Friday, November 28, 2014

Thoughts on the Late Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry and His "Old School" Washington World

As a transplanted and now long-time Washingtonian, I would like to take this time to talk about Marion Barry, our most famous, occasionally infamous, and certainly historical figure. Barry died this past Sunday (Nov. 23, 2014).

The "Mayor-for-Life" of Washington, D.C., as he was often called even though he hadn't been Mayor since January 1999, died early last Sunday at United Medical Center in Southeast D.C., after going into cardiac arrest. He was 78.

Then D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy holds Marion Barry's hand in the air to celebrate the latter's victory in a D.C. school board election on Nov. 2, 1971. This was Barry's first D.C. office. The woman next to him is Mary M. Treadwell, the second of his four wives.

Fauntroy -- who was succeeded by Eleanor Holmes Norton in 1991 -- is still alive. He's 81.


Here is the lengthy Washington Post obituary and retrospective (link embedded): Marion Barry dies at 78; 4-term D.C. mayor was the most powerful local politician of his generation.

Blog Editor's Note: Most of the photos in this entry were taken from a photo gallery of 34 images that accompanied the article as a link but that I cannot now find. Thus, I don't have complete captions for all the photos, and I'm also uncertain of the date on at least one photo (noted below).

As for our local "paper of record," The Washington Post, it has had extensive coverage of Marion Barry's life and legacy. Unfortunately that legacy also included so much mismanagement, corruption, and years of venal "old school" D.C. politics.


Marion Barry recovering in the hospital in March 1977 following gunshot wounds he suffered in the bizarre 1977 Hanafi Siege at what is now known as the John A. Wilson Building (at the time, it was just the District Building).

The Hanafi were a breakaway sect from the Nation of Islam and they stormed the building in what became a 39-hour siege in which 149 hostages were taken and one man killed (a young radio reporter named Maurice Williams). Barry was shot in the chest -- almost in the heart.

That incident and his role in it made it very popular with D.C. residents and made it all the easier for him to win the mayoral race the following year.


That machine still exists in a somewhat modified form today today -- and, alas, is likely to keep right on buzzing around the well-intentioned but, I fear, clueless new Mayor-Elect Muriel Bowser (pictured left).

To be clear, I am NOT talking about his infamous crack smoking videotaped arrest seen 'round the world or the variety of personal foibles that got him in minor trouble later in life.

Honestly, I don't even care that much about that. I'm talking about the corrupted machine politics and ineffectual and severely dysfunctional local government over which he had total control for decades. The current yuppie boomtown gentrification of the city is happening pretty much independently of whatever the city government has done over the past quarter century.

Marion Barry on the night he was elected for the first time the Mayor of the District of Columbia, Nov. 8, 1978. That is his third wife, Effie Slaughter Barry, next to him. The late Effie is the mother of his only son.


Yet it was precisely that crack smoking incident that caused The Washington Post editorial page -- with its the oddly morally supercilious and even puritanical streak -- to turn on him. The Post saw his crack-smoking (much like Clinton's Monica dalliance) was unforgiveable but his efforts governing and improving the lot of a then-majority black and poor city -- regardless of how corrupt or suspect the means and no matter the record of failure to achieve success. My main point is that I think it was a sort of white liberal guilt among The Post's senior including the Graham family itself that allowed this happen.

Marion Barry holds his then-newborn son Marion Christopher in a picture dated June 18, 1980. Barry had no other children.


The Washington Post, in particular its combination editorial and op-ed pages, but also the newspaper overall and how it "framed" the news and world around it, is historically and foundationally the very font of the Washington Consensus's "self-evident" wisdom, values, preferences, and world-view, all of which in the present age can be summed up as Wall Street-friendly, working class-destroying neoliberal economics and neo-conservative imperialistic warmongering.

Yet one of the curious side features of the Washington Consensus -- which as an imperial courtier class has always focused on Big World Events with only passing interest in the local machinations within the imperial capital itself -- is how it has always strongly supported the economic and political enfranchisement of the D.C. area's African American population through muscular government policies and practices (whether Federal, state, and local including the D.C. Government itself) and in ways it long ago stopped supporting for the rest of the country and its working class (as it transitioned away from New Deal liberalism to its current neoliberal economics / neoconservative warmongering hybrid).

Mayor Barry accepts an $80,000 check from President Reagan at a White House event on July 20, 1983. The check was for a city youth program. (Again, I can't find the link to the photo gallery from which I got these pictures and instead I am going on memory.)


Those policies and practices have indeed been successful over the years. It is no coincidence that today there exists a large black middle and upper middle class -- centered in Prince George's County, Maryland -- that is every bit as affluent as its white counterparts in Montgomery County, Md., or Arlington Co., Va., and that has no real analog elsewhere in the country (or at least of which I am aware).

Yet The Post management and publishing family (now former) owner has always has an odd relationship with the city's poorer black population that has remained within the District of Columbia to this day.

