WASHINGTON, Aug/ 26, 2015 – Mayor Muriel Bowser held a press conference Thursday morning at the recently closed Malcolm X elementary school on Alabama Avenue, SE. She was there to announce her $15 million public safety agenda, which aims to place 235 Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers on the streets along with the largest roll-out of police body cameras in the nation.
But activists from “Black Lives Matter” quickly disrupted her message, chanting “We want jobs!” They were led by their fearless leader, Erika Totten, and her comrades in solidarity, including Eric Weaver from the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens (NAARC).
Totten next led a chorus of “Ward 8 Matters!” as the mayor counter-punched, stating, “I would suggest you listen, because we have taken 435 illegal guns off the street.”
“My friends say Ward 8 matters,” she continued, “as though I don’t know that. I will back this public safety plan with a $15 million budget request.” City Council chairman Phil Mendelsohn sat in silence alongside At-Large Councilman Vincent Orange and Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander. Ward 8 Councilwoman LaRuby May sat at the right hand of the ,ayor on the podium after delivering hopeful opening remarks.
“Our mayor promised a fresh start and is the first mayor with an east-of-the-river office in this ward. She has expanded the Marion Barry Youth Leadership program to serve young adults up to 24 years old and brought the Department of Public Works and DGS Academy and started the LEAP Academy in her first 100 days,” said Councilwoman May to robust applause from the standing-room only crowd in attendance at the vacant elementary school.
The ,ayor was less than 10 minutes into her own opening remarks when she was confronted by angry shouts from the Black Lives Matter contingent. The protesters had staked out an area to the right of the podium in the middle of the overflow crowd of nearly 300 government officials, parents, safety officers and community organizers assembled in the steamy school gymnasium. In support of Black Lives Matter, Sharon Wise of the House of Sharon agreed with their contention that more police presence is not the answer. “Families have to do more. The government can’t do everything,” said Wise.
But the mayor refused to back down from her position. She reflected on what she called the saddest day of her life when she visited the home of a young mother who was the victim of an illegal handgun. “Every resident of Congress Heights has the right to a safe and stronger neighborhood,” she said.
“We have seen a spike of 103 murders and we refuse to let the district succumb to this intolerable trend,” she observed, well aware that DC is two homicides short of the 2014 level of yearlong violence and there are still four more months to go before the end of the year.
But her message was disrupted by community activists such as Eugene Puryear, who interrupted the mayor’s remarks a second time in mid-message, hoisting a sign that read “JOBS NOT JAILS.” The scene was reminiscent of the angry receptions that former Mayor Adrian Fenty endured when he traveled east of the river over a decade ago following an ugly street shootout in the Barry Farms public housing developments.
Surrounded by a half dozen DPR (parks and recreation) employees, Puryear eventually agreed to return to his seat. He was quickly joined by Mrs. Elaine Carter, a 90-year-old community activist known to the neighborhood as the “ghetto grandma.” Carter had fearlessly followed Puryear into the center aisle, daring anyone to lay a hand on her. “All of them are crooks and they are going down,” said Carter, making reference to her longstanding lack of trust in public officials.
To her credit, the mayor did not sugarcoat the complex issues as she returned to her campaign promise to be open and transparent. “There is no easy answer,” she stated. “We face a complex problem for which there is no single answer or solution. But with the support of Chief Lanier, the MPD and U.S. Attorney Vincent Cohen, we have responded swiftly and forcefully!”
Political strategist and Capitol Hill resident Linda Mercado Greene agreed with the mayor’s direct action approach to serving the violent communities in the most deprived section of the district, noting “That’s what I truly admire about our mayor. She’s straight up and will not be intimidated.”
But when asked what the members of Black Lives Matter wanted, spokeswoman Erika Totten fought back tears to say, “People are suffering and they need healing in their families and communities to stop the cycle of self-destructive behavior. We are working right now with the brother Eric Weaver and the NAARC to form ‘healing circles.’”
“It ain’t about more police. It’s about investing in people,” said Ms. Totten, who became the focus of attention at the mayor’s press conference as she paid lip service to mini-community grants to fund non-profit groups to help improve the lives of residents living in areas victimized by violent crime.
As I exited the dilapidated former elementary school that the mayor has plans to convert to a recreation center, Officer Benjamin, a veteran MPD officer providing a security presence in the parking lot, observed that a third or more of the force is currently eligible for retirement, noting it takes two years to screen and train a new cop for the force.
“And we are randomly drug-tested every three months by a random computer generated selection,” he said. “I’ve been tested four times in the last year,” he said while continuing to perform his duties with a calm demeanor that comes only with years of experience serving low-income communities such as Congress Heights.
Politically, the Mayor clearly has her work cut out for her.
A $15 million dollar body camera purchase and a police manpower fix may not be enough to calm the angry mistrust of government that is rampant “east of the river” in the district—a place where jobs are still scarce and guns are still plentiful.