Barry and His City: Crack in the Washington Culture

By Morley, Jefferson | The Nation, February 19, 1990 | Go to article overview

Barry and His City: Crack in the Washington Culture


Morley, Jefferson, The Nation


On the day that the Federal Bureau of Investigation stung Marion Barry in a Washington hotel room, Keith Jackson was convicted of three counts of selling crack cocaine. Jackson was the young black man lured to Lafayette Park across from the White House one day last summer by agents of the executive branch. On September 5, 1989, President Bush delivered a nationally televised speech declaring war on drugs and held up a bag of crack allegedly bought from Jackson. Jackson was found not guilty on the Lafayette Park charge, but the President got his public relations score nonetheless - and Jackson went to prison, where he will remain with no possibility of parole until the year 2001.

The arrest of Barry, Washington's Mayor for the past eleven years, can be seen as part of the state-sponsored theatrical roadshow known as The War on Drugs. Act I was Bush holding up crack and condemning Jackson. Act II was Bush chasing down Manuel Noriega in Panama. Act III was U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens corralling Mayor Barry with the help of one of the Mayor's old flames. The dramatic theme that runs through this play is strikingly consistent: Keith Jackson, Manuel Noriega and Marion Barry, whatever their transgressions, are all dark-skinned symbols of "the enemy" in the war on drugs.

But the Barry affair also goes beyond a. me act in the drug-war melodrama. The Mayor's personal problem-substance abused at the interaction of three larger issues in Washington and the United States: the so-called crisis of the black male, the direction of black politics and the problem of drug prohibition. Barry, like so many black men in Washington, apparently had succumbed to crack. Crack, in turn, is at the heart of what some call, with excessive sociological detachment, "the new male-centered morbidity." Certainly the statistics are as familiar as they are grim. By 1987 more than half of the 400-plus homicides in Washington were classified as drug related. Seventy-five percent of the victims and 86 percent of the assailants were black males.

Most young blacks, of course, are not part of this criminal subculture. "A lot of young people are looking for ways to involve themselves in society,' says one black media professional. "But it's a very difficult thing to do in Washington." The Washington chapter of the Nation of Islam tried to do something. The black nationalist group, whose leader is the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, conducted a successful drive to rid Mayfair Mansions, a local apartment complex, of petty drug entrepreneurs and their violence. The key to their success was black pride, including a self-conscious distancing from the white community. When it came to drugs the Nation of Islam was a much better role model than Marion Barry.

But such a black-led effort was not considered credible by the city's influential white minority. When the City Council passed a resolution praising the Nation of Islam for its work at Mayfair Mansions, much of the news media and white political leadership reacted with anger. They criticized Farrakhan's controversial remarks about Jews - remarks that had nothing to do with either Washington or drugs. In its war on drugs the executive branch is not interested in recruits who pledge allegiance to a black man, however effective his program may be. In the 1990s black youths are unlikely to enlist in antidrug efforts under such circumstances.

But the alienation of young black males from the white man's war on drugs is only the most visible and dangerous symptom of black alienation from the political system. This larger alienation is due in no small part to the exhaustion of the civil rights leadership of the 1960s. The career of Marion Barry is very much a case in point.

Barry came to District of Columbia politics as a veteran of the civil rights movement. He was elected a school board member in 1971 and chair of the City Council in 1975. He arrived as a power broker that year when the incumbent Mayor, Walter Washington, considered a franchise tax to close the budget deficit. …

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