Sunday, April 08, 2012

"The Nine Lives of Marion Barry": how partisanship stopped DC home rule for so long


I remember the day Thursday, January 18, 1990 well. I had started a new job at USLICO in Arlington VA and that morning I indulged myself with breakfast at the nearby Holiday Inn. That evening, I visited the site of my old job, Lewin-ICF in Washington DC one last time, for a symposium about AIDS. That evening, on the evening news, I would learn of Marion Barry’s arrest at the Vista Hotel, very close to where I had gone, for drug possession, in an undercover sting operation by the FBI.

The HBO documentary “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry” (2009, 78 min.), directed by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, written by Charles Olivier, shows some BW footage from the arrest, with Barry’s foul language.  Barry would spend some time in a low-risk federal prison, and in rehab, and come back and say, “I have healed my body, I have healed my spirit”.

That incident doesn’t do the former Washington DC politician and mayor (the second to be elected, in 1979) justice. The early part of the documentary covers the rampant racism in Congress, particularly from the South, trying to keep DC residents, about 70% black then (less so now) from having the right to vote. The police hired recruits from the South, and they tended to try to keep the minorities “in line”.  The film covers the race riots in all the cities in the 1960s, including that in Washington in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King (I was in Army Basic Training at the time).


Shortly after home rule started, Marion Barry was critically wounded in the District Building in a terrorist attack by a Hanafi group on 1977.  The film covers his close brush with death.

The atmosphere or racism probably affected sports in DC, and contributed to the poor management of both Washington Senators major league baseball teams and their departures (in 1961 and 1972). 

Congress finally passed the DC Home Rule Act in 1973, which was several years after the main part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Today, of course, the push is for full statehood, which the GOP would oppose because it would give the District two almost certainly Democratic senators. There have been proposals to return DC for Maryland for the purposes of federal elections, since Maryland usually votes Democratic (unlike Virginia).   (That would follow the pattern of Canada, where Ottawa is in Ontario.) 

Congress has the legal right to revoke Washington DC’s home rule charter at any time.   DC has three electoral votes in presidential elections, and a non-voting representative in the House. It’s hard to believe that progress in this matters has any other reason than GOP partisanship.

The official site for the film is here. It is presented online in minimum (full screen, 4:3) aspect ratio. 

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