For D.C., The Worst of Times

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

John Willoughby

MOST OF THE African Americans I meet in D.C. are aware that this is a city with a tradition, history and unique culture. Many of the whites who are in, or who are desperately trying to attach themse1ves to, the professional and policy-making circles of Washington are only dimly cognizant of the local traditions and structures in which they operate.

This ignorance is a paradoxical expression of economic power. Most white professionals need only concern themselves with housing prices and property taxes. Their lives are relatively secure. For decades now, Montgomery County, Maryland, and Fairfax County, Virginia have been two of the most affluent economic regions in the world.

To most U.S. citizens nowadays, the District of Columbia is the equivalent of murder city “Public interest” stones on impoverished, crick-infested households; brutal slayings of Black male teenagers by other Black male teenagers; AIDS-infected infants lying in hospitals for months on end make Washington seem like Chicago might have been during the Prohibition era—“murder city.” And, finally, the recent arrest of Mayor Marion Barry in a sting operation has seemed to seal Washington’s reputation as a city of corruption and illicit licentiousness.

I grew up in Wheaton, Maryland, a nondescript sub-nib ten miles north of the city. Washington was just as foreign to me then as it is now to most of those who live in the suburbs.

Some things have changed. In the sixties, because of the woefully inadequate suburban bus line, my parents normally drove me to baseball games. We kept to the affluent areas of town, only occasionally venturing east of Sixteenth Street, that great tree-lined, church-lined road that flows northward from the White House symbolically dividing European Americans from African Americans.

Now, twenty-two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. I live one block off Sixteenth Street in an area that was largely Black in the ’60s, but which now has been uneasily integrated through gentrification. The neighborhood rests on the western, “white” side of the city.

It is a seductive journalistic temptation to contrast this wealth and affluence surrounding the city with the poverty and squalor inside it. But such a simplistic comparison reproduces the stereotypes that the photographs of the 1968 uprising communicate: April 1968, the aftermath of the uprisings which followed Dr. King’s assassination. Panicked white commuters jam the city’s arteries, while Black “looters” run by with TV sets and furniture. This was the story my father told me about the “riots.”

Contrary to standard images, part of Washington is in fact a comfortable city. The per capita income of the District of Columbia is relatively high: $21,667 in 1988 (the national figure is $16,444). The unemployment rate is approximately 5%, quite low for an urban center.

These figures partly result from the circumstance that the 28% of the city’s population that is white is, by and large, exceptionally affluent (The median household income in 86% white, Ward 3 was $37,700 in 1986.) But even that is too simple. During most of the twentieth century, Washington has always had relatively large and stable Black working and middle classes. (Ward 4, the second richest ward in the District, had a 1986 median household income of $24,000 and is 97% Black.)

Howard University, the nation’s most prestigious Black university, has served as an intellectual reference point for a local intelligentsia. Washington had its own “Harlem renaissance” in the early twentieth century and has long served as a home for elite and radical representatives of diverse African American interests This intellectual ferment still exists and finds its expression at political forums held at Howard University and the University of District of Columbia, in some religious institutions, in progressive radio stations, in the popular and elite art of Washington, and even in some of the innovative social programs of local government.

The diverse images of the nation’s capital are nearly all racially charged. Indeed, the history and present economic reality of the district will not allow us to ignore the reality of racism. But it would be a mistake to think only in racial terms, since racial division in some cases mirrors and in other cases obscures class division. Moreover, neither race nor class can explain the very different life experiences of men and women in Washington, D.C., or the pervasive alienation of youth.

“America’s Last Colony”?

It is, of course, not true to claim that the District of Columbia is America’s last colony. Puerto Rico remains a powerful reminder of U.S. imperial influence in the Caribbean; American Samoa and Guam remain firmly under the control of American military interests; and the Native American reservations scattered throughout the fifty states of the union look uncomfortably like South African reserved territories.

Nevertheless, local residents know that this popular slogan, being pasted up around the city by Congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy, gets at a basic truth. Unlike any other areas that were part of the original U.S. territory in 1789, Washington, D.C. has no voting representation in Congress; the district government cannot pass a budget without congressional approval; every law and regulation of the D.C. government is subject to the veto of the federal legislative and executive branches. In this sense, Washington is subject to the control of an alien power. The city government does not belong, even in a formal sense, to its people.

The structures of disenfranchisement that Washingtonians now experience are described by the name “home rule.” Even if they have only conditionally granted power, the residents of the city can now elect a city council and mayor. Before the early 1970s, we could not even do this. Instead, the president appointed three commissioners who made all administrative decisions delegated to them by Congress. Before 1964, residents of the city could not even vote for president.

