Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top Black News Stories of 2015

(Baltimore, MD) As I look back on 2015 there were so many singular moments in Black America that affected me I could easily expand my annual list. Some items were hold overs from the previous years. I continue to be fortunate to be able to write and report for a number of organizations. My voice is just one of many. I’m not confined by where I live but, I am not immune from the things in my backyard which affected a broader world. As always, you don’t have to agree with me, in fact I welcome your comments and observations.

10. The book Native Son by Richard Wright shook me to my core. Its anger and its consciousness grabbed me and I awaited writers who could move me in the same way. This year it happened through a pair of books written by Baltimore writers.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book, Between the World and Me, he writes a letter to his son, chronicling his upbringing in Baltimore. The author details the death of his best friend, Prince Jones. He dies at the hands of police.

Trying to make sense of the carnage and symptoms which lead to protests on the street of Baltimore is D. (Dwight) Watkins. He talks of the transition from drug dealer to college professor in the Beastside: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

I wrote about the pair in an article for originally called Voices of Rage.

9. What About Our Daughters? This was a call that drew attention to the disappearance of girls in Nigeria. To bring home the issue the hashtag "Bring Back Our Girls" created linked communities worldwide. This drew attention to Boko Haram, an Al Qaeda affiliate, who kidnapped the young girls and forced them into marriages and converted them to Islam. Nigeria wasn’t the only country to experience the emergence of warlords. The lawless areas of African countries (Chad, Sudan, Eritrea, Burundi, and Mali) are ripe for religious zealots who see young girls and children as pawns. Last year, there was a concerted effort to capture Ugandan Warlord Joseph Kony. His arm of child killers has made him a pariah.

8. Implosion of Dr. Ben Carson – As a political reporter my phone rings with unique situations. So you can imagine how excited I was to attend a meeting with Dr. Ben Carson who announced he was running for President on the GOP ticket. The invite came a week after the Baltimore Uprising in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. What made the invite peculiar was its location, a church on the eastside of Baltimore miles away from the epicenter of violence. Most of those in attendance were religious leaders but, there were several young people. One of the young men in the audience asked Dr. Carson, what he could say to his friends, who might not believe in the ideas the Doctor was promoting? Dr. Carson’s answer, “Tell them to read a book.”
I’m guessing the young man left there bewildered and as I was. His purity test on religious issues (because of his 7th Day Adventist background) leaves little room for divergent points of view.

Being President of United States doesn’t allow you put things neatly in a box. It was clear, he wasn’t ready for the big stage. His poll numbers have him going the way of Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman who saw their popularity sore then drop precipitously following questions on policy. Lastly, on the Democratic side, no one even flirted with the idea of replacing the first Black president?

7. Black People on Television – From television shows like Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Empire, and Blackish the roles for African American television actors and producers has layers. We still have a long way to go but, the landscape has possibilities. Casting directors are challenging who can play a role.

Lieutenant Uhuru of Star Trek let us know Black people are in the future. Star Wars has let us in on another secret, a Black character can be a hero and yes, there are Latino actors who can fly space ships (Oscar Isaacs). Lastly, I’m a big fan Fresh Off the Boat. The female lead, Constance Wu, brings the heat as she tries to bridge an absent Asian world (near Orlando) and a Southern White world with her son who loves Hip-Hop.

6. Kendrick Lamar – He is profane. He is prolific. He is poignant. He is poetic. He is Tupac on steroids. This Compton, California Rapper’s latest release to “To Pimp a Butterfly” screams pay attention to me. He is thrown into bizarre mix of young rappers (Fetty Wap, Big Sean and Chance the Rapper) whose dance tracks have little to no purpose other than its beats and predictable rhyme schemes. Lamar is different.

Think of Marvin Gaye suggesting he wants to have a conversation with a deceased Tupac Shakur. That’s what happens on this latest release. You know you’re in a unique conversation when longtime Black columnist Barbara Reynolds says, “I don’t get it,” after listening to “Alright.” My younger friends who’ve I’ve asked about the Compton Rapper say, “he’s to Black…he’s preaching.”

Like Shakur he poses questions like, “When I get signed homie, I’m gonna buy a strap, straight from the CIA. Set it on my lap. Take a few M-16’s to the hood, and pass them all out in the hood, what’s good.” It sounds dangerous and couldn’t be more perfectly time for the emergence of Black Lives Matter.

