During the 1980s and 90s, it was easy to laugh at Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry, especially after his arrest in 1990 for possession of crack cocaine. Only those who understood the District of Columbia’s unfair status in America could laugh with Marion Barry.
Even after his arrest in a room in DC’s Vista Hotel for crack possession — in what amounted to an FBI sting through entrapment — Barry commanded the respect of his constituents. That is why they elected him as their mayor after his release from prison. As far as the FBI sting is concerned, Barry can clearly be heard on the FBI surveillance video asking Rasheeda Moore, who lured him into the room in what Barry hoped would be an enjoyable tryst, how to use the crack pipe. For those like me, whose favorite joke at the time was — “Did you hear Marion Barry was moving to Philadelphia? — He heard about the crack in the Liberty Bell” — Barry’s comment about the pipe did not sound like something a habitual crack user would utter.
Marion Barry was the son of Mississippi sharecroppers who toiled in the cotton fields of the Delta town of Itta Bena. At the age of 5, he moved with his mother and two sisters to Memphis where Barry held many jobs to make enough money to work his way through college and then to the very “southern” city of Washington, DC, where he became the district’s most dynamic civil rights activist during the 60s. For the poorest of DC’s poor, Barry never forgot his own humble past, whether as an activist or as mayor.
But the Washington media, which was no fan of Barry even before the arrest, climbed all over him. They ate crow when Barry, Washington’s first elected mayor under the new federal home rule law, was swept back into city hall in 1994. Barry earlier served on the DC city council representing his beloved Ward 8 after being released from prison in 1992. The Republican-led House of Representatives, dominated by politicians like Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, placed a federal Control Board over DC to monitor its spending. Gingrich and his right-wing pals were trying to reimpose direct rule on DC and they punished America’s capital city for re-electing Barry.
While the media lampooned Barry for his arrest while trying to pursue more what was wearing a dress and less what was in a pipe, they forgot that in 1977, Barry was shot in the chest just above his heart by Hanafi Muslim terrorists who stormed the District building. At the time of his shooting, Barry was serving on the DC council. While Senator Dianne Feinstein will always tell a sycophantic and echo-chamber media how she cradled the head of San Francisco mayor George Moscone after he was shot in the San Francisco City Hall in 1978, hardly anyone in the media is reporting on Barry’s near-brush with death at the hands of a terrorist’s bullet. For the media it is and always was about the crack pipe and Barry’s very truthful statement, “The bitch set me up.” She most certainly did set him up. Rasheeda Moore was nothing more than a rank FBI confidential informant who was the one with the habit.
Who could blame Barry for engaging in an extramarital affair? There were strong rumors at the time that his wife, Effi Barry, had a close relationship with a well-known DC news anchor woman. There is little doubt that Barry knew more about the relationship than mere rumors.
Barry understood where his successor after his arrest, Sharon Pratt Kelly, was leading Washington. Kelly, like the other mayors who succeeded Barry after his fourth term ended in 1999, had all cut deals with unscrupulous developers to turn Washington, DC into a playground for the wealthy. There was a huge land grab of downtown property and soon, traditionally African-American neighborhoods, such as the Howard University-Shaw neighborhood, were being encroached upon by rising high-priced condominiums. In the last census, the effects of this land grab became obvious when DC’s African-American population fell below 50 percent for the first time in decades.
Barry, who stepped down as mayor in 1999, understood what was becoming of Washington, a city he moved to in 1965 when the actual “mayor” of Washington was not the appointed Walter Washington, but usually some Democratic southern segregationist redneck who served as chairman of the committee that apportioned funds for the district. Barry fought for self-rule for the District and upon receiving that — although still limited by congressional “colonial overseer” interference — argued for DC statehood. As Barry saw more and more of Washington falling under the control of the land developers, he decided to come out of retirement and landed a seat on the DC Council, again representing Ward 8, in 2005.
Barry was clearly not welcome by the new breed of DC politicians who were owned and operated by the developers. The developers knew that since a Republican could never be elected in what is a solidly Democratic city, they would find light-skinned black, in effect, “Democrats in Name Only” or DINOs, to carry out their grand plans for a city of high-rise condos, expensive restaurants, chi-chi supermarkets, and eventually, casinos. A series of these DINO mayors, the bow-tie-wearing Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty, and Vincent Gray, continued to sell out DC to the highest bidders. Standing in the way on the council was the old stalwart, the last mayor who actually cared about representing the people of DC, Marion Barry.
The city did everything to shut down Barry, from allowing the feds to continue to conduct surveillance of Barry to “catch” him in some misdemeanor, or censuring him for accepting what amounted to peanuts in cash donations compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in developers’ money that was lining the pockets of Williams, Fenty, and Gray.
Barry wasn’t popular everywhere in DC. His base was east of Rock Creek Park, where the city’s African-American population was predominant. On the west side of Rock Creek Park, Barry was reviled. This is Georgetown and northwest Washington, where homes start at an average of one million dollars and rapidly increase from there. The denizens of “Northwest” represented for Barry the same ilk that was trying to re-develop the rest of DC for the rich and famous.
It isn’t surprising that most of the nastier epitaphs and epithets being written about Barry are in magazines like the Washingtonian and the always-revolting neocon political porn conveyor, the National Review. Dog-eared copies of the magazines are the preferred reading material for Washington’s elite who peruse the pages while sitting in the waiting rooms of French poodle groomers, psychiatrists’ offices, and financial advisers in “Northwest.”
Barry also incurred the wrath of DC’s politically-powerful gay and lesbian lobby. Always a supporter of gay and lesbian rights, Barry broke with his old supporters over the issue of gay marriage in DC. Barry’s return to ward politics and his relationship with the African-American pastors who command such a strong following at the local level in Washington convinced Barry that their voices had to be represented on the DC council. The gays and lesbians believed that Barry was a traitor to their cause and much of the quiet rejoicing over his death emanates from a community that has shown that it can be very spiteful when it believes it has been crossed.
I never met Barry although a close friend advised me that if I ever wanted the details of any DC scandal, Barry was the person to see. The word was that the man who was pejoratively called “Mayor for Life” (this was a racist media barb first thrown at Barry at the time “President for Life” Idi Amin was making news in Uganda) knew where every political skeleton was buried in Washington. I regret that I never made an appointment to see the mayor and listen to some of his political gossip, which was said to be detailed and quite juicy.
I regret participating in the Barry joke cavalcade in the 80s and early 90s. At the time, I was a suburban commuter who worked in DC, not someone for whom all parts of DC became a well-traveled news beat. It is now quite clear that what Barry feared, DC becoming a rich man’s city, is coming true. New condos are even changing the name of the historically black Howard-Shaw neighborhood to “NOMA,” which stands for “North of Massachusetts Avenue.” Marion Barry saw this and could only use his lonely perch on the city council to complain about it.
It’s best to leave with this comment from Marion Barry, a man who will be known for what he tried to do for DC instead of the non-issue of what his own personal foibles gave DC in the way of jokes and gossip:
“I’ve had over forty years of public years. Fifty years. And what the media tends to do — if you put it in chapter terms: 100 chapters of my life, long life — the media tends to focus on just two chapters. The 98 chapters are gone, by the wayside.”