Lessons from a D.C. riot

It’s difficult for me to watch riots ravaging London. As a former mayor of a capital when it was caught in the throes of senseless violence, I know how powerless people in charge can be.

On May 5, 1991, two police officers reprimanded a 30-year-old Salvadoran man in the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood for disorderly conduct and requested that he dispose of the open container he was carrying. By all accounts, he was drunk, and a ruckus ensued. By the time the fight ended, the man had been shot by a rookie police officer.

Events quickly spiraled out of control. While Police Chief Ike Fulwood and I hoped that as people absorbed the facts that night, they would grasp that the officer had responded appropriately to a perceived threat. No such luck; the crowd amassing in Mount Pleasant reached a different conclusion.

I was very familiar with the impatience simmering among the District’s Latino residents. While campaigning for mayor the previous year, I heard on countless occasions that Latinos had grown tired of waiting for the D.C. government to acknowledge their growing presence. Latinos represented 10 percent of Washington’s population but occupied no positions of authority in government.

I was eager to address their concerns. With professionals such as Mari Carmen Aponte at the helm of the search process and Mike Ramirez a deputy in the Office of Personnel, I was confident we could soon have a government that better reflected the city’s demographic profile.

I was wrong. Though we made headway before the riots — Fe Morales Marks had been appointed superintendent of banks and Maria Borrero director of the department of unemployment services — the disturbances upended this promising start. It quickly became clear that my prayer for a quiet, early resolution would not be answered. The massive police presence designed to quell the unrest seemed only to excite the crowd, propelling it to violence. And while the riots brought attention to Latino needs, they also rubbed salt into the wound of a city deeply divided.

Fulwood and I searched for a nuanced response where there was none. How could a mayor — the first black, female mayor of any large U.S. city — show that her city would not tolerate illegal behavior while recognizing the injustices endured by immigrants? Rather like what we have seen in London recently, once D.C. police tamed the crowd in one location, it would reassemble in greater numbers elsewhere. By the second day, the disturbances had spread to Adams Morgan, growing more dangerous along the way.

The 1991 riots were an all-consuming issue for D.C. residents. Latino demands were not met sympathetically. Many Washingtonians, black and white, were resentful and expected me to handle the situation with brute force. They wanted D.C. police to check rioters for green cards. They wanted rioters deported. The thinking was clear: Why should citizens of a majority-black city — a city without a vote in Congress and ravaged by riots, poverty and HIV — step aside for anyone?

In the end, I imposed an evening curfew on affected areas, with violators facing arrest. The result was dramatic. By the end of the first evening with a curfew, the close of the second day of violence, the disturbances gave way to a restored calm. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, then rolled up our sleeves to infuse authority in the community that had cried out. We began publishing government documents in two languages. We opened a police Latino community relations office at Columbia Road and 14th Street NW. I supported the Latino Civil Rights Task Force and more.

For some, the Mount Pleasant riots served as a constructive turning point: a difficult but necessary wake-up call for city officials and residents. For me, it was a distraction — an anguished prelude to the rollout of Latino-focused policies and programs already in the works. Such a start did not portend a city full of promise, as our inaugural chant (prophetically similar to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan) suggested: “Yes We Can and Yes We Will.” After the riots, these initiatives suggested a city capitulating to angry, bitter demands. I was thoroughly frustrated by the ordeal.

Whatever my personal disappointment 20 years ago, I now appreciate that the disturbances presaged a city on the cusp of growth. People erupted after years of struggle to become respected members of the Washington community. Though I cannot condone riots, I recognize that it was important that Latinos became empowered through their own efforts. It was important, too, that the ensuing initiatives were ones for which they claimed ownership, not ones bestowed by a benevolent government.

In many ways, we are still a city divided — in fact, often defined — by ethnicity and economics. Nonetheless, we have grown by light years since those days in 1991. I can’t offer advice to David Cameron or Boris Johnson, but I pray for the same outcome for London. Rarely do we grow without some pain.

Sharon Pratt, mayor of the District from 1991 to 1995.

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