“All my life I’ve had to fight.” Did I mention he’s up for several Grammies including “Record of the Year?” Lastly, you know you’ve made a significant move when you’re asked to headline with National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

Despite Passage of Time, Rage in Baltimore Has Potential to Reheat<br />5. Black Lives Matter – This group scares so many people it makes them vital even if you don’t want to admit it. They are disjointed but, have become a unique voice in a time of turbulence. They came of age following the death of Michael Brown. Black Lives Matter has become the go to group on the ground for protest (forget the NAACP).

There simple question to anyone who will listen is, “Do Black Lives Matter?” For white politicians it was difficult to answer, and many were flippant in answers, “All Lives Matter.” Police see many in this group as “public enemy number one.” These officers had their own answer, “Don’t Blue (Police) Lives Matter?” For Civil Rights groups they chimed in with, yes but a lot of qualifiers.

Their tool of choice is twitter and mobilization is the weapon. It’s difficult to pin them down on what they want. During a meeting with Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton, she called them out for not having a strategy. They have made their presence known on the campaign trail (GOP and Democratic rallies) but, what affect will have at the ballot box?

4. Hatin on Obama – There are many reasons for people dislike the president. The POTUS admitted in interview with NPR before the end of the year that some of it revolves around him being the first Black President. That’s easy to see when people continue to question (including the GOP frontrunner) if he was born in Kenya. Demonetization is easy. Some have suggested he has given everything to other constituencies but has failed to deliver to the Black people who put him in office. Without his name on the ballot all candidates are struggling to connect with his unique coalition.

3. Robert F. Smith – It’s a name that doesn’t come to mind when you think of wealth. Mr. Smith is the head of Vista Equity Partners which gives him a net worth of $2.5 Billion and by Forbes Magazine standards makes him the 268th richest man in America. Note he’s not a media mogul (Oprah), a music mogul (P-Diddy/Russell Simmons), nor can be found on Page Six of the New York Daily News. Like the late great Reginald Lewis he used his knowledge to invest in lesser known “Silicon Valley” start-ups. He has BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University and an MBA from Columbia.

2. Black Life Continues to Be Cheap (Especial for Young Black Males) – Their names (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice) are a part of lexicon of individuals struck down before they had a chance to experience life. Their mother’s mourn and people are outraged. The outrage isn’t limited to the Black community. It seems as though the theory for police is to shoot first because somehow these young people appear menacing. Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Chicago are at the epicenter of these struggles. I am particular disturb about how the Cleveland Prosecutor suggested it was 12 year old, Tamir Rice, who caused his own death.

1. Baltimore Uprising – Of all the deaths of young men this last year Freddie Gray’s in the back of police van caused the most potent of backlashes, a riot. So why did it happen in Baltimore? I’m still trying to answer this question as I sit and watch the trial of six officers who were charged with his death. This much I much can tell you, it was Gray’s death that was a catalyst that shed light on years
of neglect of a community. The community wore their emotions on their sleeves during this process. I know, I was there. I felt their anger but, the destruction left a community with few opportunities reeling. There a people of good will trying to rebuild what some people destroyed. It’s a lesson that other major cities are heeding.

Person of the Year - Judge Barry Williams. I've known Judge Williams for years but, his handling of the case of six Baltimore Police Officers charged with Freddie Gray's death is nothing short of brilliant. First, he has fought back those who say the case could not get a fair trial in Baltimore City. He has deftly handled both sides in the case who have sometimes made outrageous request in motions. By separating each of trials he has asked that each stand on their own. As I sit in the courtroom, I'm reminded he demands the juror always respond loudly and enthusiastically to his "Good Morning." Lastly, if you're an attorney in these cases, he will chastise you for not asking questions (they must be relevant). For my media friends he's been lenient when it comes to covering the case: however, violate the rules and you're out (four have been tossed). I've not be one of them.   


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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How Many Black Republicans Can You Fit in One Room

(Washington, DC) “I will give anyone in this room a thousand dollars if they will produce a list of Black Republican staffers who work on Capitol Hill,” says Raynard Jackson as he waves the cash before a standing room only luncheon at the National Press Club.

Jackson, a GOP Operative, sent out a call to the faithful to come to this luncheon. This is the inaugural event for the "Black Americans for a Better Future Super Pac." I’m talking about Black Republicans and those in the party who understand the demographics of the future. They aren’t in the closet. Some in this room have served in Republican presidential cabinets, state legislatures, and locally. Others have transitioned from the glare of the GOP spotlight to create businesses.  This wing of the political party has watched from the sidelines and they aren’t buying what the current crop of Presidential candidates are selling.
Raynard Jackson welcoming guest.