The fact that Washington has always been a largely African-American city has escaped no one who has seriously thought about the reasons for the absence of formal democratic representative institutions. In 1867, freed Black males began to enjoy the right to vote in the district. In 1872, this right was taken away and the three-commissioner system began.

Nearly all commentators now agree that the previous system served all Washington residents poorly. For decades, the district government was under the control of Southern Democrats who mainly used the district to demonstrate to the whites back home that they could deal with “the coloreds” in the nation’s capital. It is now clear that the same process continues, although without the same explicitly racist overtones. (The one exception to this is the constant and often successful interventions of Sen. Jesse Helms into District affairs.)

Now, federal government dictatorial rule takes the form of chronic fiscal shortfalls. The district government is legally barred from taxing all federally owned property, although it must provide utility and police services to the national government Moreover, Congress has prevented the district government from implementing a commuter tax on the income earned within the city, although this is a common fiscal practice for most large U.S. cities. All in all, the D.C. government estimates that it loses $1.4 billion of revenue every year because of these restrictions. In return, the U.S. government “magnanimously” grants a $431 million federal payment.

On the budgetary and policy-making side, local government is similarly restricted. Last year, Congress forced the City Council to amend a residency employment requirement, attempted to weaken a Gay and Lesbian Rights bill, barred the district government from enforcing a law that would prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people who are WV positive and prevented the district government from spending its own tax money to provide abortion services for poor women.

In the early 1970s, “responsible” District politicians thought that home rule, in combination with the passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing some congressional representation, would give district residents the rights to representation that every other U.S. citizen allegedly has. Only progressives like Julius Hobson, the founder of the D.C. Statehood Party and Benjamin Spock’s vice presidential running mate in 1972, insisted that this was not enough; that the United States government had to be forced to create the first, largely African-American state. Now, nearly all D.C. politicians agree that home rule has failed and that statehood is a necessary step for local self-determination. Attaining statehood is now a reference point for radical and mainstream politics in the district.

West of the Park and East of the River

The relatively unified desire for statehood masks deep social divisions. We have already mentioned the white-Black cleavage. This is quite real in terms of income and residential location. But there is a racist characterization of this division that justifiably annoys many radicals. Often, newspaper and television reports portray wealthy, Ward Three whites as living in an enclave within a largely Black city. Anyone not familiar with Washington might imagine bathed-wire fences or a nervous no man’s land protecting embattled whites from the African barbarians. In fact, Ward Three is largely separated from the rest of the city by Rock Creek Park, and it is possible to exit into the “safe” white suburbs of Chevy Chase, Maryland, or McLean, Virginia, without ever crossing into a Black neighborhood.

A more serious exploration of racism and class division in Washington rests on an analysis of the district metropolitan area economy. The most obvious feature of this area is its lack of industry. Washington has always relied on the federal government for its economic sustenance. In 1988, the United States employed 218,000 of the 673,000 people working within D.C.’s boundaries. The next major employer was the district government itself. The local government then paid the salaries of 53,000 people, approximately 8% of the local population residing within the district. Most indications are that this percentage has grown over the past year and a half.

There is a growing private sector Printing facilities abound; private membership organizations have their national headquarters in the district; and on the outskirts of the metropolitan area the economy is becoming increasingly dominated by small high-tech firms and corporate headquarters of pant monopoly capitalist enterprises, such as Mobil Oil in Fairfax County, Virginia, or the Marriott Corporation in Montgomery County Maryland. In any event, employment is overwhelmingly white and pink collar, and wages are higher than those in most of the rest of the nation. (Average public sector wages in 1987 were $32,000, and average private sector wages were $26,000. The comparable national figures were $22,000 and $20,000.)

The existence of a large number of secure jobs, however, accentuates the difference between well-paid and badly paid workers. Amidst this army of professionals is another army of secretaries, cleaning workers, messengers retail clerks and restaurant laborers, and it takes no great social analyst to predict that a large majority of these workers are Black.

There are, however, two complicating factors in this story. One is the increasing number of Salvadoran refugees; 30,000 now live in the district, and they compete vigorously for the lowest-paid jobs in the city. The use of contract-labor firms by universities, hotels and the federal government has accelerated the displacement of Blacks from cleaning and restaurant jobs.

The other complicating factor is the gender division of occupations. The racial segregation of the labor market is complemented by a gender divide. Most men, Black or white, simply do not enter clerical occupations. This has profound implications for understanding male and female divisions among African Americans. The high young-male dropout rate in Washington high schools suggests that male youths are less likely to see the need for obtaining a diploma. Men are less likely to be welcomed in jobs that require such accreditation.

