Monday, November 24, 2014

The Legacy of Marion Barry

On Friday evening, the Annual DC Historical Studies Conference hosted "The Legacy of Marion Barry" roundtable discussion. It was a fascinating discussion, but there is so much more to say about his legacy. This is especially true, given that Marion Barry passed away this morning.

University of Maryland, Baltimore Country, history professor G. Derek Musgrove and I organized the roundtable, with the support of the chair of the conference organizing committee Matthew Gilmore. The roundtable brought together authors (and one filmmaker) who had written or are in the process of writing about Marion Barry:
  • Steven Diner, Professor of History, Rutgers - Newark, and author of “Washington, The Black Majority: Race and Politics in the Nation’s Capital,” in Snowbelt Cities: Metropolitan Politics in the Northeast and Midwest since World War II. 1990. 
  • Dana Flor, filmmaker, “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry.”
  • Maurice Jackson, Professor of History, Georgetown University. Working on a social, political and cultural history of African-Americans in Washington (1700s until the present).
  • Harry Jaffe, journalist, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. 1994. 
  • Jonathan Agronsky, journalist, author of Marion Barry: The Politics of Race.
  • G. Derek Musgrove, Moderator and Professor of History, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The speakers offered many amusing stories. At the same time, the history professors Maurice Jackson and Steven Diner worked hard to pull the discussion away from its persistent focus on the personal life of Barry and his character flaws. Jackson stated that he did not consider Barry the savior of African Americans, nor did he consider him a pariah. Barry was part of much broader social and political movements that shaped the city we have today. Barry did not end poverty in DC, but, Diner emphasized, others mayors across the country have not eradicated poverty either. Like all cities in the US, DC suffered from the very American and very global urban crisis of the 1970s through 1990s. Jackson and Diner sought to capture the world created in DC during the 1970s in which Barry was one of many important actors. 

Jackson provided a progressive analysis of Barry that recognizes the complicated class nature of Barry's legacy:
  1. While white residents may condemn Barry, Barry has been a long-time ally of white gentrification. He worked to gentrify downtown DC, supported the revitalization movement, voted against rent control, and provided benefits to both white and black elites. Jackson said that both white and black elites were responsible for Barry remaining in office and for the urban crisis. [Jackson later gave this further clarification: both black and white elites financially did well during the Barry years but that the Reagan years and federal budget cuts played a major role in the urban crisis of the 1990s; I would say that the elites could also be seen as having a role in the urban crisis.]
  2. At the very same time, Barry has been one of the only leading politicians that speaks for the poor in DC, not in a condescending way or from the viewpoint of charities, but as an equal. Barry represents hope for, and provided needed jobs and services to, low-income residents in particular. In a previous post, I discussed a Washington Post article about long-time supporters of Barry, including a Richard Butler: 
"But even if Skyland gets a Walmart, Richard Butler won’t have the mayor he wants most. Butler, 50, learned to cook while he was locked up. He’s now doing well as a line cook in one of the city’s new restaurants. Have any of the recent mayors made his life better? 'All I want is Marion Barry,' said Butler, who is African American and a permanent resident of Barrytown. 'He’s the only one who ever looked out for the people, always said the right things to us.'"
Agronsky similarly noted that many low-income residents see Barry as the "Black Rocky," "someone who keeps on fighting until the end."

Flor observed that "who Marion Barry is is who you are." For example, if you or a family member gained a job through Barry's summer youth jobs program or a job in the DC government, then you would likely feel much gratitude toward Barry. Jaffe noted that Barry opened the city government to African American employees and should be given credit for that. An audience member, who had worked for Barry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, discussed how people sought to work for Barry because he was a "visionary" with "a genuine spirit of public service." After years of Congress' mismanagement of the city, Barry got the city's budget in order and began building a new kind of city, "a modern city." Jaffe  recognized Barry as "the best politician in DC" with a deep understanding of the political structure with which he had to contend to build this new city. In his autobiography, Barry writes:
We spent a lot of time fighting against folks who were not affected by poverty, unemployment, homelessness, inequality or the citywide deficiencies in education. As the mayor and the leader of the local government, I saw that we could use budgets and more city revenue and resources to try and create more opportunities for those who did not have opportunities, while still managing a major city to do well. That was my job as the mayor, not to be satisfied with the status quo, but to build a much better Washington for everyone. (p. 158)
And, yes, there is much more to say about his legacy.

Rest in Peace, Marion Barry. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Vote Yes on #71: Legalization and Mass Incarceration in DC

ACLU report "The War on Marijuana in Black and White."
DC is second after Iowa for having with the 
largest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates per 100,000.

