Does it take a riot for America to do the right thing?


May 10, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- After the rocks and bottles flew, after the Molotov cocktails ignited with a whoosh and lighted the night, after the broken glass crunched under foot and the tear gas wafted on the soft spring breezes, the mood in the nation's capital was not one of fear.

It was one of smugness.

The rioting in a neighborhood with a large Hispanic population had lasted but two nights and nobody had been killed.

The damage was awful, but it was limited in scope. The new mayor and her team -- which to a large extent make up the city's black power structure -- congratulated themselves on a job well done.

In white Washington, the smugness was of a different kind. Some there seemed to be saying: "Hey, you can't blame this one on us."

Washington has probably had worse publicity in the last couple of years than any city in America, with the possible exception of New York, for which bad publicity is a cottage industry.

But that negative publicity disguises the fact that for many, Washington is a city of quiet, tree-lined streets, large, comfortable homes and relative safety.

"Last year, when the Washington homicide rate was getting so much national publicity, friends would call me and ask me how I could live here," Paul Y., a Northwest Washington resident, who asked not to be identified, said. "I told them that in my neighborhood, there had been one homicide in two years. Where I live in Washington, it's like living in Beverly Hills."

There are almost no ethnic neighborhoods in Washington. The Mount Pleasant neighborhood where the riot broke out this week is about a third white, a third black and just under a third Hispanic. Washington has no Polish neighborhood or Italian neighborhood or Irish neighborhood or Jewish neighborhood.

It has always been a city of black and white. It has always been a city of the haves and have-nots -- of both races. (The mansions on Washington's black Gold Coast are indistinguishable from the mansions in white Northwest Washington.)

Over the years, however, as middle-class and working-class blacks have left the city for the suburbs, Hispanics have moved into the city in increasing numbers.

In the last 10 years, while the black population of Washington has dropped by about 10 percent, the Hispanic population has )) increased by about 85 percent.

Hispanics have no political clout, however. They are only about 5 percent of the total population and have no representatives on the City Council. They have no high-profile spokesmen. They are simply not a factor in most discussions on the city's present or future.

And so when the rioting broke out after a police officer shot an Hispanic man she was trying to arrest for public drinking, the result was confusion.

Was this just a spasm of meaningless violence? Or was there something deeper here?

Some in the Hispanic community said that the Washington police were insensitive to their culture, that they did not realize that public drinking was accepted practice in many Latin countries or that an Hispanic man might have a problem being arrested by a woman.

But as Washington citizens watched their TVs and saw over and over again the videotape of looters (teen-agers of all races) breaking into a chicken stand and stealing armfuls of corn on the cob, they said to themselves: "This isn't about issues; this is about being a criminal."

In white Washington, there was an additional reaction. "A bunch of us were talking about it after the first day of the rioting," Paul Y. said. "You could call it smugness on our part or 'perverse reassurance.' We felt this showed rioting comes from a lack of communication or cultural differences and not always from some horrible racism. We [whites] got blamed for the rioting in the '60s. But how are you going to blame us this time?"

Along with the tear gas, there was a certain whiff of deja vu in the air.

Sharon Pratt Dixon, the mayor of Washington, grew up on the city's Gold Coast, the daughter of a prominent judge. The riot caught her by surprise. And though she reacted quickly, for some it was not quick enough.

"She is bright, professional, cool and aloof," one professional city hall watcher said of her. "She has no street smarts. And nobody around her has street smarts. They are very smart, but they are not the type of people who know what is going on at street level."

(Baltimoreans will instantly notice a certain similarity between this assessment and some assessments of Kurt Schmoke. It seems that black politicians cannot rise high without some wishing to remind them that they have risen too high.)

And the statements of those in the black power structure of this city were often indistinguishable from the statements of those in the white power structure in other cities decades ago.

Yes, the Hispanic community has legitimate grievances, the mayor said, but the violence must stop before those grievances can be corrected.

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