Mayor Marion Barry is Arrested for Crack-Cocaine

Rabble-rouser, hero, thug, public servant, crackhead, role model, negro militant, freedom rider, scoundrel, prophet, radical, drug addict, philanderer, genius, convict, legend… he’s been called it all. When it comes to Marion Barry, the truth really is stranger than fiction and, like most things, it depends on your vantage point, it differs according to where you stand and, especially, which side of the tracks you live on.

Straight from the experts, the indisputable facts are as follows:

1) Marion Barry was a powerful black leader:

“In 1965, Marion Barry arrived in Washington to direct activities for SNCC […] a civil rights organization known for demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts. Mr. Barry was its first national chairman. In 1966, he led a one-day bus ‘mancott’ to protest a fare increase requested by D.C. Transit.

November 2, 1971: Marion Barry, seeking a Board of Education at-large seat, casts his ballot at the Ward 1 voting precinct at Cardozo High School (13th and Clifton Sts. NW)

He organized a ‘Free D.C. Movement’ to press for home rule. He called D.C. police ‘an occupation army.’ [In 1967,] With financial support from the U.S. Department of Labor, he organized and directed a group known as Pride Inc., which put more than 1,000 inner-city youths to work From 1972 until 1974, Mr. Barry was the school board’s president. In 1974, he was elected to an at-large seat on the D.C. Council […where] he was instrumental in defeating a 1 percent gross-receipts tax on all city businesses, winning the gratitude of the business community. He helped get a pay raise for the police department. He was among early supporters of equal rights for gay men and lesbians.

As mayor of the District, Mr. Barry became a national symbol of self-governance for urban blacks. […] His programs helped provide summer jobs for youths, home-buying assistance for working-class residents and food for senior citizens. And he placed African Americans in thousands of middle- and upper-level management positions in the city government that in previous generations had been reserved for whites[1].”

2) The FBI pursued Barry for the better part of the 1980’s:

“For eight years, FBI agents were trying to get Barry to a point where they could read him his rights. They went through his bank records, tax returns, American Express bills, and they staked out his home. No luck. They even set up a fake consulting firm to try to infiltrate the mayor’s inner domain.

[…] Then, as part of this ‘scrupulously fair’ operation, the pursuit team decided to find a woman whom Barry trusted. ‘We talked about how the easiest way to get Barry was with a woman,’ a high-level law enforcement officer told The Post. Rasheeda Moore, then in California, fit the bill. Her fateful invitation to Barry to meet her at the Vista International Hotel followed.

With Moore – ‘the cooperating witness,’ in FBI lingo — was an FBI undercover agent who allegedly brought Barry the crack cocaine he allegedly asked and paid for. All this was recorded by cameras and audio machines in the bathroom and the joining bedroom[2].”

Shortly before 8:30 PM on January 18, 1990, Mayor Barry arrested at the Vista Hotel by FBI and D.C. police, the result of a sting operation coordinated jointly by the United States Attorney’s Office. In short order, Barry was charged with misdemeanor drug possession of crack-cocaine and released to face the facts of that evening, under the scrutiny of a nation divided, in the cold, hard light of day[3].

When the story broke the next day, it sparked, yet another, sharp divide in what was already a racially charged city. The overwhelming majority of black folks rallied around the mayor, accusing the white—mostly, wealthy Republican—officials of targeting Barry as a powerful leader who had effectively created an economy for and constituency out of, what was before Barry’s tenure, a wholly disenfranchised black community. Put simply by Jonetta Rose-Barras, award-winning journalist and author of The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders (Bancroft Press 1998), “Black people thought, ‘He was set up[3]!’”