Basically, Ballot Initiative #71 seeks to legalize marijuana possession for personal use by those 21 years of age or older. Here is some clarification from the DC Cannabis Campaign:
  • Possession of marijuana is NOT LEGAL in Washington, DC.
  • The decriminalization of marijuana possession legislation passed the DC City Council on March 4, 2014 but will not become law until it has been reviewed by Congress for 60 legislative days (late-July).
  • Medical marijuana IS LEGAL in Washington, DC, but for only registered patients with a limited number of approved medical conditions: AIDS/HIV, cancer, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis. [This is a reprint of a previous post so this section is out of date.]
Ballot Initiative #71 is only about possession and growing for personal use. There is nothing in it about selling or taxing marijuana. The Ballot Initiative will allow DC residents 21 and older to:
  • Possess up to two ounces of marijuana outside one’s home
  • Grow up to 3 mature marijuana plants inside one’s home
  • Allows growers to keep all the marijuana grown at home
  • Does not allow anyone to sell marijuana (DC rules prevent this question in the ballot)
Why do I support Initiative #71? I am working on this campaign because the current laws about possession of marijuana are implemented in a racist manner. According to last year's ACLU report "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," DC is second after Iowa for having with the largest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates per 100,000:

According to a report by The Washington City Paper91% of those arrested in DC on marijuana charges were African American: 
According to arrest numbers obtained from the Metropolitan Police Department and crunched by a statistician, between 2005 and 2011, D.C. cops filed 30,126 marijuana offense charges. A staggering number of those—27,560, or 91 percent—were filed against African-Americans. Only 2,097 were filed against whites.(WCP, April 22, 2013)
And marijuana use is basically equal among African Americans and whites:
Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites. In 2010, 14% of Blacks and 12% of whites reported using marijuana in the past year; in 2001, the figure was 10% of whites and 9% of Blacks. In every year from 2001 to 2010, more whites than Blacks between the ages of 18 and 25 reported using marijuana in the previous year. In 2010, 34% of whites and 27% of Blacks reported having last used marijuana more than one year ago — a constant trend over the past decade. In the same year, 59% of Blacks and 54% of whites reported having never used marijuana. Each year over the past decade more Blacks than whites reported that they had never used marijuana. (ACLU, "The War on Marijuana," p. 21)
The marijuana laws are allowing the wasteful and racist mass incarceration of African Americans, as well as the generally wasteful mass incarceration of so many people. (See my previous posts on mass incarceration and debt and solitary confinement) Please vote yes on #71. You will find the initiative on the back of your ballot today. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

They do what they can get away with: DC Displacement of the Poor

As many of you know, there is much discussion about the future of the DC General homeless shelter. This morning, the Post's Petula Dvorak stated, "Developers are salivating over D.C. General. It's a huge property with plenty of potential. So there's no question that it will be shut down and sold. That part of the plan no one is worried about." Mayor Gray is rightly calling to rehouse those at the DC General shelter before closing it, but his plan is based on an unfounded belief that private apartment owners will now come forward and house the hundreds of families at DC General at rents far below market rates. Thus, in the interests of "salivating" developers, hundreds of homeless people are going to be displaced again? DC General is District property and could be renovated, maybe even employing homeless or near-homeless workers, if the District wanted to do so. However, developers and homeowners in the area are working hard for the "revitalization" of the DC General area, which they see as requiring the removal of their homeless neighbors. The deterioration of DC General is required as proof of the need for "revitalization."

Photo by Empower DC
A few weeks ago, I went to a great panel discussion, "Racism in the New DC," organized by Empower DC, which spoke to these issues from a very refreshing perspective. The speakers were three public housing residents working to maintain public housing and public schools in DC (Marlece Turner, D. Bell, and Shannon Smith), as well as Dr. Sabiyha Prince (the author of African Americans and Gentrification in Washington, DC), Ron Hampton (a former police officer and activist against police abuse), and Post columnist Courtland Milloy.

The main takeaway from the panel discussion was that institutional racism (not individual racist people but a racist system) works based on the idea that brown and black people do not deserve as good things as white people do. Improvements in the city are made for white people both because they often have more money and also because they are seen as deserving better things, like better schools and better services.

I asked the panel about a recent Post article that had said that, "Almost 10 years after the District vowed to assure low-income residents in four areas that they wouldn't be displaced if their neighborhoods were revitalized," the District decided that this was "overly optimistic." The District was considering a policy change to "no longer guarantee that residents have a right to stay in their neighborhoods, and the promise that existing public housing won't be demolished until a new building is constructed to replace it would be abandoned." Empower DC and others have been warning people about these false promises for some time.

So, I asked the panel, is this a new policy? or is this a statement of what the District was already doing? Courtland Milloy immediately said, "They do what they can get away with." He explained that, when District officials made these promises, they had to to make their redevelopment plans and the destruction of public housing palatable. Earlier, Milloy had stated that we need to acknowledge institutional racism and that these "revitalization" policies are in the interest of property owners and not in the interests of the homeless and other poor DC residents.