Away from the labor market, we can observe the spatial reproduction of these divisions within the working population. We have already mentioned one great divide: that symbolized by Rock Creek Park and Sixteenth Street “West of the Park” is a code word for white affluence. The other division is symbolized by the Anacostia Rivet in Washington, “East of the River” or Anacostia” denotes the poverty, “social disorganization,” and misery of the alleged Black “underclass.”

There is some reality to these designations. Wards 7 and 8, the two political districts that rest completely on the east side of the river, are the only two sectors in which median income lies below $20,000 and the share of households whose income falls below the poverty line is greater than 20%. In Ward 8, over one-fifth of rental housing is subsidized in some way, and more than 45% of all ADC (Aid for Dependent Children) recipients within the district reside in Wards 7 or &

It is also in Wards 7 and 8 that a disproportionate share of the male teen murders takes place. It is in Anacostia that the infant mortality is worst “Homicide and legal intervention” as a cause of death in Washington has risen from 23.7 per 100,000 of the population in 1985 to 33.4 per 10000 in 1987. The figure today is undoubtedly higher. The infant mortality rate is now the highest in the nation. After some decline between 1980 and 1985, there were 23.2 infant deaths per 1,000 births in 1988. Once again, all reports indicate that the 1989 figure was even higher.

At the same time, it is hard for the outsider (or even most Washington residents, many of whom have never crossed the river) to imagine the amazing beauty of this area, with its extraordinary hilltop views of the Potomac, the Capitol building and the monuments. Some more affluent African Americans have noticed this and constructed suburban neighborhoods within these wards. (Frederick Douglass lived in a mansion at the top of a great Anacostia hill.) In fact, Marion Barry is a loyal ml-dent of Ward 7, and professionals, church ministers and small business people, by and large, control the political life of these wards.

Social life is not disorganized, but it does reflect the disenfranchisement that is the normal lot of all poor people in this country. In Anacostia, an analysis of social life purely in terms of racial categories is clearly inadequate. Nearly all the residents are Black (over 90%), the political leaders are Black, and some of the economic resources are also owned by Blacks. Nevertheless, many of the people in the community feel the political system to be irrelevant. Voting rates in Ward 7 and 8 are considerably lower than in the rest of the city.

The Marion Barry Phenomenon

When Marion Barry became mayor in 1978, he became the first executive leader of the city since the Reconstruction period who did not have direct ties to the federal government establishment (The first elected mayor, Walter Washington, had been appointed one of the three commissioners of Washington by Lyndon Johnson during the late 1960s.) Because of this, Barry was a relative outsider.

He came to Washington during the 1960s and used his civil-rights movement ties to form an organization called “Free DC” with Stokely Carmichael and other radical activists. (Barry had been a prominent SNCC leader, particularly in his home state of Mississippi.) Barry’s first attempt to establish effective local roots occurred when he joined a grassroots organization called Pride. This group had been founded by Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield, a resident of an Anacostia public-housing project called Kennilworth Courts. Pride combined social uplift with demands for better city services. Its focus was primarily on rehabilitating young men who were in and out of the D.C. prison system.

The demands for a cleaner city and decent housing were basic and potent Soon Pride began to receive federal money to operate programs that would provide ex-offenders with remedial education and job training. Barry played an instrumental role in the transformation of this organization from grassroots/activist to grassroots/bureaucratic. Eventually, Pride became Pride, Inc.; Rufus Mayfield, the original founder left the organization; and Pride became an important contractor in the management of public- housing projects. In the late seventies, Marion Barry’s former wife was imprisoned for stealing funds that had been designated for Clifton Terraces, one of the largest low-income housing projects in the city. Pride, Inc. collapsed, but by this time, Marion Barry was the mayor.

The first campaign for mayor tells a lot about the type of political city Washington is. Barry was a peculiar sort of anti-establishment candidate. Local African American ministers were suspicious of any new city administration that might disrupt traditional patronage ties between the D.C. government and the churches. On the other hand, the Washington Post saw Barry as a fresh new candidate who could direct the city in a more modern way. This meant, more than anything focusing on downtown redevelopment.

Finally, Black and white progressives saw the hi-hire mayor as one of their own. His most enthusiastic support in the first election came from a network of housing and anti-poverty activists. (His most visible campaign slogan was “Take the Boards Off “—a reference to the large number of abandoned public housing units dotted throughout the poor sections of the city) Barry also received the crucial endorsement of Gay Democratic clubs. Because Barry was running against two candidates who split the Black establishment vote, he won the 1978 Democratic primary and became mayor.

