Posted on November 23, 2019

Marion Barry: Kinshasa on the Potomac

Jared Taylor, American Renaissance, January 1992

Marion Barry: The Politics of Race, Jonathan Agronsky, British American Publishing, 1991, 380 pp.

Marion Barry, mayor of Washington DC, was the nightmare of urban America. For 12 years, he let the city fester and decline, while he chased skirts, sniffed cocaine, and surrounded himself with toadies and peculators. Flagrant incompetence and corruption might have turned voters against him, except that it attracted the criticism of whites. Blacks closed ranks in support of one of their own, especially after an FBI team videotaped the mayor smoking crack cocaine and a white prosecutor put him on trial. A largely black jury very nearly let Mr. Barry go free, but he was finally bounced from office and is now in jail.

Marion Barry The Politics of Race by Jonathan Agronsky

Jonathan Agronsky, a reporter for the Voice of America, has written an account of Marion Barry’s rise from Mississippi obscurity and his fall from the heights of power. Mr. Agronsky fails to draw any larger conclusions from his story — he treats every unhappy detail as if it were unprecedented and unparalleled — but he has collected enough facts for a thoughtful reader to draw his own conclusions.

Marion Barry grew up in the South, and developed an early racial consciousness that was fueled by a strong dislike for whites. When he worked as a waiter at an American Legion post, he spat in the food that he served to white customers — just as Jesse Jackson did when he was a youngster. He started in “civil rights” work as a college student, and was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Mr. Barry moved to Washington DC and adopted the 1960s activist regalia of shades, dashiki, and afro — often with a comb stuck in it. After years as a small-scale street agitator, his career took off in 1967, when he managed to shake loose a big grant from Lyndon Johnson’s Labor Secretary, Barry Wirtz, to train “street dudes” for useful jobs.

In its first three years of existence, Mr. Barry’s organization, Youth Pride, Inc., got an astonishing $9 million in federal money. Some of it went astray. In 1969, 17 Pride employees were indicted for embezzlement. One pleaded guilty and four were convicted. Some of the small businesses that were started with Pride money became open drug dealerships or fencing operations.

The corruption was clear for all to see, but as black reporter, Rich Adams, explained to Mr. Agronsky, Youth Pride had a standard answer whenever white authorities asked pointed questions:

‘Don’t ask, honky motherf***er, because if you do, we’re going to go out on the street, and we’re going to start a riot and say that the white man is trying to destroy black economic progress.’ And it scared the living s**t out of those liberals who didn’t want any trouble.

. . . So what if Marion and [his wife] Mary Treadwell got a couple of hundred thousand dollars? It was worth it to the federal government not to have them stirring s**t in the community.

As Mr. Adams puts it in his colorful way:

. . . [T]his was the chance for the black guy to f**k over the white system. And he [Barry] did it with style. It wasn’t just rob a 7-11. It was rob the whole goddamn federal government . . .

Some Youth Pride employees did it without style. In 1973, while Mr. Barry was still nominal head of the organization, four employees were shot to death in less than a month. Three of the killers were other Pride employees. All — both killers and killed — were members of a gang that specialized in armed robbery.

Even some of those who were doing it with style got caught. Though she was by then no longer Mr. Barry’s wife, Mary Treadwell was indicted for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government. The same investigation snared four other Youth Pride administrators but couldn’t get the goods on the top man.

‘That’s Sophistication’

In 1971, Mr. Barry expanded his empire by winning an elected seat on the Washington school board. During his campaign, he covered up his complete ignorance of school issues by sending aides to tape record his opponents’ speeches and using the same phrases, often word for word. When asked about this tactic, he replied, “What’s wrong with that? That’s sophistication.”

Mr. Barry soon won election to the DC City Council, and promptly discovered on which side the bread was buttered. He pleased businessmen, many of them white, by introducing laws to reduce taxes for merchants and developers. By the time he was ready to run for mayor in 1978, the Metropolitan Board of Trade was so beholden to him that it invited DC bigwigs to a $500-a-plate dinner and raised $60,000 for him in a single afternoon. Some white benefactors must have felt a pang of worry when Mayor Barry, as one of his first official acts, set aside 35 percent of all District contracts for non-whites.

