Recently, former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry, 78, died from cardiac arrest, (I’m not gonna lie, I’ve written dozens of news stories and press releases about people dying in any amount of ways and that has got to be the clunkiest, worst sentence I’ve ever committed to paper. Moving on.)
Marion Barry served as mayor of the Nation’s Capital from 1979-1991 and again 1995-1999. As of this printing, running for future terms has not been ruled out. Barry rose to acclaim and power in the 60s during the civil rights movement. He was best known for being friends with Jesse Jackson and famously once threw a two-day-old dinner roll at Gloria Steinem’s head out of consternation.
After working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Barry and the organization parted ways at the end of the 1960s due to his advocating the use of baboons with ice picks duct-taped to their wrists during marches. Several lines from Barry’s farewell speech made their way into the cultural zeitgeist of that turbulent period and still ring true today:
I’m serious people. Have you all seen a baboon in person? Them sumbitches can rip off people’s faces! You give those turkeys some ice picks and let them loose in Chevy Chase? Hot damn that’ll leave a few scars. Scars for social justice, I mean. Also, stop comparing my boy Rollo to a monkey, it’s both racist and he can’t help the way he looks. Alright, now let’s get out there and bring some integration to D.C. But first, a short message from Newport cigarettes. Newport Classics: “Enjoy a full flavor menthol, without drowning out the pure tobacco taste.” Amen.
Following the D.C. riots of 1968, Barry helped institute programs that brought both jobs and money to the poor residents of the area, black and white (but not Eskimo, screw those guys), forever earning him a place in the collective heart of the Chocolate City.
He endeared himself to the residents so much that he opted to get involved in politics to bring about whatever social change he could to make the world a better place for people of color.
Unfortunately, he ended up becoming infamous for smoking crack and meeting up with prostitutes in shitty motels.
Whereas controversies and setbacks, such as being a crackhead, would probably end the career of a regular politician, Barry used these flaws to his advantage, paving the way for future crack-smoking mayors from other towns to also ignore reality in favor of their own Loony Toons version of the world. Toronto douchebag Rob Ford has made embarrassing, drug-related gaffes a cornerstone of his political platform and it has served him well. Thanks to the trail blazed by Barry.
Also, luckily for Barry, D.C. seemed to not care about his legal transgressions, whatever they may be. Which is why, even though he has since been arrested and/or convicted for such crimes as buggery, adultery, hair cuttery, barn-pottery,* animal husbandry and necromancy, he’s still beloved by the citizens of D.C.
“We love that dude,” said some random drunk guy I accosted on the street early this morning outside of a diner.
I assume he was talking about Marion Barry. He could have been talking about the fire hydrant he was patting lovingly. We can only surmise.
The fact that Washington D.C., the seat of power for the majority of the world, the place where annoying people in their 20s and 30s come to flood the area with their stupid transplant ways, choose to continue to embrace such an obviously flawed politician says a lot about this city specifically, and about the state of politics in this country in general. At least, we all thought so. Until the recent President (“Capo di tutti cappi?) of Italy showed America how to get away with being a shining example of human decrepitude and still get reelected into power. Honestly, that guy banged half the women in the country, made rivals sleep with fishes and never saw a bribe he wouldn’t take. A fine man.
Now that Barry is gone, we have to all ask ourselves one important question: “Huh?” If we look back on this man’s life and the work he’s done for the last 50 years, we can see that he has done a lot of good. He has also done a lot of bad. He has also done a lot of controversial stuff. Like his 1987 bill to create “Whiteface Day” when all the minorities in Washington were encouraged to paint their faces light colors so that “the whites will know how it feels.”
And in a way, Barry’s all-over-the-place legacy fits best in this city that more often than not lives only on spectrum extremes. The District of Colombia itself represents all the best and all the worst that people can achieve. This town is an example that there are no definite black and white truths or absolutes. Everything that compels human action or influences human intention comes forth from a muddied gray soup of kinetic possibility. We all get to reach into that soup to create our own motivations and decide our own impacts on the world. We don’t always get to choose how we’re seen by others, or how our actions will be received, or even how we’ll be remembered. We can only hope to do what we can and maybe, if we’re earnest enough, no matter how flawed our efforts are, history may take pity on us and paint us with the broad, bright colors of heroes instead of the dark, subversive tones of villains.
Let us remember Barry for his best-known and most inspirational quote. I know I often recite it to myself in times of personal strife. The words are as true today as when they were first uttered, lo those many years ago: “Bitch set me up… I shouldn’t have come here… goddamn bitch.”
Amen brother Barry. Amen.
*Shut up. It’s early in the morning and by brain isn’t switched on yet.