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.