In a jovial but serious rant, Jackson went in full bore on what his “party” hasn’t done. They are “unprepared and unqualified…I’m disgusted.”  The columnist is provocative. I’ve heard his rants in private conversations. The party leaders and mover shakers sometimes get uncomfortable when he’s around. He’s heard the old adage “be quiet just to get along.”

Some of his most searing commentary was on the new generation of Black GOP members. He told the audience about an experience he had with a Congressman (he wouldn’t name him). According to Jackson, he asked him if he had any Black staffers. Embarrassed, the Representative would make a concerted effort to hire one (a 20 year old) for what the host described as “race insurance.” Jackson said he was used to these 20 year old staffers calling him on the phone asking for advice and direction. “I don’t want you to hire a 20 year old, and they call me on phone asking me what should I do?” He named and point to several seasoned veterans in the room who are card carrying Republicans. He reminds the audience, “You can be Republican and Black.” Somehow he says they don’t want to be seen through a race lens. “Duh, that’s how they see you.”

He didn’t leave Fox Network out from his criticism. He’s appeared on the channel. His assessment, there appears to single purpose for African-Americans to be on, “bash the President.” “Blacks on Fox are entertainers.” He gave an example of friend who had an expertise on an international issue but, a producer want to know could he talk about how bad the President is on the issue. The individual was not used on the air.

He’s heard it all before; “We can’t find any Black Republicans.” He wasn’t shock when he went to Milwaukee for the Republican Presidential Debate and asked most of the aspirants if they had any Black staffers. All but one (Ben Carson) had people of color working on their staffs. He heard the standard line but shot back, “Where do you find Biffy and Buffy?”

The invisibility of Black Republicans is evident with the luncheon’s special guest Maryland Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford. Rutherford joined Governor Larry Hogan in winning a state dominated by Democrats. Apparently, this message hasn’t been disseminated to party members across the county.

Rutherford has worked in Republican administrations in Maryland and for President George W. Bush. He didn’t leave his Black card at home. The host reminds the assembled Rutherford was born in Washington, DC. In fact, he tells the audience his birth certificate describes him and his parents as “colored.” He went to Howard University and graduated from the University of Southern California Law School.

“We are in an Uber World (a reference to car sharing service),” said the Lieutenant Governor in describing the current business climate in Maryland. It was music to ears of many business leaders in attendance. He’s only been in office for 10 months. An early challenge was the deployment of the National Guard to quell rioting in Baltimore. Adding to the challenges was the Governor being diagnosed with cancer (under Maryland Law the Lt.Gov. acts on his behalf when being treated). “I’m happy to say he announced he (Governor Hogan) was cancer free.

He laid out a vision to get more African-Americans to consider the GOP.  He says, “It’s okay to have our views,” He chided the Democratic Party who seem to make members of the GOP out to be the “boogeyman.” “Get past the side-show tactics” such as the often repeated claim “you’ll be going back to chains.” He points out that even in Black Democratic strongholds a number of voters are becoming independent voters.

Rev. Peter Bramble, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, and Joy Bramble
Jackson ask if he will go on the road and spread the gospel of GOP to an African-American audience around the country. Rutherford says he may be able to travel now without the medical challenges to the governor. The audience applauds as audience members rush to get selfies as he leaves.

The host is also surrounded by those from various parts of the country asking if he will come to their state and lay the ground work for creating a similar luncheon. He smiles with approval. I can hear the rap song in my head “can you hear me yo.”

These are the faithful/true believers of being Black and a member of the GOP. It’s a small audience and it’s not monolithic. This strand as I observed over the years has always been pro-business. In its early stages it was also pro-civil rights which it saw as opportunity. There are a lot of litmus test in being a Republican these days. What happen to pro-business, pro-black business? It was an entrée but, those litmus test seem to get in the way.

A Super-Pac? Hmm?

Charles Robinson 

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fear of Knowing

(Washington, DC) The call to come was too great for those of us who showed up 20 years, where else would you want to be –The Million Man March. We’re older now with more years of experience. We heeded Minister Louis Farrakhan’s call to go back to our neighborhoods, atone for past mistakes, and find purpose in our communities, churches, and neighborhoods. This was different, it wasn’t just a call to action but, rather a provocative statement; "Justice of Else."

