Friday, December 5, 2014

The Legacy of Marion Barry (III)

Last night, we went to the Wilson Building, where Marion Barry was lying in state for 24 hours. We waited in line outside, while protesters against police violence and the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner moved from the Wilson Building out into the city. Inside the main entrance of the Wilson Building, the casket was covered with a kente cloth and an enormous number of red roses. It was a moving occasion.
The Republic
As I discussed before, Marion Barry has several legacies, as someone who supported gentrifying development even while providing jobs to, and greatly identifying with, low-income residents, as well as someone who supported DC's cooperative movement. Here I talk about the work that his administrations accomplished in reducing poverty in DC.

In January, a Washington Post poll found that most residents in Washington, DC, think that the city officials have little control over gentrification, displacement, and inequality: “Washingtonians often see that boom benefiting different groups. What many residents do agree on is that the city’s mayor and other elected officials have little ability to ensure that the new prosperity will lift all boats.” (1)  While this poll may reveal a lack of confidence in the current political leaders in DC, it also reflects a feeling that these processes are inevitable or even that trying to stop them might lead to worse results. Sociologists, however, have found that political leaders have a dramatic effect on poverty and wealth. In his comparison of rich democracies, the amazing sociologist David Brady (2009) found that governments greatly determine one's risk of poverty and shape the experience of poverty. Political actors in the formal political arena determine the nature of the welfare state and thus the nature of poverty in each country. In his book, he found, “Poverty is lower and equality is more likely to be established where welfare states are generous, Leftist collective political actors are in power, and latent coalitions for egalitarianism exert influence, and all of this is institutionalized in the formal political arena” (p. 6). Poverty and inequality not only vary across wealthy democratic countries but also vary within countries like the United States.

During the 100 years of Congressional control over DC, Congressional politicians elected by people far away from DC ran the DC government. The chairmen of the Congressional DC committees included segregationist politicians such as Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, and, until 1972, Representative John McMillan of South Carolina. In 1974, DC Home Rule allowed DC residents to vote on who would run the city and, as a result, they could finally shape the city. When Barry became Mayor in 1979, he brought leftist collective political actors into DC government, actors allied with broad coalitions advocating egalitarianism and the implementation of social policies that would specifically help low-income residents.

During his first, second, and third terms as Mayor from 1979 to 1991, Marion Barry realized programs that reduced poverty in DC, including his well-known jobs programs. These programs specifically targeted low-income residents, seeking to provide these residents new opportunities. In his autobiography, Barry wrote:
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)
The approach of the Barry administrations during the 1980s reduced poverty in DC.

In the graph below, we can see that the percentage of people living in poverty decreased both in the US and DC during the 1960s. This large decline can be explained by the federal War on Poverty and the myriad of policies that helped low-income people escape poverty. However, while poverty continued to decline in the US, DC poverty increased in the 1970s.


Then, after Marion Barry become Mayor in 1979, poverty in DC decreased -- from 18.6% to 16.9% -- through the 1980s, while poverty increased in the US -- 12.4% to 13.1% (see chart to the right). The unique decline of poverty in DC suggests that District policies aimed at helping low-income residents made a difference.

In the 1990s, however, the DC poverty rate increased to 20.2%, even while poverty decreased in the US as a whole. From 1995 to 1999, Marion Barry had his fourth term as Mayor. Within months of his inauguration, the Congress imposed the Control Board. The five-person Control Board could override decisions by the Mayor and the city council and implemented a broad reorganization of the District government.(2)  The Control Board implemented significant budget cuts and undermined Home Rule. During the period of the Control Board, poverty increased in DC.

While the Barry's administrations will continue to be debated, the numbers on poverty show that poverty reduction is one of the legacies of Marion Barry's 1980s administrations. Marion Barry's early administrations demonstrate that political leaders can make a difference in reducing poverty and creating a new, more inclusive city. And other kinds of leaders can make policies that increase poverty and create an exclusive city.


(1) Marc Fisher, “In the District, redevelopment exposes old fault lines,” Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2014, p. A1, A16.
(2) The Control Board’s official name was the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. For the entire text of the bill that created the Control Board: H.R.1345, District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act of 1995 (Enrolled as Agreed to or Passed by Both House and Senate), http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c104:h.r.1345.enr: 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Legacy of Marion Barry (II)

On Saturday, the District will continue to commemorate the legacy of Marion Barry at the Convention Center starting at 11am (the entire schedule is here). Soon after this event, another aspect of his legacy will be commemorated, his legacy as DC's Co-op Mayor. Barry's cooperative legacy will be discussed at the DC Solidarity Economy Summit scheduled on Saturday, December 6th from 3:00-7:00pm at the Impact HUB DC, 419 7th St., NW, Second Floor. Everyone is invited, and tickets are free through Eventbrite or by contacting Allison Basile, 443-562-5856.

As discussed by the organizers, the Summit is "the first ever gathering of organizers dedicated to building a movement to create a new and more humane economy—a solidarity economy—in the District of Columbia." Those involved in the summit are part of "a movement afoot to unite groups working for economic justice, and to benefit the low and moderate income residents left out of DC's luxury-inspired development."

The wonderful Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo has written about Barry's cooperative legacy ("Marion Barry: DC's Co-op Mayor"), which uses parts of, and goes far beyond, a paper I wrote about DC's long cooperative history. Here is what she said:

Marion Barry: DC's Co-op Mayor
by Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo

Early in his D.C. political career, the late Mayor Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr. set out to make the District of Columbia a model city for cooperatives.

Soon after he started his first mayoral term in 1979, Barry remarked at a February 1980 conference:
In Washington, as in every other major urban center in America, we have entire sections of our city which have been abandoned and neglected by the mainstream of economic activity…Although private enterprise has neglected or abandoned some areas of our city, we must not give up the fight. It is time for the citizens of these areas themselves to become owners and providers of the basic services needed for daily life. The cooperative movement is just what is needed to provide this opportunity.[1]
The Poor People’s Development Foundation reported at the time that Barry “has indicated that he will use his good offices to establish Washington, D.C. as [a] ‘demonstration’ city for cooperative development.”

Early into his term, Barry established an "Energy Office" whose job was to help residents set up energy cooperatives, especially around heating oil, according to Johanna Bockman, cooperative scholar at George Mason University. The Energy Office also supported food cooperatives around urban gardening.

A year later, on June 13, 1980 Barry issued a Mayor's Order establishing a Commission for Cooperative Economic Development. The Co-op Commission’s first head, a national advocate for cooperatives by the name of Cornelius “Cornbread” Givens, said the group was “the very first commission of this kind anywhere in the nation”... To read further, click here.

Join the exciting discussions at the DC Solidarity Economy Summit this Saturday 3-7pm (Impact HUB DC, 419 7th St., NW, Second Floor). Everyone is invited, and tickets are free (through Eventbrite or by contacting Allison Basile, 443-562-5856).

For a list of the huge number of cooperatives in DC, visit Coop DC's Coop Directory.

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: jobrien3910@verizon.net

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