In the days and weeks leading up to his trial, crowds of black folks sprang up all over the city, waving signs that read “MAYOR BARRY MAY NOT BE PERFECT, BUT HE IS PERFECT FOR US”, “We thought lynching was outlawed in the 1920’s”, ‘Stop the persecution of our black leaders!” and the like, while community leaders made fiery speeches erupting in thunderous applause and endless cheers of “Barry! Barry! Barry!” One such preacher seemed to embody the spirit of general disillusionment and widespread anger at the personal nature of the attack on their mayor when he concluded his oratory with a bleak pronouncement and the wave of a condemnatory finger: “There is no justice in America for the black man or black woman. Let us not deceive ourselves[3].”

White voters, on the other hand, almost unilaterally called for his immediate impeachment, posting signs all over the city to that effect. As for their take on race at play in Barry’s case, consider the exchange between one every-day, middle-aged white lady and morning show host, Cliff Kincaid of WNTR, the flagship radio station for televangelist Pat Robertson’s conservative talk network. Calling in the woman exclaimed, “If I hear one more black claim that it’s because he’s black, I’m going to throw up!” Commiserating, Kincaid chimed in, “And let’s dismiss all this nonsense about entrapment. Nobody forced him to go to that hotel. Marion Barry is a pathological liar. He’s a crack head[3].”

In the trial that began on June 20, 1990, the U.S. Attorney ultimately brought 14 charges against Marion Barry: three felony counts of perjury, 10 counts of drug possession, and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to possess cocaine from the night of his arrest[4]. The criminal trial ended in August 1990 with a conviction for only one possession incident, which had occurred in November 1989, and an acquittal on the other one. “I believe [the government was] out to get Marion Barry,” one juror said. U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson declared a mistrial on the 12 deadlocked charges[5]. The mayor was sentenced to six months in prison but came back to win a council seat in 1992 then rose, again, to claim the office of the mayor in 1994, where he remained for two terms[6].


Cecily McMillan

Works Cited

[1] Washington Post Obituary

[2] Of Course it Was Entrapment – Washington Post

[3] The Nine Lives of Marion Barry

[4] Charges and Verdicts in Barry’s Trial
[5] Chasm Divided Jurors in Barry Drug Trial
[6] Marion Barry: Making of a Mayor


Culture Wars

In education, conflict over prioritized subject matter taught in schools illuminated larger societal issues of race, legitimacy of cultural expressions and forms of knowledge in America. With the close of the 20th century, several questions continued to emerge: What constituted being an “American”? What does a true American look like, act like, talk like? How does history, and one’s ethnic/cultural background inform one’s place in American society? These questions were (and are) ultimately decided in the schools our children attend – spaces which may operate to reinforce societal norms, options and access to resources.

In the 1990s, an interesting series of debates occurred on this subject which were dubbed the “Culture Wars.” These “battles” took place in educational arenas: from classrooms, parent-teacher conferences and staff meetings to school board assemblies, and standardized testing planning sessions. With recognition and attempted incorporation of “minorities,” these debates centered on the question of how school systems educate in ways that relate to students of different cultural backgrounds. One could argue that these conversations were abruptly introduced, ignored and revisited continuously since the legal integration of American public schools in the closing years of the Civil Rights Movement. News articles, academic journal publications, books and even popular TV specials highlighted this phenomenon – in an attempt to answer the aforementioned questions.

This idea of “Culture Wars” is often followed up by the question, “who’s winning?” In a democracy, we all should. Yet these Culture Wars embrace less equality and inclusiveness with more combative and superiority complexes. With Culture Wars at the foundation of our children’s scholarship, this shows just how divided how nation truly is.

Eric Bain-Selbo asserts that these “Culture Wars” originally stemmed from the crucial question: How do we educate our children and young adults? (Bain-Selbo, 2003) The “we” alludes to the entirety of American society, which often is documented to operate under the assumption that citizens of the United States constitute and contribute to one uniform and united culture. This particular culture is cited to stem from America’s inception, and the popular ideals of its founders: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, going from rags to riches, equal opportunity, etc.

