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Most residents of Washington, DC have long since stopped being amused by the antics of former "Mayor For Life" and current City Councilmember Marion Barry. There's nothing that makes me cringe more when I get the almost inevitable question from a visitor as "Marion Barry, isn't he your Mayor?". And it goes beyond simple embarrassment; our long fought and way overdue struggle to achieve a modicum of political rights is inevitably hampered with the response; "Statehood for DC? Why, then Marion Barry would be a Senator!" A fair, if frustrating and unlikely point, although I should point out even if he was, he'd hardly be alone in embarrassing that august institution.
But it does me no good to fight it. While once again my city is embarrassed as yet more disgusting revelations poor forth about Mr. Barry, I've decided to take a little stroll back through his reign in DC. Pretending the residents of Ward 8 will rise up and rid us of him has been fruitless, hoping he will go away fails to work, so let's just admit the man has a certain cachet and let's take a look back through the many places he's graced us in the last three decades.
We should start out by noting that Barry didn't appear out of thin air. He wasn't always the long running joke he is today, and we should remember the conditions that allowed him to achieve power and ultimately hold political office. Washington, DC in the early seventies was just beginning to work itself out after centuries of racial tension, with the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. King still fresh in everyone's mind. The two very separate, and not at all equal, worlds of white and black Washington were making the very first outreaches towards each other, amidst a legacy of mistrust and outright hate. The old older was dead, but the way forward was hardly clear.
Into this chaotic brew stepped a personable civil rights leader, former chemistry teacher, and Eagle Scout; Marion Shepilov Berry, Jr. Avowedly anti-establishment, he had added the middle name in college as a homage to Soviet propagandist Dmtiri Shepilov. He moved to DC as head of the local Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and got off to a strong start by organizing a boycott of DC Transit, Washington's bus system, in protest of a 5 cent fare increase. He would soon quit the SNCC, which was becoming increasingly militant, as opportunities started to open within city government. Barry was elected to the DC School Board, the only form of local democracy permitted the residents of Washington in 1971, and, when Home Rule changed that in 1974, he won an at-large seat on the new City Council. Slowly but steadily he moved up the ladder of DC politics, working more within the system and attacking it less from outside as time went on.
While serving as a Council-member, Marion Barry would be vaulted into nationwide prominence by a chaotic and deadly terrorist attack. A group of American-born Muslims, styling themselves as Hanalfi, seized three buildings in Washington, DC: the headquarters of B'nai B'rith on Rhode Island Avenue; the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Ave; and DC's City Hall (now known as the Wilson Building) on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the chaos of the attack, Marion Barry was hit with a ricocheted shotgun pellet in the chest, although he was relatively lucky with a superficial wound. WHUR-FM reporter Maurice Williams was killed in the attack (the fifth floor press room has been renamed for him) and DC Protective Service Police Officer Mark Cantrell died a few days later of a heart attack. The subsequent publicity would be enough for Barry to win the Mayoral election over incumbent Walter Washington.
Mayor Barry was initially of the darling of Georgetown. Liberal whites were attracted to his fiery personality and he actively courted the gay vote by helping to pass the 1978 DC Human Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual identity. They were willing to overlook his demands that white owned businesses leave after the '68 riots, his 1970 call for residents to shoot Police Officers executing no-knock warrants, or his urging of African Americans to boycott the celebrations surrounding the Apollo 11 mission. And he got off to a good start, breaking the logjam of a housing development project on Bates Street NW, 15 blocks north of the Capitol and seeming to genuinely attempt to address the concerns of residents. His Summer Youth Employment Program is still fondly remembered by many of the thousands of youths now grown who were provided jobs. He even would occasionally put his Masters in Chemistry to use, substitute teaching at Fletcher-Johnston Educational Center in Capitol Heights.
However, cracks were starting to appear in the facade. On December 22, 1981, Barry attended a Christmas party at "This is It?", a downtown strip club, and allegations soon surfaced that he had either used cocaine, or witnessed others do the same. At the time, a police investigation revealed nothing, which in turn sparked an inquiry by the Justice Department about the inability of DC's police to properly investigate the Mayor. Years later, the owner of the club, Hassan H. Mohammadi, would testify in court that Barry had, in fact, used cocaine here.
Marion Barry's antics would become more and more public throughout the 1980s as his cocaine (and occasionally marijuana) use became an increasingly open secret. Join us tomorrow when they all come to a crashing halt (and you know how that'll happen).