How can we change the situation in which "They do what they can get away with"? As a start, we might recognize that the journalist's statement "So there's no question that it [DC General] will be shut down and sold. That part of the plan no one is worried about" is not a statement of fact but rather a statement supported by those who are interested in this outcome and "can get away with" it. It is a political statement in the battle over space in the District. The next step would be to support a range of policies, including permanent public housing and permanent affordable housing in the District.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Introducing DC Public Housing Radio

I just started a new page, DC Public Housing Radio (you can see the tab above), as an attempt to document the vibrant musical life in DC public housing projects. I'm not tech savvy enough to make an online radio station, but I did make two YouTube playlists: "DC Public Housing Radio" or to the "DC Public Housing History." However, if anyone out their is already doing this kind of project or is planning to, let me know and I'll advertise what you are doing. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Be a Part of DC Historical Studies

The Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies is approaching, Nov. 20-23, 2014 at the Carnegie Library. The theme of this year's conference is "Making New Washingtons: Historical Consciousness in a Transforming City." The conference is always fascinating and so exciting. One particularly interesting event will be a roundtable on Marion Barry's new book:

Barry by the Book: A roundtable of authors who have examined Marion Barry's career
  • Jonathan I. Z. Agronsky, journalist, author of Marion Barry: The Politics of Race. 1991.
  • Jonetta Rose Barras, journalist, author of The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders. 1998.
  • Steven Diner, University Professor, Professor of History, Rutgers University; author of “Washington, The Black Majority: Race and Politics in the Nation’s Capital,” in Snowbelt Cities: Metropolitan Politics in the Northeast and Midwest Since World War II. 1990.
  • Dana Flor, filmmaker, “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry.” 
  • Maurice Jackson, Associate Professor of History and African-American Studies, Georgetown University.
  • Harry Jaffe, journalist, co-author of Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. 1994.
  • Moderator: Derek Musgrove, Assistant Professor of History, UM Baltimore County; author of Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America. 2012.

You can register now, so reserve your place at this exciting conference.

You can also take part in DC Historical Studies by volunteering at the conference. This is a great way to get to know the great organizers of the conference and to meet the many scholars involved with the conference.

Volunteers are needed to:
  • Prepare Conference packets and badges,
  • Register attendees and distribute packets and badges,
  • Host presenters, direct attendees,
  • Staff “Green Room” and Press Table,
  • Distribute and collect evaluation forms and any handouts,
  • Moderate sessions,
  • Assist and Time presenters, assure that room is prepared,
  • Work AVs (1), responsible for assuring that speakers have equipment and that they leave it there.
  • Support tour guides,
  • Man the “Movie Room”,
  • Attend one of 2 one-hour orientation sessions.
Contact: John O’Brien:

Looking forward to seeing you at the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies!

Friday, September 12, 2014

DC Gentrification Video

Last week, I gave the annual presidential address to the DC Sociological Society about gentrification in DC. You can view a video of my address below. I start with a bit of history about the DC Sociological Society, which has its own connections to gentrification in DC. I then define gentrification, show some historical trends and maps, and discuss four myths/narratives about gentrification.

The fabulous discussion afterwards covered a wide range of topics, but there were two that I found particularly interesting.

First, we talked about looking beyond the economic motivations behind gentrification to its political motivations. What are the political motivations behind gentrification? How is DC as a whole threatened by gentrification? As discussed in the talk, one former resident of the Arthur Capper public housing project told me: “It [Arthur Capper] was part of the District of Columbia…like a finger or an arm in the body of the District of Columbia…You just cannot destroy a community and expect the city to thrive and survive.” His comment was surprising to me at the time. What is the nature of this District he is talking about? How is it being destroyed?

Second, we talked about renters. Many amazing community organizers in DC are working to increase low-income home ownership, especially through limited-equity cooperatives. I argued that we should also work to support renters, including by maintaining and expanding public housing, because about 41% of DC residents are renters and those in low-income jobs can barely afford to pay rent, let alone to buy a place. What would have to change in DC and nationwide to create a good environment for renters, especially low- and very-low-income renters? How might we create a positive "renter nation"?

Thanks to the DC Sociological Society, our host Mason's Sociology and Anthropology Department, and the audience for an amazing discussion.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Update on My Gentrification Talk Today

The DCSS Presidential Address will take place in Founders Hall, Room 310 (same building, different room) on Thursday, Sept. 4th:

Johanna Bockman, DCSS President, Mason sociologist, DC Blogger
“Sociology in DC, Sociology of DC: Studying Gentrification”
Thursday, September 4, 2014
6:30pm reception, 7:00pm address
Mason’s Arlington Campus at Virginia Square Metro station
Founders Hall, Room 310 (see map below)
Hosted by Mason’s Sociology and Anthropology Department

The event is free and open to the public.

More info: