A blight at the centre of power

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 13 1997

A blight at the centre of power

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 13 1997

A blight at the centre of power




The southeast corner of Washington, D.C., is a rough part of town, a far cry from the tourist city of magnificent monuments and fashionable Georgetown streets.

It is the kind of place where even the police get nervous, which is exactly what happened on one recent day. Two dozen officers were about to start their daily shift patrolling the neighborhood, when they discovered they had only two working police radios among them. Afraid to go out without them, they spent their entire shift huddled on a street corner—leaving one of the most crime-ridden parts of the city unprotected. It was, says Carl Rowan Jr., a Washington ¿ lawyer and anti-crime activist, a | telling and not untypical incident i in a city where local government 5 has failed on just about every | level. “They can’t even provide 5 working radios for the police,” 3 he says. ‘What kind of message 8 does that send to citizens?” i

These days, the message is a sombre one: the city is not working, and outsiders are coming in to sort it out. The U.S. federal government has stripped the city’s controversial mayor, Marion Barry, of most of his powers and handed them to an appointed control board. The problems, building for years, have become acute —and they underline what has always been the fundamental truth about Washington: that it is at o once both the imposing capital of 8 the World’s Most Powerful CounM fry and a particularly troubled ex-

ample of urban America. Even in good times, its local politics are a tangled web of old-style patronage, comic mismanagement and edgy racial rhetoric. But this is a low point: crumbling schools that do not open on time; the United States’ highest rates of infant mortality, tuberculosis and new AIDS cases; and a police department that fails even to properly equip its frontline officers. All that—despite some of the highest per capita spending of any city in the country.

At the centre is Barry, the 61-year-old vet-

District of Columbia police; Barry: stripped of most of his authority

Washington is an urban mess—and many blame its mayor

eran mayor who has become a lightning rod for the growing chorus of critics of how Washington is run. Barry was first elected in 1978 as an energetic civil rights activist in a city that is two-thirds black. During the 1980s, he used rising tax revenues from an economic boom to expand the city’s workforce and put many of his own supporters on the payroll. And he became a national figure in 1990 for something he would like to put behind him: he was videotaped by police smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room.

Barry dropped out of politics, served six months in prison, then made a comeback in 1994 by winning re-election on a theme of “redemption.” Voters gave him a second chance, but the evidence of the past several months is that he has blown it.

Even in Barry’s political stronghold—the poor, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods that few white residents and almost no tourists ever see—there are signs that patience is wearing thin. The slums east of the Anacostia River are little more than a kilometre from Capitol Hill, but they might as well be in a different city. “It’s the proverbial railroad track—you just don’t cross it,” says Lamont Mitchell, who owns the Imani Cafe, the only sit-down restaurant in an area of 50,000 people. The café serves soul food and its walls show a distinct political tilt: portraits of African-American heroes like Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, a slave collar, and a copy of 1970s activist Angela Davis’s FBI wanted poster. Mitchell is involved with a church that serves as a centre of local community action, and is the kind of person who would have been among the mayor’s strongest supporters in the past. These days he is not so sure: “People just want a better place to live. With Marion, his pride and his ego get in the way.”

At the same time, Mitchell and most other black voters resent the treatment the city has received from the federal government. Some find parallels between the District of Columbia’s spotty history of democracy and their own struggles for civil rights. “This isn’t the first city to get in trouble, but they didn’t take away their mayors,” says Mitchell. “If it was a majority white city, they would never treat it this way.” In fact, the U.S.

Congress, which ultimately runs the District, has been whittling away at Barry’s powers for two years, ever since it appointed a control board to take over some of the functions of the mayor and city council. In August, it gave most of their remaining authority to the board while assuming responsibility for the city’s $6.8-billion pension liability and promising an extra $1.3 billion in federal funding over five years. The deal made the control board’s chairman, a black economist named Andrew Brimmer, the most powerful local official— and left the mayor with direct control of little but recreation, tourism and economic development.

Since then, Barry has been trying to turn his political emasculation to his advantage. “Democracy has been raped,” he thundered, while his supporters protested a return to “plantation politics”—a calculated reference to the time when white southern Democrats ran the District as a private fiefdom through their control of key congressional committees. In fact, the District was created by Congress so that the politicians would not be under the sway of any state, and they governed it directly for more than a century and a half. Its residents had no voting rights until 1964, when they first cast ballots in a presidential election, and were allowed to elect a mayor and council only in 1974. Now, so-called home rule is being rolled back—something Barry insists is unjust no matter what difficulties the city has.

The mayor’s office on the 11th floor of a modern building two blocks north of Pennsylvania Avenue has a view of the Capitol, where what Barry calls the Republican plot

to destroy democracy in the District was hatched. It is, he said in an interview, as offensive as anti-democratic actions in places like Haiti and Somalia: “If what had happened here had happened with any foreign government, the United States would probably be prepared to send troops in to stop it.” He freely acknowledges that Washington has more than its share of problems, but blames them largely on an administrative structure so unwieldy that he himself has called it a “management nightmare.”

Until Congress acted in August, for exam-

ple, Washington was responsible for its own prison, court system and welfare program, as well as city functions like police and fire protection. Its tax base is limited because it cannot make levies on federal property or impose a commuter charge on the tens of thousands of people who work in the District but live in wealthier adjacent suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. “This structure was bound to collapse,” says Barry. “The question was when.”

Barry encouraged residents to protest —but the results were meagre. A handful of demonstrations drew only a few hundred people, most of them activists or members of the mayor’s political machine. The vast majority stayed silent, even though many black voters share Mitchell’s suspicion that Washington’s problems would never have been allowed to become so bad, and its elected council would never have been brushed aside so cavalierly, if its racial balance was reversed.

In fact, it is the District’s black voters who suffer most from the sorry tally of social

problems. They are worst in poor, mainly black areas like Anacostia, whose residents cannot afford to move to the suburbs. Many people have left: the District’s population is only 543,000, down 10 per cent since 1990. This year, its public schools did not open until Sept. 22, three weeks late, because inspectors found 11,000 fire-code violations, including leaky roofs in 43 schools. The city spends $13,300 a year per pupil—20 per cent above the national average—but many schools are decrepit and students have the lowest test scores of any urban area in the country. The longer they spend in the system, a study for the control board concluded, the worse off they are likely to be.

Spending on fire protection and police is also above average, but services fall far short. For several years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when crack cocaine fuelled an epidemic of gang violence, Washington had the highest murder rate in the United States. New Orleans now owns that unhappy record, but the capital still has one of the worst homicide rates (393 murders last year)—and one of the poorest records of solving them. Just last week, the police depart-

0 ment brought in FBI 3 agents and federal drug

1 enforcement officers to > help it clear up 136 unsolved murder cases. Rowan, the lawyer who heads a citizens’ group called The Alliance for Public Safety, blames the situation on the mayor, who appointed many of his own supporters to jobs in the department. “He took a professional police department and made it just another patronage opportunity,” says Rowan. “He virtually destroyed it.”

Still, Barry remains the favorite if he decides to run for a fifth term next year. There is no obvious black candidate to challenge him, and he is still a formidable politician who knows how to play on the pride of African-American voters. But Mark Plotkin, political analyst with a public radio station in Washington, says Barry seems to have little interest in actually running the city. “He came back in ’94 more as a personal statement than a political one,” says Plotkin. “He’s not much interested in governing any more. He just wants to be mayor. This is his world; this is what he feeds on.” For now, though, Barry can do little but watch as others wrestle with the woes of America’s troubled capital. □