The Common Good
December 1994-January 1995

Marion Barry's Politics of Redemption

by Bob Hulteen | December 1994-January 1995

In 1967, two veteran Washington, D.C.

In 1967, two veteran Washington, D.C. police officers confronted a slender African-American man crossing a street against the light-and helped launch a political career the durability of which astounds even seasoned political observers.

Officers Thomas Tague and Albert Catalano, patrolling D.C.'s Upper Shaw neighborhood, a center of black art and commerce in the 1940s and '50s, seized the lanky man for "disrespecting the uniform" and charged him with resisting arrest. In a press conference upon his release, the man-Marion Barry-vowed that the city's unrepresentative police force and the federal government's control of the District could no longer be tolerated.

In Barry's mind, such experiences allow him to identify himself with the movement for D.C. self-determination. He has come to fancy himself a Moses who came to bring his people into the promised land of true independence and sovereignty.

Barry came to D.C. in 1967, just ahead of many other civil rights workers. An organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Barry learned the ways of the streets even though he was not a product of them. Like other civil rights workers, he tried to use D.C. as a test case in the development of economic power derived from recent political gains. Barry saw the opportunity to combine the needs of the city with his own political self-interest.

As an outsider, Barry realized that to be electable his base of support needed to include both the powerful black church and the monied white community, as well as poverty-stricken black neighborhoods. As his coalition coalesced, Barry increasingly believed that his fortunes were synonymous with those of the city. Years later this belief justified his use of the District's treasury as his own checking account and his willingness to risk his power and influence by doing drugs and chasing wo-men. His inevitable downfall was captured on the oft-seen hotel-room video as he shared coke with a former lover.

With this, many declared him politically dead. The national leaders who found Barry's confidence and audacity so distasteful thought they had buried him for good. But their celebratory glee only pushed Barry-and the citizens of the District-to work toward a day when he would again be at the throne.

AS THE NEWLY elected mayor of D.C., Barry talks about the politics of redemption. Of course, according to his own accounts, he means his recovery from drug addiction. He was down, but now he's back. He promises that the city which so reflects his own story can come back too.

But Barry, a three-term mayor already, should have been running against his record as much as his individual shortcomings. He had no intention of seeking redemption for his policies that sabotaged the lives of many District residents. Barry attempted to unravel D.C.'s rent control laws, offered tax abatements to developers who built in an already office-glutted city, and made land deals with real estate magnates who became millionaires, bankrupting the city in the process. For this legacy Marion Barry offers no repentance.

Most of us have room in our hearts to forgive the penitent sinner who acknowledges shortcomings and makes amends. But by confessing only personal flaws, Barry's redemption stands shallow.

White control of the District-historically through federally appointed mayors and bureaucrats and now through other instruments of the federal government-has given the city's black majority plenty of reasons to resent the system. No other city in the country must tolerate the embarrassing ritual of congressional line-item review of its budget or a federally appointed judiciary instead of a local court system. The often-patronizing approach taken toward the people of D.C. ensures a politics of resentment toward the federal government.

In the face of this, is anyone surprised by the defiance of the voter? This antagonism is not limited to the underclass. Even black professionals find refuge in Barry's optimism. Leonardo Knight, a 37-year-old lawyer in D.C., told The Washington Post , "I voted for Barry to give the powers-that-be the finger, to let them know that there is a palpable black rage even among the middle class. Marion Barry is unbowed even in the face of all that he has been through. He is the slave that was beaten by the slave master and didn't shed a tear."

Many employed under early Barry administrations were in common cause for the first time in a long time with the urban poor. Those dependent on the government for jobs were united with those dependent on the government for services. For those at the bottom rung of this ladder, the question of the politics of redemption is whether it can translate into more humane policies.

Many pundits have trumpeted Barry's triumph as an end to the movement for D.C. statehood. But the opposite should be the case: When people have a true stake in something, they rise to the occasion, and being granted statehood would provide the opportunity to do just that. This recognition by the rest of the country would ensure that those who identify a city's future with their own will not build careers that endure flaws both personal and political.

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