Mr. Agronsky is hard-pressed to point to much that Mayor Barry ever did for Washington. During his first year or two, he appears to have shown a flicker of interest in improving city services, but that soon waned. All of his measures seemed designed mainly to tighten his grip on power. Not even his former aides saw things differently. Mr. Agronsky quotes one who says, “I could not separate out what he was legitimately interested in for the public good and what he was interested in for his political gain.”

Spending the Public’s Money

One thing Mayor Barry did was spend government money. At the end of his first year in office, he paid for a $50,000 advertising supplement in Time magazine, full of praise and photographs of the mayor. As he grew more confident, he spent more. He once took 50 city employees and consultants to the US Virgin Islands, ostensibly to give advice to the local government. He and his entourage spent $250,000 in taxpayer money sunning themselves and shopping.

Corruption flourished under Mayor Barry. One of his closest aides, Deputy Mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson went to jail for fleecing the government. Another deputy mayor, Alphonse Hill was convicted of extortion, tax evasion, and defrauding the city. Another aide, Robert B. Robinson, resigned after pleading guilty to embezzlement.

The Department of Human Services, the agency that was supposed to be making life better for Washington’s poor, gave off a particularly bad smell. After one department head was caught with his hand in the till and fired, his successor lasted only nine months. He was found to be using city money to pay rent and buy groceries, both for himself and for his top assistants. By the time Mr. Barry finally left office, a full dozen of his chief aides had gone to jail for corruption, and many others had left under clouds.

His administration was as incompetent as it was corrupt. Although Washington had nearly twice as many housing bureaucrats per public-housing resident as Baltimore or Detroit, one fifth of the public housing was vacant because it was waiting for repairs. The waiting time for a unit was seven years. Emergency services personnel were so arrogant and lazy that calls to 911 sometimes weren’t even answered and an ambulance might not show up until the next day. Fourteen people reportedly died, waiting for help that never came.

Almost one in five voters in Mayor Barry’s city were on the municipal payroll — about three times the national average. During his 12 years in office, Mayor Barry boosted the number of city bureaucrats by 27 percent while the population of the District fell by 30,000. Bureaucrats were so contemptuous of the public that the city finally started sending them to class to teach them how to answer the telephone without insulting people.

In the last three years of Mayor Barry’s tenure, judges cited the city no less than seven times for systematic mistreatment of people in its care: juvenile delinquents, prisoners, and the mentally retarded. In 1989, Washington Monthly called the Barry administration “the worst city government in America.” Drugs spread across the city, and it became the murder capital of the world.

Washington was rife with rumors of mayoral womanizing and drug-taking. One of many reported lovers, Sallie Melendez, went on the city payroll at $63,185 a year before she even had a job description. Another, who used to spend days on end with the mayor, lost in a cocaine haze, got $180,000 to start a school to teach black girls how to become models. In May of 1988, Mayor Barry reportedly threatened to cut off her funding unless she would give him oral sex.

His antics were eventually too much even for a white press that is terrified of offending blacks, but Mayor Barry brushed off criticism as “a new style of lynching.” He compared himself to Jesus and Gandhi, who were persecuted for the good they did. As his white critics turned up the volume, his popularity among blacks only grew.

Caught in the Act

Black supporters were more vocal than ever when, in early 1990, the FBI used a former mistress to lure the mayor to a hotel room, where agents videotaped him smoking cocaine. Black radio stations, black newspapers, and black “civil rights” leaders backed him with virtual unanimity. Even black preachers lined up behind the view that Mayor Barry was the victim of a racist frame-up. As one put it, the mayor was “in trouble right now because he is too smart, too intelligent, and too black.” After his indictment, Mayor Barry made a great show of visiting black churches and praying in public. Parishioners quickly raised a reported $100,000 for his legal expenses.

