Riot in Washington

May 08, 1991

It's probably safe to say that the riots in the largely Hispanic Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., this week caught the city's politicians, police and affluent middle class as much by surprise as did the black riots in that city a generation ago. And yet the immediate cause of the disturbances, as described by those willing to talk to reporters on the scene, had a depressingly familiar ring.

"This explosion has been brewing for a long time," said Mount Pleasant resident Bea Rodgriguez as young men nearby overturned cars, broke store windows and set trash cans afire. "If you live here, you see a lot of abuse by police."

The violence began Sunday evening, sparked by the shooting of a Hispanic man by a rookie police officer. It resumed late Monday, prompting the city's new mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon, to declare a state of emergency and impose a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew in the affected areas of the city. Previously, the mayor and her cabinet had tried to defuse the crisis by meeting with Hispanic leaders, who expressed a long list of grievances related to police misconduct and the city's benign neglect of their community.

Yet it is very likely most Washingtonians would have ignored the Hispanic community's legitimate complaints without the riots. Like blacks a generation ago, Hispanics, many of them Central American immigrants, are virtually invisible people in a city that normally deigns to notice them only in the role of domestic workers, servants and other menials.

Twenty years ago it was the city's white establishment that dismissed the depth of black anger and alienation until it erupted in violence. It is fraught with irony that blacks today, having finally won political control of the city, seem equally astonished when Hispanics vent their anger and frustration the same way.

We trust that having been thus forcibly reminded of how much remains to be done to bind the diverse ethnic and racial threads that make up the nation's capital into a cohesive community, the Dixon administration now will have wisdom and skill enough to begin the healing process.

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