Unpleasant in Mount Pleasant

May 08, 1991

Who or what is to blame for the violence that has rocked the primarily Hispanic neighborhood of Mount Pleasant in the District of Columbia? There are no easy answers. City officials, the police and the rioters themselves all bear some responsibility in the two-day confrontation between the D.C. police department and hordes of angry youths who threw rocks and bottles and set cars ablaze after an officer shot a man during an arrest.

Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon admits the city has been out of touch with Washington's growing Hispanic community. Yet the wanton destruction wreaked by rioters was hardly a prudent response to real or perceived wrongs.

The drama began Sunday evening when two rookie police officers on foot patrol approached three men who appeared to be drinking in public and ordered them to stop. At least two of the men, police say, became unruly and were arrested. More officers were called, a scuffle ensued and a man who was not fully handcuffed allegedly pulled a knife and lunged at a female officer who then shot him. Rumors then spread. In one account, the suspect was partially handcuffed prior to being shot. In another version, he was unarmed and handcuffed after the shooting.

These rumors sparked a riot unrivaled by any ethnic or racial violence in Washington since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. We suspect the underlying causes are the same -- an overwhelming distrust of the law-enforcement machinery and feelings of helplessness and rage at perceived police misconduct.

In complaints evocative of those voiced by blacks decades ago, Hispanic residents of the area say police unfairly harass them on the streets, ticket their cars and ignore distress calls to their community. "This explosion has been brewing in the community for a long time. If you live here, you see a lot of abuse by police," said Bea Rodriguez, a Mount Pleasant resident.

Sunday's police response was plainly no answer. Nor was the mindless destruction rioters inflicted on their own neighborhood shops. Yet the severity of these events suggest fundamental community-police problems rooted in misunderstanding and distrust exacerbated by language and cultural barriers.

A deeply disturbed Mayor Dixon has imposed a curfew and the police have begun an internal investigation. Any lasting solution must delve into the relationship of the police department and city officials to a growing Hispanic community in Washington. Restoring law and order is not a final resolution to this violent outburst, merely a starting point for meaningful discussion.

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