Riots in Washington, D.C. – Part IV
The peach brandy I brought home from the destruction of the corner liquor store sat in my picture window for a long long time. It was not in a place of honor, it was not a souvenir, it was only a reminder….of some of the darkest days that I have ever seen before or since. The artificial bonding that took place in the apartment building was just that an artificial response to to an unforeseen and uncontrollable external threat. Martial law (and the media and the government would gloss over its occurrence for two generations) did not make any of us feel protected…it made us feel threatened…threatened in a way that racist demonstrations, water hoses, KKK lynchings, police beatings, cops running amok, had never done. Facing a machine gun…not in a time of war…in your own neighborhood; recognizing that so called "law and order" had not protected Martin Luther King and a few weeks later did not protect Robert F. Kennedy, was an earth shattering, life changing occurrence.
All of us were required personally and as a group to 1) face our own mortality, 2)face the depth of frustration and anger that permeates the black community, 3) face the inability of the government to handle the extremes of convergent human emotion, 4)face the limits of our idealism and our view of a perfect world and 5) face our overriding humanity as we faced an uncertain and out of control future. When an individual is 20 something this mindset is very unsettling. In simple terms, where do we go from here?
When I returned to my classroom, I was welcomed by my students who for the most part had been worried about me. They knew (in general) where I lived and in theory how close the riots had been to me, I was glad to see them for a much and less different reason…they represented a return to "normal" life or in other terms, "life as it should be." Truly there is never a return to normal because horrific events affect all of us. Change is constant, change can not be controlled by any one person, it is controlled by the actions of all human beings…negatively or positively.
One of my students, whom I will call Rick, had questions for me. Would I be honest with him? His father had owned a business in the middle of one of the areas virtually destroyed by the rioters. He also owned some apartment buildings near my neighborhood. When Rick mentioned the business his father owned, I realized I knew of the business by reputation. That reputation had been neither good or bad, it was simply a business in a declining neighborhood. Then he asked me about the apartment buildings near my neighborhood and my heart sank. I knew those buildings…I knew some people who lived rhere. The dilemma was huge for me. I might not know anything negative about the business on the other side of town but I did know more then enough about the apartment buildings. How could I answer him? Finally I told him that I would prefer that he do his own research…take the bus over and check things out for himself.
After he left my classroom, I began to worry because I knew what he would find out and I found myself wondering if I should have sent him to 14th Street. His safety was not the issue, I knew he would not be bothered in broad open daylight but….his disillusionment with his father’s management inaction could have been devastating. My lingering question rises from two different points of view. The son was 17 years old, a rising senior in high school. As his teacher, I had gained his trust…I would answer any question my students asked as honestly and truthfully as I could and they knew that. From that viewpoint, Rick deserved an answer.
As a young black woman who had dealt with Civil Rights issues….I knew what Rick would find out…his father was a fairly typical slum lord of the times. He collected the rent and put nothing back into the maintenance of his buildings. I had visited a former student who lived in one of his rental units and had seen massive holes in the walls..not holes caused from a fist through the wall…but holes caused by water leaking form one floor to the next. The quarrel was not with the son but it did lie somewhere in the chain of responsibility with the father, directly or indirectly. My former student, the tenant, deserved an answer. As for me…I had placed myself in the middle of what could be a perfect storm!
The next day, Rick came back to see me. The look of determination on his face was chiseled in stone. What ever had happened…his mind was made up. "You knew, didn’t you?" I nodded my head. "Why didn’t you tell me?" The only answer I could give him was that he needed to know for himself…not from the mouth of a third party. He looked at me and finally said, "I took pictures and then I went home and developed them. Then I had a long conversation with my Dad." I was scared for him….I had no idea what his father would say. Rick watched my reaction for a couple of minutes before continuing his story. ‘My Dad is giving me the buildings and I am moving in next weekend!"
To say I was shocked would be a grave understatement. Over the summer and the following year, even more surprises were coming. Rick moved in and promptly called a tenant’s meeting. He introduced himself and announced that he now owned these three buildings and that he had moved in. He then announced the firing of the so-called resident management person and asked each tenant to list all maintenance issues within their units. Then he asked for volunteers to help fix the issues. From what I heard from people I knew who lived in his buildings, enough people were willing to help especially after they saw Rick get to work. Word traveled that the landlord had moved in and he might be young but he played no games.
The grocery store that sold spoiled meat was the first tenant to be evicted. The rumor flew through the neighborhood that the landlord had called the health department and stood watching while ALL the spoiled groceries were thrown out! What I do know is that another grocery store opened in the cleaner space and I didn’t hear about any more spoiled food. A year later when I drove by the buildings shortly before I left D.C. for an out of state job, the buildings were freshly painted and the exteriors were definitely cleaned up. After I left D.C, I do not know what happened to Rick but he left me with heightened hopes for the future. When an 18 year-old from a privileged background was willing to take a stand against his own father…I could see a glimmer of sunshine.
History books do not tell this part of the story…the positive awakening that affected people such as Rick (no, that is not his real name). History books tell us that the revival of the burned out areas took a long, long time. The human (people) aspect is ignored or skipped altogether perhaps because the truths behind the riots were not pretty and did not fit the picture that we call the American Dream. Even today …41 years later…there is no measurable attempt to analyze these truths.
I offer no answers but I urge the current generation of young adults to remember that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers. We can not control the crazies that kill good people rather than change their insane ways but we can extend a helping hand to our neighbors.