Like the mood 20 years ago things are happening beyond the control of Black Men/Women. Some will suggest it began with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the release of the vigilante accused of his murder. It intensified with Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garners cry for help “I Can’t Breathe” in New York at the hands of police. The death of Black people just seem to intensify with Freddy Gray’s death (and the subsequent Baltimore Uprising) and Sandra Bland's questionable death while in custody. We’re still awaiting the outcome of Tamir Rice case in Cleveland. I’m not conspiracy theorist, however the facts and the circumstances seem to bare out the need for the movement of “Black Lives Matter.”

“Little Brother make sure you make way for people who want to sit down,” said a man to a pair of young Brothers who rode the DC Metro on the way to the March. “The Minister, wants us to be respectful today.” The young men in their late teens seemed more preoccupied with their “gear” and tunes. The Cleveland man in dread-locks turned to his friend reminiscing about the March and its aftermath. “I had to leave DC, there weren’t jobs and the cost of living was cheaper in Cleveland. Hell, to live here now, you’d have to have a regular job and be a part of the criminal element. Here’s our stop.”

The mass of humanity heading from Union Station to the Mall seem to come in waves. There was no sign of potential problems the Capitol Police alluded to prior to the March. People came with purpose. Like the hundreds of Howard University students who took to the street to make known their discontent or the hundreds of members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity who wore dark suits along with ties and bow ties. I saw men and women bring their children. Purposeful, members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) dressed in their traditional gear (bow ties for men/long skirts for women and head covers).

I noted a number of non-traditional attendees who seemed at home with this group. A Latino couple who were there to witness the event, white reporters who flowed through the crowd hoping to capture what was happening, and supporters of every ethnicity took up space on the Mall.

While this wasn’t a march for Men only the large contingent of women who showed up expressed concern they have for their sons and men in their lives. The death of young Black men on American streets  has become epidemic.
While death at the hands of police was a focus at this event, statistics show a number of those killings are being done by those in the same age group with no abatement. It is unfortunate, manifested in the women left in their wake. From the mothers who weep at their funerals to the women who bear their children grow up not knowing their fathers. These women were in attendance.

At 82, this likely be one of the last major addresses Minister Louis Farrakhan will make to gathering of this size (estimated crowd 850 – an under-count). As a disciple of Elijah Muhammad, he made good on his vision that Black people would follow a leader who would bring Islam to the west. The Minister is one of the few who has a link to Muhammad and Malcolm X. It gives him credibility,
continuity, and courage to face a disgruntled population looking for answers. His name evokes fear in many quarters and he uses it to his advantage. On the ground he gets points from rappers to gang bangers. His so call “street cred” is unquestioned.

“Hey, I didn’t hear a lot about the March this go round,” was often uttered in my presence as I told people I was heading to DC. Like much of the media landscape things have change from 20 years ago. There was not an abundance of cell phones; Black radio was on the cusp of coming into its own; BET had barely penetrated Urban America; the Internet as we know it today was in its infancy; and the term social network didn’t exist.

The “full court press” of then gave way to an underground network which produce the first march. It was Texted, Tweeted, Snapchatted, Periscoped, and Facebooked around the globe. If you read the “Final Call” or any Black news outlet you knew, if you were plugged into “Black Twitter” you knew, and if you listen to “Black Talk Radio” you knew. Certain “Chocolate Cities” were very much aware.

However, if you expected traditional networks i.e. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, FOX etc…you didn’t even know it was happening. Who missed the boat, Hip-Hop Radio (more concerned about Drake, Rhianna, Little Wayne, and Nicki Minaj),
BET/TV One (condensed the day into hour specials), and Black Comedy (it’s hard to be funny when this is serious business). The fact is this event was in DC gave it over to the one entity with the “cohunes” to bring it you live – CSPAN. Close to a million people showed up, that is power.

The array of speakers which lead up to keynote were by their presence was protest. I took note of my fraternity Brother DC Councilmen Vincent Orange. He spoke of District residents continued disfranchisement. “We have no vote in Congress…we don’t have the right to vote for President…sign our petition to give us that right,” implored Orange.

Native speakers reminded the crowd of the evils of the Europeans “who stole our land” plundered our wealth only to be corralled on reservations that one speaker described as “concentration camps.”
Sharing the stage with America’s indigenous people were Spanish speaking migrants who addressed the crowd in English and their native tongue. They implored the crowd to think of their share experiences and work together on common causes. One speaker noted that their combined strength would far out way what those who are trying to demonize there undocumented status and thwart them politically.

