Saturday, May 17, 2008


I've lived on Washington's Capitol Hill for some 20 years in two spurts - including editing a neighborhood paper during the time of the riots in the 1960s - but I could not recall anything like the hostility, sense of entitlement and insensitivity of recent messages that started cropping on a local listserv in response to a few teenage muggings, for which responsibility was quickly assigned a nearby public housing project, Potomac Gardens. The project has been there for decades; many of the complainants have only recently arrived on the Hill, and, as in other gentrfying parts of town, are demanding that their new neighborhood meet their standards. One resident even suggest hiring Blackwater to deal with the problem, while someone else proposed a march, not on city hall or the police station, but on the public housing project itself. It was all pretty depressing - until other voices began to be heard and I realized I was getting a unique view of how the Internet can serve as mediator, introducing people who might otherwise never meet. Here are a few excerpts from the discussion. - Sam Smith

-- Why not march through Potomac Gardens to protest and call attention to at least the following: the consistently awful management of PG and places like it in the city; the inherent unfairness of the disproportionate number of calls for police and ambulance service to -- or as a result of -- residents residing, on the dole, at PG; the childish absurdity and paucity of the "no-snitch" code embraced and perpetuated by PG residents; the ineffectual lip-service paid to those of us who fund, through our taxes, places throughout the city like PG, but who are constantly victimized by its residents and particularly by the children of its lease-holders; the absurdity of DC's juvenile shield laws that seem to fly in the face of the 1st Amendment when it comes to sharing information. . . and finally, the simplest, we're just all sick of the crap we have been force-fed by our civic leaders, PC pundits, and apologists alike, that living in an economically, racially, and demographically diverse urban environment entails accepting that we should expect to be assaulted, stolen from, and abused by those among us who are deemed "less fortunate?" - S&P

A number of other white neighbors supported the idea but then. . .

-- I must say that I am alarmed by the idea of an angry mob storming Potomac Gardens and other public housing developments. . . I do not in any way underestimate the severity of the problem and the frustration and anger over these incidents, but a mass demonstration makes no distinction between the "good" parents and delinquent parents, the good kids and the bad. It comes across as an us/them confrontation, "we" the homeowners and "you" the "welfare beneficiaries of tax dollars." I don't like the sound of it and I don't see it as a way to promote any kind of dialogue or meaningful improvement. - Marika Rosen

-- I disagree with you. There needs to be a firmer and clearer establishment of "us" versus "them", specifically in the area of violent crime and victimization. We need to send a message that among "us," regardless of race and demographics, we do not tolerate being victimized by "them," consisting of people who directly and indirectly contribute to the violence against "us" and our victimization. I'm not suggesting writing off this generation of kids residing in places like PG, but I am stating emphatically that the time has come to forcefully send the message to them, their parents and their apologists that we, as a civilized and peace-loving segment of the greater community have had enough. That it is unacceptable for anybody living among us to violently and brutally assault and rob us.

- I feel for you and am so sorry about what happened to you on Tuesday night. I support your efforts to bring the community together to make our neighborhood safer. I've got to say, though, that a march on people's homes isn't the way to go. I know you're not trying to intimidate innocent families, and again, I fully appreciate your anger and desire to take back our streets, but honestly some of what I've read makes me think of KKK marches in the 60s. I agree with Tom and others who've said the main message is that we want to be safe in our neighborhoods. I like the idea of a broad-based march, but not a march on Potomac Gardens. - Marc

--- When I lived in Philly "Take Back the Night" marches were common and frequent. . . but these weren't people marching on the MLK Projects or the South Broad high rises. . . This was making a statement about the rights of people to walk down a sidewalk, sit on their porch or let their kids play on the stoop . . . I think that starting an idea with the assumption that people will turn this into a race and class thing is to allow it to become a statement that people aren't trying to make. This isn't about tearing down PG. . . t's about being able to be safe in our neighborhoods.

--- I honestly wonder if people know how they sound talking about the people who live in Potomac Gardens et al and the black kids in this neighborhood?

I by no stretch of the imagination think that what the kids who have been attacking people are right. I do think that they should be punished. That being said, every black youth who crosses your path in this neighborhood doesn't live in Potomac Gardens et al. I know of many black kids who live in a house just as nice as many of yours.

Also, did it occur to you that many of these kids are pissed off because their families have been displaced by the crazy prices of homes around here? The houses that they knew as their Grandma's, Aunties, cousin's are now yours. Yes, their anger is displaced but just think about it for a second. Then there is the fact that many of these kids are kids that have had to leave the neighborhood because their families couldn't afford the houses anymore and they come back to hang with their friends they grew up with. . . which again means they didn't come from the projects or section 8 housing.

