WASHINGTON — With the jury's indecisive verdict of one conviction, one acquittal and a mistrial on 12 other counts, the case of the United States vs. Marion S. Barry Jr. has returned to the streets where the conflicting symbols of race pride, moral strength and historical memory must be resolved by "family" members--black people in Washington and elsewhere who, until now, refused to debate their differences aloud. Perhaps the specter of federal prosecutors imposing judgment unified the community in its silence. But with that gone, the mayor has decided to run for the City Council, forcing us to re-examine him. This is the hardest time.
Barry called it "the time for healing," as he spoke to nearly 1,000 celebrating supporters at the Frank Reeves Municipal Building on the day after the verdict. The event, like the popular T-shirt proclaiming "It's a black thing--you wouldn't understand," was a family affair, a holiday. There were little girls in braids trailing middle-aged women. The Fruit of Islam conducted voter registration for Louis Farrakhan's local candidates. There were teen-agers in Day-Glo and men in kente-cloth and dreadlocks. Even the cops were black. People roamed throughout the six-story atrium as if they were at home. The few whites found corners to stand in. It was a black thing.
Barry emerged like a king before the crowd and wrapped himself in the mantle of blackness. He spoke of the church and redemption, his upbringing in Mississippi, his civil-rights leadership and challenge to white government and white media.
"A lot of us pained," Barry said. "Nobody was any more pained than me. Nobody suffered any more disappointment and shame than me."
That pain is an ubiquitous element of life for blacks in many U.S. cities, but especially Washington--known to many as a "colony" of the federal government. In a city that is nearly 75% black, all paths to commerce--cherished jobs on the Hill, the huge law offices, the elite halls of journalism--are overwhelmingly white. You can ride the space-aged Metro to work, stroll, shop and eat out without seeing more than a handful of black men in business suits.
But because the city's service class is so undeniably black, you cannot mistake its distinct African-American rhythm. It fills the streets, pre-adolescent black man-children have taken to drumming together on upended garbage pails throughout the business areas. It is an ominous, beautiful and persistent rhythm--rising up past the army of white collars and resonating against the skyscrapers.
"The United States government must examine its conduct to see if it's been in keeping with its responsibility," the mayor went on.
These words recall for many blacks the most unforgivable parts of our historical memory. The FBI, the Justice Department, the CIA--all fused in a collective consciousness--have a history of persecuting black leadership. Martin Luther King Jr. was the subject of years of investigation. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a target until his expulsion from Congress. The Black Panthers were literally wiped out by government forces.
Thus many undecided blacks chose sides when the Vista Hotel tape was televised. Humiliated, embarrassed, we sat through 83 minutes of a middle-aged man's pathetic mumblings in search of sex. We watched in horror following the bust when only the mayor could be viewed sitting with handcuffs behind him, in visible pain and confusion, as three headless, white FBI agents stood over him, hands in their pockets, asking him pithy questions to pass the time. They might have been urinating on him.
Meanwhile, Congress went on, as always, deciding the fate of Washington's funding for essential services. The district would be the laboratory for drug czar William J. Bennett's fabled assault on drugs. A statehood vote would go wanting, but Washington could have a non-voting "shadow" senator. The Barry case itself would consume thousands, if not millions, of dollars, while the U.S. Attorney's office would dismiss 62 counts of first-degree murder.
And still you can hear the rhythm of those man-children drumming up the streets.
"I realized that I had spent so much time trying to do so much for many of you I had ignored major parts of myself," the mayor continued. "I ask you to forgive me for any hurt I may have caused."
This is the hard part for any family left as the final arbiter of a kinsman's fate. During his 10 years as Washington mayor, Barry has been credited with reducing unemployment in certain periods, rebuilding the downtown and enacting enlightened policies affecting gay rights, homelessness, abortion and victims of AIDS. Many--especially the poor--believe that, at his peak and given the inherent powerlessness of the office, Barry's leadership was unparalleled.