The arrival of the Minister on this stage is a testament to his staying power and his “beloved” stature. Age has a way of making you evolve. Time has also had an effect on the members of NOI. I’ve known various members, whom I call friends, and witness there transformation. They are global in their perspective, they are technologically savvy, and their enduring commitment of Black people and their plight is unwavering.  They are introspective as the movement which began with racial solidarity has evolved to embrace science, philosophy, technology, and business acumen. They will not be “pigeon holed” by critics.

There were nine demands outlined by the March organizers. They included justice for Blacks, Native Americans, Mexican-Latinos, Women, Poor, the Incarcerated, and Veterans. There was a demand for an end to police brutality. There was also quid pro request for land to pay for the years of non-payment (think reparations). These requests aren’t new. Historically, NOI has asked for similar things in the past. It is the “or else” portion that implies a threat that even he (Farrakhan) can’t predict nor control.

Minister Farrakhan acknowledged the Black Lives Matter movement and their calls for change. He chastised traditional Black leaders for their unwillingness to give way to the next generation and their way of confrontation.

This is part of the Fear of Knowing. Knowing the unpredictability of the crowd. They may love you, they may come when you call, and they may listen to your pleas but controlling the outcome isn’t within your power. This is also an audience whose attention span is less than a half an hour (two hour speeches go over their head). I watched for more than an hour on the mall and what stood out for me were the number of people focused on taking selfies and not the message. A number of young people who were brought by older folks were repeatedly asked to stop what they were doing and listen.

Women were a big focus of his address and he pointed to those who would demean them by calling them the “B-word.” He got personal when he talked about abortion and the circumstances surrounding his own birth. “My mother tried to end my life twice in womb (via a coat hanger)…then she said I leave it in god’s hands,” according to the NOI Leader. He urge the woman to protect that sacred area by putting their hands over their “wombs.”

One of the sharpest criticism was leveled at HBCU’s and their training of the next generation. “We must train our young people not just for jobs,” he implored. I get this but, blasting institutions which trained and hired Black scholars when it wasn’t popular is not solution. It feeds into a conservative narrative that there isn’t a need for these institutions. When you have the mike, you get to make your argument. I don’t have to agree. It was strange at the end when he called for HBCU Presidents to meet with him the next day to discuss what to do with land he expected from a “reparations” movement.

I get what my friend Richard Muhammad posted on his Facebook page about the critics of Minister Farrakhan. He was invited to speak at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and then dis-invited. “The result was the Million Man March in the face of detractors and an unhealthy dose of Negro Egoism and Hater-Ade. Anyone tearful for not speaking or getting their moment in the sun on 10-10-15 should do a simple thing: Call your own march and do your own thing.

Was it worth attending? Yes. Was the message pointed? Somewhat. The NOI has recognized it has to embrace those of Latino heritage and Native populations. Those who needed to hear this message weren’t there, the mass of Black folk who are struggling in communities across the country.Others included the young men who are slaughtering each other the streets. The fact traditional Civil Rights have a difficult time accepting him in their community is a travesty because they represent a missed opportunity. You don’t have agree but, listening is a starting point.

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Friday, January 02, 2015

Top Stories of 2014

It has been a roller coaster year. If you've read my column I have tried to point out things that came up on my radar screen and items which you need to watch. Politics dominates this list but things are always percolating. I encourage you to disagree my listing but, to also chime in if there are things which rise up.

10. Radicalization and it's draw. The emergence of ISIL came with a vengeance and an over arching strategy of using social media. US security forces warned that Jihadist who went to fight in the region between Syria and Iraq could pose a threat to the homeland. What they didn't realize is the message was being absorbed by a group of young women from Denver were torn between American culture and Islamic Culture(the three girls were stopped in Germany) .

9. Zimbabwe - Robert Mugabe is 90 years old and won re-election. Finally, he sees he might not live out his term. A pair of potential successors who were elected deputies think they are the rightful heirs to this country. However, Mugabe promoted his wife to a high ranking position and literally dubbed her his successor. This will not end well.

8. Cuba - I went to this communist country this year. What a came away with was a paradoxically society on the verge of change. That change came when the president agreed to begin the process of normalizing relations with the island nation.

Downtown Havana, Cuba
7. Reality versus Drama. The so call Black Reality genre continues to fill time slots with the lowest common denominator. Black women showing their "dirty laundry" is so yesterday. The arrival of Sorority Sisters received such a backlash that the network assumed good or bad publicity, put it on anyway. Advertisers are fleeing. Here's hoping Empire featuring Taraji Henson and Terrence Howard has better writing than the previews.