I hope that you don't look at my daughter and just assume because she's black that she's in the projects. I mean really, we black people can and do amount to more than that.

This whole discussion has taken on an elitist, racist, angry mob slant. Isn't the whole idea to find a productive way to stop this? Can't something be done without making it look like this list is saying "hey all you poor black people, we don't want your kind around here?" I suddenly don't feel so welcome in this neighborhood anymore. - Manda (A single black parent who hopes her daughter never has to feel that she isn't wanted in her neighborhood!)

-- If you hadn't noticed, Potomac Gardens and the other low-income housing in the area are predominantly housed by African Americans. How could Manda, Bessie, or I not be offended by the tone and focus of your "idea". and - to make matters worse, your subsequent postings continue to suggest that low-income residents (a) - don't have morals; (b) don't know how to raise their children; and (c) - don't value living in a crime-free neighborhood.

I wonder what your exposure to inner-city life has been. I wonder just how many low-income housing projects you've lived near. And finally, I wonder if you really understand the dynamics of crime. Your focus on the low-income areas of our neighborhood and the people within them is the very thing that angers minorities (and maybe non-minorities) faced with an influx of "gentrifiers". This "us" versus "them" mentality is exactly what divides a community. How can you even suggest this approach and use "us" versus "them" in a message about building a community against crime??

Your repeated defenses of your statements later in the postings really demonstrate your ignorance of how to effectively deal with these kinds of issues. And I'm not saying I'm an expert on crime prevention or community development, but I'm pretty sure that community development can't result in a march directed on poor folks who are in our community.

In the past, we tried to combat crime by reaching out to our neighbors in hard-hit areas and encouraging them to join in the fight. To me, this would mean knocking on the doors of your neighbors who you don't ordinarily talk to and ask them if they would be willing to be more active in a neighborhood watch. . . or perhaps if they would participate more regularly in the Orange Hat activities or other. Or simply ask people to leave their porch lights on and call 311. It would not mean organizing a posse and marching on the homes of innocents and criminals, demanding change. How do you know that those criminals are even based in Potomac Gardens? How can running in the direction of a complex mean that the crime emanates from that complex? It might be your neighbor's nephew visiting his aunt who engaged in criminal mischief. But you'll never know because your blinders have you directed toward the low-income side of town.

For my part, I will continue to try and work within the community (insofar as my work schedule allows) with additional neighborhood watches, leaving my porch light on, and keeping a vigilant eye. I would not mind meeting with city officials to see if they have any ideas about how we can address these concerns - but I don't think the Housing Authority is the source for a solution . . .

I fully expect to get a heated response from you or others, but please think and breathe before writing back - I did, and I think calming down is what I needed to do. Please think about what you've said in past postings (perhaps re-read them) and think about what others have said in response to the postings and maybe we can come up with a more constructive solution to crime in the area - one other than a "march" on a housing project that some have only assumed holds criminals. - Rochelle, African American

--- I have been watching the conversation of the past several days, trying to figure out how to comment constructively. I'm pretty sure this post will fail spectacularly, but I am too angry and ashamed to stay quiet any longer.

Martin Luther King and his fellow marchers were Americans protesting immoral laws that rendered them second-class citizens. For people with every advantage (affluent, educated, white) to invoke Dr. King's name as they plan a march on their disadvantaged neighbors appalls me.

There have been constructive voices, people who speak of building alliances across racial and economic lines to achieve a common goal. But so many of the posts to this list have been angry and vindictive and, yes, racist and classist. (You don't need to use the n-word to be racist; repeat the word "babymomma" enough times and you've achieved the same effect. Likewise, saying, "it's because they're poor" is pretty much the definition of classism.)

I can't figure out what this march is supposed to achieve, either. I saw a reference to closing Potomac Gardens ­ what, so homeless kids are less likely to commit crime?

Someone mentioned threatening parents of truant children with jail time. I must've missed the news that putting parents in prison improves their children's prospects ­ I thought the evidence pretty clearly demonstrated the opposite.

If you're so passionate about reducing juvenile crime, how about proposing an intensive mentoring program at Potomac Gardens, so we can reach kids before they mug someone?

Another poster mentioned the carrot and the stick. Sticks might work on donkeys, but carrots are far more effective at changing human behavior. (Sticks tend to piss us off.) A lower birth rate isn't a cause of affluence; it comes as a result of it. If we want young women to stop having a lot of children at an early age, we have to increase their opportunities so they have an incentive not to. If we want young men to steer clear of their criminal behavior, likewise: They need an incentive not to.

What if HillEast funded a modest scholarship toward the college tuition of any child at Potomac Gardens who earned his or her high school diploma and did not get pregnant or get into trouble with the police? That's an incentive to straighten up and fly right.