Marion Barry is arrested and perp-walked for crack cocaine possession and other charges, January 19, 1990.

This whole "undercover sting" episode greatly annoys me: The FBI leadership actually believing it could nail Barry in such a spectacular fashion for smoking crack, thereby causing the city's black population to turn on Barry and as a result, "proving" some idiotic point about how racially blind and great is the American criminal justice system. It would do this, in theory, through some stellar "let's-prove-how-color-blind-is-the-system" show-trial of a towering and tragic black figure. Instead, it oh-so-predictably quickly backfires and degenerates into farce. It takes a special kind of stupid to believe this.

This is what happens when the FBI leadership spends too much time in a Washington Consensus dinner party / Washington Post editorial board mindset. All it did was ensure Barry would be elected mayor a fourth time. (Re. this picture, yes, I realize that Meg Greenfield was the editorial page editor in the 1980s and 1990s.)

And, no, I'm not saying Barry should have gone to jail for years and decades for his crack smoking. I'm saying that this particular effort to "get" him was as laughable as it was doomed and showed how tone deaf and clueless was (is) the FBI.

It was the same prosecutorial mindset that gave us the O.J. Simpson travesty way back when (though in that case, it was an effort to hold a "fair trial" using a certain set of jurors chosen precisely for their socioeconomic and racial characteristics).


Now I have to point out that there have been very influential black Washington Post journalists and pundits (typically they started out as journalists and segued into punditry and opinion writing as columnists) over the years who have been a major part of this dialogue including Colbert King, Eugene Robinson, Courtland Malloy, and Dorothy Gilliam, among others, serving as the direct interface between the mostly white Beltway courtier over-class elites and the city's black population. The Post management / ownership specifically cultivated such a group of journalists starting in the 1960s to have a bond with and connection to the city's black population (and I think that's just fine).

Left: Dorothy Gilliam in 2010. I actually had her as a seminar instructor for a single semester in Fall 2009 when I foolishly was in journalism graduate school -- a $50,000 waste. The course was held every Friday at The WaHoPo Building on 15th Street. It was a good seminar, as far as those things went.

(Now I don't mean to give short-shrift to the Washington City Paper, which I believe was the very source of the moniker "Mayor-for-Life" for Barry and covered him relentlessly and fearlessly. However, I'm focusing on The Post.)

Oh, and let's not forget Jonetta Rose Barras. She's the one whose 1998 book The Last of the Black Emperors explicitly likened Barry in the very title itself to an African despot. His death prompted her to write this amazing piece in The Post in which she wrote:

"So, I have come to bury Barry, not to continue any political packaging. The unvarnished truth is this: He squandered his potential and the public's trust. What's more, for many years it was mostly about him: his determination to dominate all facets of the District's political, civic and business life and to be heralded as the emperor, although in his final days, he was essentially clothesless and powerless."

All of them spent years talking and years about Marion Barry and urging him to do this or that thing their way, often being angry at him, but except for Barras, never forever turning on him. As alluded to above, the Washington City Paper also couldn't get enough of its Barry fix. (It was there that the term "Mayor-for-Life" might have even started. It was certainly prominently used.)

As for The Post, interestingly, D.C.'s black population -- especially its poorer working class ones -- never took much of an interest this "paper of record" and instead switched from the old Washington Star to the cartoonishly rightwing Washington Times since the latter appeared shortly after the former disappeared in the early 1980s.

That Times readership really never made much sense given the paper's flamboyantly rightwing Republican politics in an overwhelmingly Democratic city -- and merely confirmed (to me) that the issue was between The Post and the city's urban black poor. (Nowadays, of course, people don't much read print newspapers.)

However, I'm getting off topic since this entry is supposed to be about Marion Barry, not the Washington Consensus crowd.

Back to the story at hand ...

D.C.'s black population -- having become the overwhelming majority of the total D.C. population following massive white flight in the 1950s and 1960s, in particular to Montgomery Co., Maryland -- assumed self-rule and political power. This was formalized after Congress enacted D.C. home rule in December 1973.

Marion Barry gestures to supporters outside his trial in Washington, D.C., July 3, 1990.


Barry leveraged his own role in the Civil Rights movement and took an active role in the aftermath of the April 1968 Martin Luther King assassination riots that destroyed significant sections of inner D.C. including along the 14th Street corridor into Columbia Heights. Barry gradually found his way onto the D.C. Council in the wake of home rule and then was elected mayor in November 1978.

It was the 1980s that were Barry's heyday. It was an era of a certain kind of political machine politics in D.C., and much of it quite corrupt and not pretty. Yet Washington, D.C., in the 1980s was also its own unique place (Cool "Disco" Dan, anyone??).

Marion Barry upon release from prison in Johnstown (actually, Loretto), Pa., on April 23, 1992 following a six month sentence for the single guilty verdict -- one count of possession -- among the multiple charges of perjury and possession.