6. Bootylicious - A nice derriere is alright by me, Destiny's Child told you so in their song. This year however to my surprise the booty was getting much love in the majority community. Vanity Fair declared it was the year of the "white booty." Kim Kardashian's cover photo was a web sensation and discussed often in barbershops. All that stopped with Nicki Minaja's, Anaconda. It was the most viewed YouTube video this year.

5. Key and Peele - This show on Comedy Central makes you laugh and makes you think. It has won a Peabody for its satire. My favorite bit is Obama's interpreter. Here's hoping Larry Wilborn's Minority Report, the replacement for Stephen's Colbert, is a big hit.

4. POTUS - Two years left and Obama continues to beat back the naysayers. He was shellacked in the Mid-term elections losing the House and the Senate. In a lame-duck session of congress he got them to approve a budget, implemented executive actions on immigration and Cuba. His response to those who didn't like what he did, "Pass a bill." Give the guy credit he turned around an economy and has more people on health insurance.

3. OMG/Oh Shit. The biggest case that fits this bill is Raven Running Back Ray Rice and Jenay Rice. It showed the couple quarreling on a elevator and the football player striking his girl friend. In a close second, are the number of women who accused comedian Bill Cosby of being drugged and rape. Honorable mention former Clippers Owner Donald Sterling.

2. Ebola - This disease is no joke. The spread from Nigeria to West Africa shook the world. When the first cases came to America we responded with compassion. However, put a black face on this disease and some how it's fake epidemic. Here's to all those who took chances and defied the critics and looked to help.

1. Ferguson to Gardner. Michael Brown's death turned a spotlight on an ugly phenomena in Amercia...Black men's lives are endangered when confronted by police. Eric Gardner's death while being choking provide this year's most purposeful line "I Can't Breathe."

Person of  Year: This was a tough call. I was torn between a pair of individuals whose narratives started out so differently but had impacts they didn't imagine. First the runner up, Mo'ne Davis.
She was the young lady who pitched in the Little League World Series and won. A first for game that is lead my young men. We haven't heard the last of her.

The winner however is someone one who I've known since he was a college student. I've encouraged him at every step of his career, Wesley Lowery. So why Lowery? In Journalistic terms he has been at the heart of every major story in the last three years (The Cop Shooter in L.A., was on the scene in Boston when police captured the Marathon Bomber, and the murder case of a New England Patriots, Aaron Hernandez). This year he was hired by Washington Post. He was in Ferguson to cover the Micheal Brown's death. He happen to be in a McDonald's when police arrested/detained him for several hours. His twitter feed is a must read. He has had several verbal spats with conservative bloggers. Then the unthinkable, they began publishing his address and phone numbers (luckily these were his parents address). Reporters don't like becoming part of the story, but in the age of digital footprints it's easy to find us. Here's hoping they aren't mentally disturb people who might act on what we write. I forgot to mention he won a Pulitzer, and the Emerging Journalist Award from NABJ this year.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Redemptive Politics

(Baltimore/Washington) – You know you have become a political icon when you change the language of politics and usher in new ways of practicing the art. Marion Barry the former of Mayor of Washington, DC died on November 23, 2014. The 78 year old politician was already a legend and his passing cements his credentials.

I will suggest if there were a Mount Rushmore for Black Politics it would include Adam Clayton Powell, Shirley Chisholm, Maynard Jackson, Thom Bradley, Doug Wilder, and Marion Barry. I know people will likely disagree (but it’s my list – make up your own).

I had the pleasure of covering Mayor Barry during several of his tumultuous periods – the lead up and the conclusion of his FBI sting on crack cocaine and his return to being Mayor. These were interesting times. For the uninitiated the FBI sting will consume a lot of ink and air time. His famous line “that bitch set me up…” will often be repeated; however, there is more to his story than this short period.

There are several interesting aspects to his political life. A number of these events shaped his career and thinking. The item which dominated his later life is a quote which he enjoyed and embraced “Mayor for Life.” Walking with him anywhere in DC and for that matter anywhere was like being with a “rock star.”

I found this part out while covering the Republican National Convention in San Diego 1988. I got word the Mayor was in Southern California and planned to host a reception at the RNC. We went to this house in the hills of San Diego and in walked the mayor. The GOP big wigs were there including a young Maryland lawyer named Michael Steel. Steel would introduce Barry to conservative insiders who were more than happy to have their picture taken with the Mayor. It was surreal to say the least.

