calling on citizens to assemble at a town meeting. It stated “Taxes equally detrimental to the Commercial interests of the Parent Country and her Colonies, are imposed upon the People, without their Consent.” In other words, representation was no longer the issue, but rather self-government. The town meeting was held at Fanueil Hall over five days, with 96 towns involved.

By the time the Declaration of Independence was written, America had come cleanly down on the side of full democracy as opposed to mere representation. The only mention of taxes in the Declaration of Independence attacks the crown for “imposing taxes on us without our consent,” something Congress can still do even if it grants DC representation within its hallowed halls. Meanwhile, residents of the capital colony drive around paying unintentional honor to the somewhat self-serving desires of Boston’s pre-revolutionary elite, instead of the demands for true liberty offered by the likes of Patrick Henry and John Stark.


Preserving the modest. . .

The owner of our local shopping center wants to tear it down. No one knows for sure what the company would put in its place, but the site is right at the Cleveland Park Metro station and, if the past is any guide, we can expect something big, boxy, bland and boorish, which will add nothing to the community except traffic. The neighborhood is organizing to fight the invasion of the killer cartons that have already flattened much of developable Washington, leaving the city, as one person put it, looking as though someone had flown over it dumping out ice cubes. The bovine stolidity that characterizes downtown and, increasingly, such uptown locations as Van Ness and Friendship Heights, is precisely what many Cleveland Parkers don’t want. They appreciate not only the history and grace of their community but the eclecticism that ranges from Queen Anne to drugstore deco pragmatic to eighties modern additions.

The plans for the Park & Shop at Connecticut & Ordway are seen as the first step in a process of destroying a lovablely funky business strip of several blocks that provides everything trom superb pasta to videos to some of the last of the cheap haircuts. It’s the sort of complex that annoys city planners because it doesn’t make much planning sense. In fact, you couldn’t plan it; it is there because it works.

Some people have expressed surprise that a 1930 shopping center, indeed any shopping center, could qualify for landmark status. This reaction, mostly outside the neighborhood, provides yet another example of how limited the popular view of history often is, and how especially this is so when that history is represented by a building.

Historians have markedly changed their own view of what history is, but many of us who are not historians are still trapped, to some degree, in the narrow view that Miss Thumpberger dispensed in sixth grade, a view that equated history with Someone Important and Something Big. In historical circles and, mercifully, in many schools that view is disappearing. A few years ago, one of my sons took part in a seventh grade mock trial of Christopher Columbus to determine whether he should have his holiday taken away because he was so mean to the Central Americans upon whom he landed. When I learned about Columbus, the recipients of his explorations were barely discussed; it was presumed, I guess, that they were dutifully grateful to have been discovered at last.

So the young may appreciate the history of the ordinary, or social history, better than some of us who were taught a history that consisted of an endless and confusing succession of kings, military men and their wars and governments, leading inexplicably to the League of Nations, where history suddenly stopped because the year was over and we had run out of time.

The space between the League of Nations (or the Spanish-American War or whereever the clock ran out) and now was, by inference, not a part of history, but a sort of No-Great-Man’s- Land between the present and the past. Which might be one reason why some find it hard to see the historical value in a 1930 shopping center. Neither in terms of chronology nor in terms of grandeur does it fit the earlier standards of history.

But, by contemporary historical standards, it very much does. This is one reason why the head of the historic preservation department at George Washington University is so interested in preserving it. Richard Longstreth, like many historians, fully appreciates that you can’t understand American history without considering its commercial past. Think, for example, how dull Williamsburg, Sturbridge, the Museum of American History or Mystic would be without attention to that past. The development of the modern shopping center must surely be one of the most significant commercial developments of our recent history, so much so that one West Coast scholar recently suggested that the shopping mall had become the community, replacing such older institutions as the church. . .

In short, this modest center, with the buildings set back to provide space for cars, was at the beginning of a retail movement that would dramatically affect the nature of the metropolitan life in the years to come. Ironically, this neighorhood-serving innovation would inspire suburban planning that produced huge shopping malls far from neighborhoods that were left with few if any services near at hand.

Not a particularly noble legacy — but just as history does not have to be pretty, it doesn’t always have to have a happy ending.

Today, the center stands as the first park shop in the area and one of the earliest still remaining anywhere in the country.

It is, though, painfully modest. And in a town that gawks at the treasure houses of Britain but tears down its own oldest downtown commercial structure, and which came within inches of destroying such grand buildings of value on Pennsylvania Avenue as the Old Post Office and the Willard, preserving the modest is a difficult task. The city’s sensitivity to its history has grown considerably since such early battles as the Old Post Office, but we still short-change our past in many ways and there still is is a tendency to accept the view that history must be beautiful.

This is in part because architectural historians were among the first to attempt to save old buildings. Their natural bias was architectural: you save things because of their architectural significance not because of what happened there or what the place symbolizes or typifies. And the bias of the architectural historians unfortunately blended with a certain elitist bias among preservationists. Together, what they were really up to was a form of historical censorship. From an aesthetic point of view a case could be made for this approach, although often it reflected subjective cultural values more than objective standards, but from a historic point — and after all we are talking about historic preservation, what was being created was, in a sense, a lie. Thus it was not until relatively recently that Williamsburg began to deal honestly and creatively with some of the historical lies it had long sponsored — such as ignoring the crucial issue of slavery. . .

The concept of historic preservation has broadened and, in the broadening, become more honest. This is important, especially so in a city where the majority population has so little representation of its past. . .

But while we are more careful about our past than we were, we still have a ways to go. Consider the fact that some of the city’s most historic sites and ones most honestly revelatory of history are among those most rarely visited by the average tourist or even residents: Georgetown’s Old Stone House, the Frederick Douglass home, the Heurich mansion, the Woodrow Wilson home. These are places you can go to learn history yet they are relegated to the minor league of tourism.

Given that history is not a high priority in elementary or secondary education and that reading appears to be coming to be an increasingly esoteric activity, physical evidence of our past is more important than ever. We need reminders that cities can be, and for a long time were, organized on a model other than the warehouse shelf, the apparent inspiration for contemporary Washington developers. When I am in the Cleveland Park shopping center I feel as though I am in the Washington of my childhood; it is an accurate souvenir from the time before the new architectural barbarians swept across the town, arrogantly driving the human and the lively out of the city.

More importantly, it is a souvenir from a time when the city enjoyed a natural physical growth that came out of needs and experience rather than from injections of structural steroids that give it the illusion of gain while hiding the long-term physical and psychological damage being done. . .


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 just 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.

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, too.


The police riot of May 1971

For three days in May 1971 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 later:

“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 into the thirties. 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 repression.


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