It would be too tedious to review every crucial event of district politics during the twelve-year reign of Mayor Barry. It is more useful, rather, to highlight three features of local D.C. government during the 1980s that allowed Marion Barry to develop a potent and seemingly unconquerable political base:

1. Real-Estate boom: Mayor Barry was lucky enough to become Mayor at the beginning of an extraordinary real-estate boom in Washington. His administration participated actively in the reconstruction of the downtown area by building a modem convention center and providing zoning abatements and reduced assessments for downtown office developers. Office and hotel space nearly doubled between 1980 and 1988. Barry became a champion of development and made sure that the District government would distribute a relatively high percentage of its contracts to minority-owned business.

2. Solidifying Union-Church Ties: Mayor Barry faced a severe fiscal crisis when he took office in 1978. The previous administration of Walter Washington had accumulated huge numbers of unfunded obligations. In order to maintain stable credit links to Wall Street, Barry had to reorganize city finances as well.

The result was a more sophisticated development of the patronage networks important to most American cities. Barry worked hard to forestall personnel cuts; he continued the city’s practice of funding church programs that provided social services to poorer D.C. residents. Barry’s political reputation rose in those working-class areas of the city where he had been weak. At the same time, ambitious plans “to take off the boards” and to provide health programs for the impoverished atrophied. After all, poor people do not vote.

As a result, a capitalist/trade union/church minister network of supporters organized through the Democratic Party took shape in Washington. During most of the 1980s, the new political machine appeared unbeatable, and The City Paper, one of the gadfly newspapers in D.C., began to call Marion Barry “mayor for life.”

3. The Toleration of Corruption: Washington, D.C. has no local, politically appointed legal officer. The presidentially appointed district attorney serves as a local and federal “crime fighter” Since the early 1980s, this office has investigated the district government intensively. In a dear effort to catch the mayor himself in some illegal act. This series of investigations by white, Republican district attorneys has done more to polarize D.0 politics racially than anything else.

The DA’s efforts, up until now, have only been partially successful. The most successful catch came early on when Ivanhoe Donaldson, a former SNCC activist and Barry’s major political confidant, was imprisoned for stealing from the city’s welfare funds. The courts have also indicted other lower-level officials for engaging in kickback schemes.

Nevertheless, the scale of theft was certainly within the norm of American political life, and the Mayor’s political position remained secure until the late 1980s. Marion Barry’s early activities in Pride had already demonstrated his considerable talent for constructing tributary bureaucracies that absorbed grassroots discontent and that, not coincidentally, consolidated his own personal power The downtown office boom, the complex network of alliances that became less and less dependent on the many social activists in the city, the persistence of serious, but rather ordinary, political corruption could have continued indefinitely.

The Fall of Marion Barry

American urban life is becoming more barbaric every year There is misery on the streets compounded by exploding murder rates and deepening health crises. These are impressions that most of us share, and the data, in the case of Washington, confirm them. We have already discussed the rise in both the “homicide and legal intervention” death and infant mortality rates. To this should be added the number of times that emergency rooms of D.C. hospitals uncover evidence of drug use in its incoming patients. Between 1984 and 1988, the number of “mentions’ rose from approximately 4,000 to around 13,000, and the relative position of cocaine increased from 14% to 27% of all those who were carrying some drug in their blood.

Such social catastrophes would strain the revenues of any local government The Barry administration faced added contradictions because the citizens of the District of Columbia overwhelmingly voted for an initiative that committed the city to provide abed for every homeless person in need. From 1984 to 1988 this figure more than tripled, from 732,000 to 724,000 shelter-nights. In addition, the murder wave placed the city under pressure to construct more prison space and hire more police officers, while public-health advocates and increasingly well-organized parents groups intensified demands for more health and education funding.

In what will probably be one of its last acts, the Barry administration heavily increased its funding for police and education, while basically freezing everything else. This budget may never become law because residents in affluent Ward 3 have effectively organized to limit property-tax payments. Nevertheless, the budget represents a shrewd, but probably futile, attempt to consolidate ties with district workers and those voting Black professional and working-class citizens who are concerned about education and crime-control issues.

The strategy might have worked, but the embattled mayor has evidently succumbed to the “lure” of cocaine and thereby destroyed his personal patronage machine. Without his well-publicized cocaine problems and without his boastful displays of compulsive sexuality, there is little doubt that Barry would still be obtaining significant establishment support within Washington.