Historical you can go the Washington Post to get the full Bio. I want to point to several salient entrees in this resume. Born on March 6, 1936 into a Mississippi share cropper family, his mother would leave his father and move to Memphis. This simple gesture left an indelible impact on a young man as he struck out in the world. First he attends LeMoyne College in Memphis, majoring in Chemistry. He would earn a Master’s Degree at Fisk University in Nashville, TN (1960). It’s during this time he would also join Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He was headed toward getting his Doctorate except for the tenor of the times. Civil Rights protest was consuming the South including Nashville. There he would join forces with John Lewis and be instrumental in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC –Snick). The push and pull between traditional (older) and these young upstarts were hard to contain. It would lead the Barry to Washington, DC in 1965 working for SNCC.

Many cities on the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest are always suspicious of Southern transplants. Part of it comes from the dialect, mannerism, and cultural disconnect. The irony is most of these folks are from the Deep South. His association with those in the District who had no voice was emblematic of the change in politics. DC had its entrenched political hierarchy but, he sought to usurp their power. He founds an organization called Pride Inc. Its stated goal, help unemployed Black men find jobs. It allows him to have a unique voice in an entrenched city. In 1971, he is elected to the School Board. Three years later he is elected to the DC City Council (1974).

Opportunity and Positioning

On March 10, 1977 Barry arrived at the Wilson Building. A guard suggested there was a commotion upstairs. According to the Washington Post, the 41 year old Councilman blew off the suggestion from the guard and headed to the fifth floor. Unknown to him a group of “Black Muslims” (we know they were a part of the Hanafi Muslim sect) had stormed the building with weapons. When the elevator doors open there were several shots. The councilman is hit. He is taken to a conference room. The siege continues and Barry is lowered out of a window and taken to a hospital. Doctors tell him a small caliper bullet struck near his heart but not penetrating his heart.

For most this would be life altering event; however it provides the perfect platform to launch a Mayoral run. In 1978, Marion Barry becomes the second Mayor of Washington, DC beating the handpicked establishment candidate Walter Washington. It shocks the establishment.

Mayor Barry confounds the political class, and the Black Aristocratic class in Washington. A lot of folks see him as dangerous. How will he wield this new power? Washington is still a southern city with all its quirks.

 The four termed Mayor of the District of Columbia was cunning, a tireless advocate, and will be judge not because of his many faults but rather his ability to connect beyond the superficial. I want lay these intriguing facts about the man who became known as “Mayor for Life.”

Intergenerational Politics

In those early years the federal government was truly a partner with city. The Mayor took advantage of the generosity. He proudly proclaimed any DC youth who wanted a job, could get one. I can’t tell you number of people who now have the wherewithal to make things happen tell me, “Marion Barry gave me my first job.” These people have never forgotten. For those who live in the District they became core constituents. I can only recall one other politician doing this, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Mayor Daley called them patronage jobs and gave them to Block/Precinct Captains to make sure they voted on election. The quid pro quo from Mayor Barry was different.  It was inferred he looked out for you, when no one else did.  Other political heavy weights across the country have tried to mimic this and failed.

Wealth Creation

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson knew the power of Black Politics and decided to wield it in a unique way. He took a sleepy south town and over night “flips its script.” Mayor Jackson got the council to pass a measure called “minority set-a-side.” Twenty percent of all construction contracts would go to minorities. My good friend, Doni Gloverof, who was a student at Morehouse College says, “It wasn’t just Georgians who came to Atlanta but, Black folk from all over the country came to provide services to Atlanta.” They came for major projects like MARTA (the subway system) and the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport.

The Mayor saw what was going on in Atlanta and saw possibilities in the Nation’s Capital. He started with the development community. His first project was the Reeves Office Building at 14 and U. The area had been neglected from the riots and torn up by the construction of the Metro. Today it is a social scene of night clubs, restaurants and posh living spaces in DC.

It was just the beginning; the Mayor lured the NBA Bullets (now the Wizards) franchise from the Maryland suburbs to China Town. Numerous other projects were lured. The infamous song Chocolate City by Parliament was being changed. Those who had benefitted from those early investments saw them grow somehow pushing out low income residents; and pushing middle class residents into wealthier class status.


