Remembering the Mayor for Life

My favorite story about organizing in Marion Barry’s city: it happened at the height of the Save Our Safety Net campaign.

We’d been putting ‘SOS’ capes on DC councilcritters who pledged to prevent Fenty’s budget cuts by voting for higher taxes. We needed three more votes. So we planned this one last big action which had been tactically successful (lots of people showed up! we encircled the whole JAWB!!) but maybe not so effective (our targets basically blew us off).

SOS “Build Our Safety Net” Rally – Kymone Vs. Kwame from Hermon Farahi on Vimeo.

After everyone else had left, the organizing crew sat on the steps debriefing — when suddenly Barry walked right up. Joni asked if he would accept an SOS cape; he did without skipping a beat. (This would turn out to be the last ‘caping’ of the campaign.) Hermon Farahi got video of it:

Almost nobody saw this video. But, amazingly, Barry did end up wearing that cape into the budget hearing and through the whole damn thing.

Naturally, this made the news.

The comments on the news articles about Marion Barry wearing a cape in the budget hearing were predictably horrible and racist. Over on Facebook, someone on our team made the mistake of quoting one (i think it was: “Bitch set me up, up, and awaaay!”) with a ‘LOL.’

This immediately brought out some fierce reactions from some of our allies, who (rightly) observed that a bunch of white kids playing dress-up had no business turning around to mock a civil rights icon. That Barry had personally touched the lives of so many of the people on whose behalf we were supposedly advocating. That all respect was due.

At the time, I was inwardly baffled. I’d read Dream City, but I didn’t get it. This was before I’d really sat and listened to many DC residents talk about the city as it used to be, and what Barry did and what he meant to them. To understand this is to learn a terribly important lesson in politics: give people something to believe in, and make them feel like it’s really theirs, and they’ll never want to let it go.

RIP, Mr Mayor.

24. November 2014 by
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