Another way to put this is that local Washington political life is moribund. Politicians labor under outrageously undemocratic political structures, but they are unable to mobilize citizens for any change in the district’s colonial status. Progressive groups are numerous, but the local ones have long since decided to focus on single issues such as housing, AIDS or education in order to cut special deals with local political leaders. Symptomatic of this balkanization of grassroots groups is the reaction of the major winners in the latest budgetary battles. Parents United for Better Schools is mobilizing to prevent the large budget increase granted to them from being eaten up by public health or housing demands.

In addition, the presence of the national government entices many on the left to focus on more dramatic national and foreign policy issues, rather than community politics. There is no reason why activists cannot be both national and local, and indeed, most of us in Washington wear many more than two political hats throughout the year On the other hand, there is no locally oriented political institution that would permit activists to integrate their interests within one political structure. Instead, we in D.C. bounce from demonstration to demonstration and meeting to meeting without a collective strategic purpose.

The one institution which may still have the potential to provide such a unifying focus is the D.C. Statehood Party. This electoral organization must be one of the oldest third parties in the country. The D.C. charter provides two City Council seats for members of minority parties or independents. Consequently, the Statehood Party has had one member on the thirteen-member City Council throughout most of its history.

Unfortunately, this position has not been consistently utilized to forcefully advocate alternative perspectives. Radicals belong to the party, and some are very active in it On the other hand, the participation in the City Council has created a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality, and the Party’s relationship to the dominant Democratic Party is not particularly confrontational.

This moderating development represents a far cry from the early days of the Statehood Party, when the founder Julius Hobson patrolled affluent Georgetown with caged rats in order to protest health and housing conditions in the rest of Washington. Hobson was the only politician in Washington who was able to construct a racially integrated network of radical advocates. (His organization of the D.C. Statehood Party was certainly not flawless. Many I have talked to have mentioned his authoritarian and mercurial character.)

The Statehood Party is more white than Black Its activists are more likely to stress themes of good government rather than racial and class justice. The Party has only experimented hesitantly with the “new social movements, such as African American nationalism, feminism, gay and lesbian rights and Green politics, movements that might provide more successful, integrative frameworks for activism.

All these failings are important. Nevertheless, it is also important to note that the Statehood Party has also lost the issue that made it distinctly radical. Until the failure of the D.C. Voting Rights amendment most established politicians opposed the unrealistic statehood demands of the Hobson left By the late 1970s, however, it became apparent that most of the state legislatures in the country preferred the disenfranchisement of a territory with a largely Black population to the extension of the normal rights of representative democracy.

At that point;, the leaders of the Democratic Party concluded that it would be easier to attain statehood than pass a constitutional amendment Becoming a state requires the drafting of a state constitution, a majority vote in Congress and a presidential signature. it is not difficult to foresee the circumstances that might lead a Democratic Congress and president to grant the statehood demand.

Jesse Jackson has dearly understood the potential. He has now made Washington, D.C., his home political base and founded a local Rainbow office to focus exclusively on attaining statehood. Though Jackson has now made dear that he will not run for mayor of Washington, it is likely that he will wait and hope to become one of the state of New Columbia’s first senators.

In the meantime, the local disintegration of Washington continues, and Jackson appears only moderately interested in articulating progressive perspectives on housing, AIDS, crime or education. It is hard to avoid the cynical conclusion that statehood has become a framework for attaining political office, rather than an organizing framework that could mobilize the politically disenfranchised of Washington.

A Hopeful Conclusion

Washington, D.C. is embedded in idiosyncratic political and economic structures. Yet much in the district is typical of large urban centers of the South, East and industrial Midwest. The social contradictions and political paralysis of Washington roughly match political and economic conditions in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland or Detroit.

In all these cities, there are undoubtedly signs of political potential, but Washington may possess some of the most fertile conditions for a new growth of left activism. The Marion Barry affair has left many African American residents with a deep felling of disappointment and grievance. The grievance against the federal government and the Washington Post is certainly racially charged. Many clearly believe that Barry was set up, that an equivalent white politician would not have received such attention, that the crack epidemic in the city results from either intentional neglect or malignant purpose.

On the other hand, the failures of leadership, whatever the pressures of the white power structure, have left many searching for new political alternatives. Washington has a multitude of political activists who have, in the past, successfully fought for rent control, rights for the homeless, unionization of hotel and restaurant workers, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and many other issues. Discovering the right organizational frameworks, autonomous from the Democratic Party, remains the key task for activists in the district.

Given the unique conditions and the progressive traditions of local politics, it still may be that an effective alternative to the tributary politics of the Democratic machine will be built in the District of Columbia before such a structure emerges in other territories of the United States.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

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