Riots in Washington, D.C. – Part II
In the Neighborhood, Day 2 and 3 – 48-72 Hours
Martin Luther King was dead. The people had, in frustration and anger,lost control, rioted , looted and burned. Washington, D. C. was under martial law with a 24 hour curfew. Here we were…. a generation that had sat in, gone on freedom rides, marched in the company of hundreds and thousands of people, integrated schools, worked in voter registration drives, listened to the speeches of Stokely Carmichael(Kwame Toure) and the music of Nina Simone (Mississippi Goddam) and found ourselves encouraged by the words and wisdom of Dr. King and now…in the blink of an eye everything had changed.
We looked through our apartment windows and the only traffic we could see on nearby streets were military vehicles. This was America? A jeep patrols our streets—a soldier in uniform drives, a cop in uniform sits in the jump seat and in the back seat is another soldier with a mounted machine gun! A loudspeaker blares…."This city is under martial law, do not come out of your houses, any person seen on the street will be arrested.." over and over again. We look at each other…there is nothing to say…we are in shock…never in our lives have we been subjected to such blanket hostile, prison like confinement. Little freedoms like taking a morning cup of coffee out the door of your apartment building and sitting on the stone bench to the right of the entrance in the poarking lot that you pay rent for each month and less than ten minutes later…the infernal jeep turns into the parking lot with the loudspeaker blaring and the bullhorn blares again "…do not come out of your houses…" We go back inside and stand in the lobby of our apartment building looking at the street. There really is nothing to say that we all aren’t thinking,
in the space of forty eight hours we have lost one of the greatest men of our times to a bullet without conscience and we have lost a significant amount of our so-called personal inalienable rights. The phones don’t work so there is no contact beyond the immediate building. Television news tells you no more than you already know. The consensus from everyone in the building is that THIS IS SCARY AS HELL!
Throughout the day we wander through the apartment building…visiting apartment to apartment..just to have some company…just to make sure that our surrogate family is still intact. If one of us has food, we all have food, if one of us has shelter, we all have shelter. None of us want to be alone…the prospect is too frightening. We feel as if our security, our sense of safety has been stripped from us and a great sense of helplessness surrounds us. As the day lengthens, the women cling to one group but the men are getting restless…..they are feeling threatened….unable to protect their homes, families, turf from danger that can only be identified as "THEM."
Rob finally gets a phone call from his boss at the liquor store. Can he get up to the store and see if it is okay? Four or five of the fellows decide that as soon as it gets dark, they will go. After all…the store is barely two blocks away and it is possible to get there through the alleys which are not being patrolled. Besides the Jewish family that owns the store has been known to cash our checks….lend us money (without interest) near the end of the month and provide an emergency job on occasion. That’s how Rob got his job when his wife was off her government job on maternity leave and they needed food and formula money. If the people decide to riot and loot again…someone has to protect those who protect us! Up to this time the trouble had been no closer than the business district on 14th Street but who knows what will happen when it is dark outside? After all there is a grocery store on Columbia Road and no matter how many armed jeeps patrol the streets…human eyes can still spot headlights and street lights do not survive bricks!
The women exchange looks and decide the men are not going alone. We will cut through different alleys to see what is happening. The men go early because Rob has a key to the store. We wait a while, put on some dark clothes and head to Columbia Road. We decide to forget the alleys and just walk up the street. There is a house with wide steps near Columbia Road….in clear view of the store where the guys are keeping watch. We sit on the steps and tell the fellow that rents the house to go inside and keep his mouth shut. I guess he was intimidated by six women sitting on his steps because he went back inside. We waited…not exactly sure what we were waiting on…talked quietly and watched the streets. It was nearly midnight when we heard men coming from the 16th Street side…men who made absolutely no attempt at being quiet. They were going to hit the liquor store. The five fellows from our building, opened the door to the store and looked out…then they walked out to meet the newcomers. "No, you guys are not going to hit this liquor store! The folks that own this store are good to us and they are part of our neighborhood, some of us work here and there is no way we are going to let you do this. If you have to have booze, try the store across the street! He doesn’t like us, doesn’t cash our checks, only lets one of us in the store at a time and we could care less what happens to him!" Five black men stood solidly in front of a Jewish owned liquor store that night and the mob moved on…across Columbia Road.
We six women sat and watched as the mob broke the plate glass store front and went into the corner liquor store. Within less than ten minutes…two police cruisers pulled up and shone their spotlights in the store. They ordered the mob out under penalty of arrest and a trip to Lorton. As soon as the mob dispersed…the cops looked around…did not spot us sitting on the steps and…they went into the liquor store and started carrying out boxes of booze until the National Guard showed up with their jeeps and ordered them out! Oh no, this story is not over…women are invisible you know. As soon as the cops drove off…the National Guard went in and finished the job of cleaning out the liquor store. Then one of them spotted us and demanded that we go home. We yelled back that we were home and it was too hot to be in without a fan or some way to keep cool. After all..we were only women. Two of the guardsmen walked over to us and gave each one of us a bottle. Other than that, they left us alone and drove off.
When we heard glass breaking ast the grocery store, we decided it was time to go home. We left and headed to our building. This was the first day of martial law and the second day of life without MLK.