The crack epidemic that started in the later 1980s really decimated parts of the city and threw things in reverse, and the rumors of drug use swirling around Barry by that time along with general incompetence, mismanagement, and kleptocracy started to take their toll -- although he kept winning reelection and had a certain omnipotence about him.

UPDATED 4:01AM 12/6/2014: OK, I am updating this entry right now with what I think is a highly topically relevant column by a person I otherwise despise: WaHoPo columnist Richard Cohen. The shitty and vapid Cohen has some history with Barry that, I think, is newsworthy and worth posting in this entry. Cohen himself is a piece of shit who has been around for about a million years too long -- but you get that once you have a WaHoPo sinecure. OK, end of update.

Then came the spectacular videotaped crack smoking and arrest on January 18, 1990. It was at the old Vista (now Westin) Hotel by Thomas Circle and featured an FBI sting operation and a woman named Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore.

Marion Barry hugging his son Marion Christopher on May 21, 1998.

The younger Barry had a drug conviction in 2011 and was sentenced to 18 months probation.


Again, this is when The Post editorial board turned on him -- although his fall from power would be a short-lived one with a mostly botched trial and brief stint in prison that achieved the exact opposite outcome of what the FBI and the white prosecutors wanted, which was the political ruination of Marion Barry. You don't do that in a majority black city suffering a massive drug and crime epidemic and think the outcome is going to be anything but what it was (ditto the O.J. Simpson trial farce).

Marion Barry at Howard University Hospital for a kidney transplant provided by a donor (pictured next to him), Feb. 27, 2009.


No, I'm not saying that Barry should have gone to jail for years. Rather, I'm saying the way it played out ensured he would return triumphantly to politics -- and in the very year of the 1994 GOP mega-tsunami (though that is more a historical coincidence than anything else).

And so he was elected Mayor for a fourth and final time, except it (predictably) turned out to be a a wildly unsuccessful single term owing to the city's collapsing finances (even as gentrification was already underway). It was in 1997 that Congress and President Clinton stripped him of virtually all power when in it set up the Control Board put on the scene a man who would become his successor: Anthony Williams.

Gone were all of Mayor-for-Life Barry's trappings of power -- the vast fleets of limos, the large security details, the entourage that was somewhere between that of a U.S. president and an African kleptocrat.

David Catania talks directly to Marion Barry at the D.C. Council Meeting on May 6, 2009 on the day it voted to legal same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia. Barry was the sole no vote.

As an aside, the combative and slightly nutty Catania loathed Barry. Oh, and the guy at the far end is Tommy Wells, the ultimate cheese-doodle of an urban do-gooding clueless and ineffectual liberal. He's the counterpoint to the remaining members -- best embodied in Jack Evans (blond older guy at left): Socially liberal but utterly compromised by [fill-in-the-blank-name] Big Developer in whose pocket they reside.

Blog Editor's Note: I'm actually a bit uncertain on the date of this photo as I can't find the original Post link that contained the caption.


Barry would eventually find his way back to the D.C. Council starting in Jan. 2005 in a strange and unlikely second act, representing Ward 8 until his death -- slowly becoming an increasingly anachronistic figure with occasional legal and ethical troubles in various areas not to mention health problems that included a kidney transplant in 2009 as a result of diabetes.

To the people of Ward 8 including Anacostia, though, he was their guy, representing them in a time of seismic social and demographic change with a frenzy of gentrification in the past decade that fundamentally changed the city's composition (now less than half black and still dropping).

Marion Barry on the day the D.C. Council voted 12-0 to censure him on March 2, 2010 following the release of a Special Counsel report regarding a conflict-of-interest and financial benefit from a contract he awarded to his then-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. Barry was stripped of all his committee assignments and leadership roles.


Needless to say, Barry in his later years was no friend to the city's gay white population. Indeed, his vote against same sex marriage legalization in 2009 is one of the defining events of his later career.  This was ironic given that back in the 1980s during the height of the national AIDS epidemic, he was a good friend to the gay community.

Marion Barry with supporters outside Martin Luther King Elementary School, Washington, D.C., on the 2012 primary day, April 3, 2012.


In all these ways, Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr. -- the 3rd of 10 children born in 1936 to a Mississippi sharecropper who rose to such prominence, influence, notoriety, and ultimately legend -- was always and always will be "Old School" D.C. He must always be remembered in that place and time.

Rest in peace, Marion Barry.


On a personal note, I saw Barry only two times in all my years in D.C. I regret now that I didn't actually go up to him and say hello when I saw him seated by myself in the Chesapeake Room on H Street this past May.

I knew I should have said hello to him at the time. Let that be a lesson to you, Gentle Reader: When you see a legendary historical figure such as Barry was sitting by himself, you go up to her or him and politely introduce yourself, in this case, "Hello, Mr. Mayor, my name is Richard, and I am a longtime resident of the District of Columbia, and I just wanted to introduce myself to you."

Now I'll never have a chance.


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