A march whose message seems to be "We're rich and white and better than you, get out of our way!" might be more satisfying than other, more constructive options ­ but it's an incentive to commit mayhem.

Look, I get it: You're scared and angry. Guess what? So are those kids. Scared they'll have to leave the only home they've known, scared that their neighborhood is changing, scared they'll never know anything but poverty, scared they'll die before they're 20. The truth is, they have a lot more reason to be scared than you do. And just because they're expressing their fear as anger doesn't mean you can't come up with something more constructive. - Molly Wyman, Hill resident for 40 years come Tuesday

--- Hey Molly. . . you and I live fairly close to each other, so let's talk about who is appalled, and let's talk about fear. Think of this. . . if MLK was alive today, would he be appalled to know that he gave his life to civil rights, and this is how the kids and families use those civil rights against white people. Would he be appalled that these young black kids are committing racially motivated hate crimes. I think both you and I know the answer is a resounding yes, he would be appalled. Hey white people deserve peace and justice too!

So, he fought to end immoral laws that rendered blacks being placed as second class citizens. Well, I'm not about to become a second class citizen to the criminals. I'm not about to live in fear that my partner and I (gay partner, not business partner) might get beaten down by some young ignorant thug who has an equally ignorant parental structure. That is my fear everyday, that my tall skinny blonde boyfriend might not make it home from the metro because of these thugs. I'm not going to stand for it. I don't care "why" they are that way. I don't care if they are poor, or black, or have baby mommas, or were a product of one. I care about my loved one getting home from the three block walk safe. . . Clearly, you will not be part of the solution.

--- I suppose I'll attend to be community like. . . but is charging those rock throwing arms of the "gang of four" with our home cooked meals really going to solve the problem? I think, probably not. Then again, they'll know we are out of our homes, so please make sure to lock your roof hatches.

--- I'm proposing a weekly Friday Night Potluck Dinner and Discussion to be held at Potomac Gardens ­ open to all members of our community. I will invite Chief Lanier and Commander Kamperin from MPD to join us, as well as the leadership at Potomac Gardens, and I hope to create a conversation about safety, perceptions, and how our neighborhood builds strength in the community among all neighbors.

I'll host the first Friday Night Potluck in two weeks on Friday May 30th, 6:00 ­ 7:30 pm. Given Memorial Day Weekend next week, I think this is our first opportunity. We'll hold them each week on Friday evening through the month of June and if the residents feel we need to continue, then we can keep it going on a weekly basis after that. - Best, Tommy (the white city councilmember from the area)


At May 19, 2008 1:15 PM, Anonymous ibc said...

I could not recall anything like the hostility, sense of entitlement and insensitivity of recent messages that started cropping on a local listserv in response to a few teenage muggings...

I don't imagine this'll make much of an impact, but here goes: I think the thing that gets glossed over in these discussions is that, Potomac Gardens either needs to change significantly, or disappear. The hard part is to figure out how.

Because make no mistake, the folks who live in PGardens are allowed to live in the community *only* at the dispensation of the folks who don't live in public housing.

I realize that sounds callous (or to your taste racist, classist, or what have you), but it's just the way it is. It's imperative that the "bad apples" be weeded out so that we, the greater community, can continue to provide services like public housing. Most new residents support public welfare initiatives, but that can change.

And the idea that this is a black vs. white thing is true in a small sense; the greater truth is that it's a middle-class vs poor thing. The reason it takes the form of black vs. white is that the vast, vast majority of the black middle-class abandoned the community around Potomac Gardens in the last decade or so. They've moved on because it was easier than either changing or eradicating PGardens.

Middle-class whites may have been buying these places, but middle-class blacks have been selling them.

At May 22, 2008 7:48 PM, Blogger MAMADOC said...

One way to begin to get rid of the reasons for fear (by those who have adopted the trench "them/us" mentality) is to continue to build on what sounds to me like a pretty solid foothold on communitarian possibilites for action. The alternative I would like to suggest here applies to everyone else besides PGardens residents: i.e., the creation of a network of exchanges that could soon rely on an alternative economic accounting system within the neighborhood: local "money" to allow for bartering and multi-bartering --an effective way of making fair trade possible among those who do not have sufficient access to the central bank's scarce commodity. Also, exacting from local schools an open-door policy to all civic groups able to organize apprenticeships free from the square curriculum that has been imposed on most people with the poor results we know. An alternative system of exchanging knowledge along with an alternative monetary system are two key elements for creating community: healthy communities instead of the sick, sick anti-social landscape of so much urban dwelling.

At May 27, 2008 7:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes...divide and conquer. Just what those in power like. As long as people are fighting among them selves, they aren't fighting the powerful.


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