Henry Louis Gates addresses this assumption by highlighting what is known as the “Great Western Tradition.” This tradition includes patriotic standards, understandings and cultural guidelines in alignment with both the political and socio-economic agendas of the ruling classes in this country (Gates, 1993). This tradition reifies ideas of rationalized manifest destiny, free market capitalism and moral purity of property owners (mainly including White, often Protestant males) – in a prioritized historical narrative deemed heroic and necessary to teach in state public and private schools. From this narrative, all subjects taught are meant to prepare students in their attempts to realize the American Dream. This Dream consists of ultimate access to resources, and the power to make decisions (legislation, voting) that affect everyone moving forward.

In reality, this American Dream did not apply to the majority of peoples of color in this nation. Various ethnic groups, historically and strategically classified as races, struggled to survive and thrive in a society which placed them at odds with those of the wealthiest classes – and each other. These cultural experiences have influenced what could be considered “American” practices and expressions – holding equal weight and importance in contributions to economics, sciences, historical developments, achievements, literature, the arts, etc.

To put it simply, conservatives argued for school curricula to stay as it was, for “Great Western Traditions” to remain the standard. Students from all groups were charged to conform to this ideology, expressed in class lectures, assignments, reading materials and overall subject matter. Gates notes that these conservative public and academic figures considered multiculturalism to be “ethnic chauvinism” (Gates, pg. 174, 1993) These figures clearly contradicted themselves in accusing representatives of other ethnicities of “over-promoting” false histories, to make themselves feel “great” or “worthy of recognition:” especially since presentations of American history often completely omitted the contributions and stories of non-White males.

Those considered to “the right” countered with the multiculturalist argument: the implementation of culturally-relevant pedagogical practices. For educators and researchers of this position, it was important to create learning environments where all children saw themselves reflected in what they were being taught: their families, neighborhoods, histories, languages and forms of knowledge. From this understanding, students could be empowered to draw from these strengths to navigate American society, being productive and able to thrive in all spaces.

Pedagogical theorist, educator and author Gloria-Ladson Billings introduced the 90s to The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. She tackles this idea of reversion, and the possibility of African American students needed separate spaces for education, noting that public schools are seemingly already segregated; Non-inclusiveness curriculum vs. African American children.

Furthermore, educators and its administration need to come to a point where they they can stop denying absence of color. “I don’t see race,” is no longer acceptable. You have to see race and culture in order to understand what it is that individual students need. To acknowledge race is a simple means of acknowledging the social, racial, and political hurdles to which one is subjected, and should be only regarded as such, never to use against one. To tackle these Culture Wars, we need cultural acceptance and cultural literacy. Independent of religion or spirituality, (as they are intensely controversial) the simple inclusion of African American history, life, and expression would be a great start in ending the culture wars we witness in education. The public school system needs to create as less dissonance as possible for its minority and unassimilated students.

Ultimately, these “wars” are still waged and fought today. Observations in public school (and even higher academic) environments still reveal the need for greater cultural resources that reflect students’ various experiences. Many educators are still forced to strictly “teach from The Curriculum:” the items mandated by both state and educational officials, preoccupied with standardized testing results. At the same time, a greater number of educators (including many who started these debates in the late 80s/early 90s) have provided solutions. These solutions have manifested in program development strategies, new textbooks, grassroots organizational efforts, and teachers simply “sneaking cultural knowledge in” for their students.

My initial investigations about this make me want to read further on this topic, and draw potential connections to educational practices today.

Kweku Vassall & Revisited by Tysheira Scribner 

Works Cited

Bain-Selbo, Eric. (2003). Mediating the Culture Wars. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Binder, A. J. (2000). Why Do Some Curricular Challenges Work While Others Do Not? The Case of Three Afrocentric Challenges. Sociology of Education, 73(2), 69-91.
(PDF for viewing in our OMEKA entry for this article – very informative)

Gates, Henry Louis. (1993). Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Graff, Gerald. (1992). Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1994). The dreamkeepers : successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco :Jossey-Bass Publishers,