In April 1990, fresh from a drying out session at a drug treatment center, the indicted mayor appeared at a conference of black mayors. Jesse Jackson, who was about to deliver the keynote address, ostentatiously called him up to the podium. Four hundred black mayors then rose to their feet and gave Marion Barry a standing ovation. Mr. Jackson, with no apparent sense of irony, then proceeded with his keynote address on drug policy.

Black support for the mayor was so great that when he finally went to trial on 14 counts of cocaine possession and lying to a grand jury, he boasted that it would be impossible to find a Washington jury that would convict him, no matter what the evidence. “All it takes,” he said, “is one juror saying, ‘I’m not going to convict Marion Barry — I don’t care what you say.’”

He was very nearly right. In spite of overwhelming evidence and even an open admission by his defense lawyer that the mayor had used crack, the panel of ten blacks and two whites convicted him on only one charge of cocaine possession. On an astonishing ten out of the 14 charges, the jurors could not reach agreement.

Marion Barry hotel busted crack

The hotel where Barry got busted. (Credit Image: David / Wikimedia)

The verdict was so outrageous that Thomas Jackson, the trial judge, later told a Harvard audience that he had never seen a stronger case for the prosecution and that he was convinced some black jurors had been determined from the start to find the mayor innocent. He said they must have lied during jury selection when they told the court they would consider the evidence fairly.

It was later learned that a bloc of five black jurors consistently held out for acquittal. They claimed that the government had manufactured evidence and coached witnesses to lie. During deliberations, one pro-acquittal black accused another black, who was leaning towards conviction, of not sufficiently identifying with her race. One black juror urged others to read a book about white racism before they voted on the charges. The decision to find Mayor Barry guilty on even a single charge is something of a miracle, since the black holdouts would not even vote to convict on the possession charge supported by the FBI videotape. Judge Jackson handed down the stiffest possible sentence for a first conviction, and Mr. Barry started serving a six-month sentence on October 6, 1991.

Larger Questions

Does Mr. Barry’s career have any larger significance? Mr. Agronsky appears to find none, though he does confess that he is “amazed at the skill, frequency, and seeming ease with which Barry, until the very end, was able to use his minority status to extract concessions from the white establishment [and] emerge unscathed from repeated allegations of wrongdoing . . .” Amazement is naive; Mr. Barry is just one in a long line of conmen like Congressman Gus Savage, Mayor Coleman Young, Reverend Al Sharpton, Miss Tawana Brawley, and a whole host of anonymous blacks who trade on their skin color every day.

Of greater interest are the obvious parallels between the Barry regime in Washington and those in Africa that have helped lay waste an entire continent. It is particularly contemptible that “civil rights” leaders, who presumably agitate in the name of “their people,” should show the most callous disregard for them when they actually find themselves in a position to help. They are like African dictators who lobby white countries for aid only to steal or squander it. It is difficult to believe that they desire “progress” or “development” for anyone but themselves.

Mayor Barry takes 50 friends on a taxpayer-funded tropical vacation while his city — 70 percent black — sinks ever deeper into crime, drugs, and misery. He takes out a self-congratulatory photo supplement in Time magazine. His appointed officers brazenly plunder the treasury. This is what one expects from third-world potentates of impoverished countries — and what else might Mayor Barry have done were it not for the restraints of white public opinion and a white system of justice?

The other larger story that Mr. Agronsky missed is the significance of near-monolithic black support for Mr. Barry. There could hardly have been a worse mayor for Washington, but blacks supported him to the end — even in the jury box. Why? Because whites criticized him. While whites parrot the mantras of racial harmony and equality, blacks put racial solidarity before all else. While whites are taught to smother any sense of their own racial interests, blacks increasingly make race the center-piece of their lives.

There could scarcely be a better example of the radical divergence in the interests of American blacks and whites than the radical divergence in their opinions about what Mayor Barry had done and what he deserved. Platitudes, no matter how earnestly repeated, cannot hide the vast differences in how blacks and whites see and interpret American society. What do these differences say about the prospects for the utopian, multi-racial society we are supposed to be building?

Mr. Agronsky has no answers because he doesn’t think to ask the question.