“We all have our demons, few us ever own up to them.” This often repeated phase applies to Mayor Barry. It was not uncommon for “his honor” to show up at events, night clubs and other places where he might have a few too many drinks. When reporters began to note his late night carousing the Mayor responded “you know I’m a night owl.” Along with these nighttime romps, rumors began to fly he was using drugs.

It doesn’t help when your city is facing bankruptcy, and a former deputy Mayor is indicted and found guilty. A number of other associates are caught in stings. Was he the target of an investigation? We found out on January 18, 1990. In an FBI sting Barry is shown smoking crack cocaine at the Vista Hotel. Barry suggests he was “set-up.” The court of public opinion throws Barry under a bus and suggests his political career is over.

The general public is dismayed over the support he garners in the Black Community. It’s during this period I find myself covering the Mayor for WEAA-FM in Baltimore. I join forces with WHUR-FM in Washington. WHUR and WHMM-TV are the only media outlets who the Mayor will talk with. As I look back on this time, this was heady stuff. How do run a city while under indictment? Going to press briefings with Barry was brutal. Although I was an outsider there was no let up. The charming Barry became combative Barry. Much of his vitriol was for my friend Yolanda Woodlee. Woodlee covered Barry for the Washington Post. He would light into her about anything she wrote, but she never backed down. He would refer to her as “dirt digger.” Sources would call Woodlee whenever they saw the Mayor, especially during his clubbing and later night meanders.

The Barry trial dragged on for weeks with the public thinking he was done in politics. The verdict came on August 10, 1990. He was found guilty of one count, possession of cocaine. Twelve others counts were thrown out. Supporters of Barry circled the federal courthouse and rejoiced, beeping their car horns.  DC became the punch line and the butt of so many jokes. People outside of DC consistently said, “I can’t believe Marion Barry is still Mayor?” Barry received six months in jail and lost his first election following the conviction.

When he finished his stint in Federal prison in 1992 he returns home and decides to run for his old council seat in Ward 8 (one the poorest jurisdictions in the city). His campaign slogan "He may not be perfect, but he's perfect for D.C." He wins.

Barry and his supporters calculated, "who better to represent you than me." His pitch was simple I am someone who has had a drug problem, been through the legal system and survived. He surrounds himself with religious leaders who talk about Redemption. Drugs and murders are rampant in the city. There is no superman to solve these intractable problems. Redemption politics is in full affect and the next mountain to cross is a return to the highest office.

Coalitions and Mobilization

In current politics, we talk about making sure you get your base gets to the polls and also broadening your base. Mayor Barry was active this arena long before it became the nomenclature of politics. You’ve heard how he was able to capture generational African-Americans but he to broaden his appeal to other minorities and those who were on the outside who wanted a place at the political table.  This included foreign nationals i.e. Asians, Latino’s and the Ethiopian/Eritrean communities. Asians saw his desire to recreate China Town as an affirmation they were on the mayor’s radar screen. Latino’s weren’t much of a factor in the early Barry administrations.  Overtime the number of Latino’s from El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and South America began to populate the Columbia Road corridor. They could not be ignored.

The Ethiopian/Eritrean communities however became more important to Barry than any other group. By way of background if you park at any garage in downtown Washington it’s likely owned and operated by Eritreans. If you get in a cab in the District, the driver is likely from Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia). Both groups look to carry favor with the Barry administration. Their adviser provided much need capital to Barry Campaign in later years. Favorable legislation flowed. In several elections challengers tried to unseat the Mayor. Barry’s Election Day ground game was always superior to his opponents. The Barry Campaign called in their favor from Ethiopian/Eritrean communities.  Volunteers armed with voter list will call these people on Election Day and transport people to the polls for free. I have watched this personally and it is a game changer. A majority of media didn’t see this coming and when they discover the ground game it was revelation.

Lastly, Barry is the first modern day politician to openly advocate for the Gay community. He included gay members in his cabinet. He walks in Washington’s Gay Pride Parade. The thing that endears him to this group is his early acknowledgement of the AIDS epidemic. He championed the AIDS quilt in the eighties which drew attention to those who had died from the disease. Few politicians dared to acknowledge this community and let alone embrace them. Barry was there before the world.

Post Script

Generations of Washingtonians will talk about what Marion Barry did for the city, the underserved communities, the empowerment of the African-American business community, and the expansion of voter base.  Political scientist and students will pour over his legacy and point to his accomplishments. In Black Politics, he ends an era where those who were one step from slavery (share cropping) could rise above their circumstances, fail, and find redemption. This is an American Story.

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