(or, Is "Neo-Prohibition" far behind?)

[from February 1999 issue]

Remember her? Of course, we don't actually remember her, but we do remember our studies of American social history. She was the nut case from Kansas at the turn-of-the (soon-to-end) century who traveled all around the country advocating that people should invade perfectly legal bars ("saloons" in the parlance of the time) and smash them up with hammers and axes or whatever else they might be able to wield. From the back platforms of trains she barnstormed all over fomenting civil disobedience--even encouraging young children to join their moms and dads in driving out the "Devil Rum."

What is so scary to contemplate is that all sorts of rational people were jumping to her cause, including elected and appointed officials. Of course, her crusade became moot thanks to Prohibition--the single most disruptive piece of social engineering ever foisted on free people in this country. In due course, as we know, cooler heads and sensible politicians (along with law enforcement authorities) concluded that Prohibition was madness and so it was repealed.

But, it's not clear to us that our local elected officials have discerned a dangerous move toward the same sort of social engineering that created chaos over three-quarters of a century ago.

We are beginning to witness the emergence of a vociferous "neo-prohibition" movement here in our own city. With such a movement comes all the baggage of irrational public discourse and refusal to even acknowledge reality. Our politicians, at least, need to provide some leadership and balance and not jump, willy-nilly, onto Carrie Nation's resurrected bandwagon.

For example, a few weeks ago we read an article in the Reverend Moon's newspaper purporting to explain why community activists in Dupont Circle feel the need for an extension of something known as the East Dupont Moratorium Zone. We were struck by a statement attributed to one of its strongest proponents to the effect that the bars and restaurants and cafes in the three-block strip of 17th Street between P and R Streets attracted and gave rise to criminal activity, or words of similar import.

What especially unnerved us, as journalists, was that the Washington Times writer did not seek to confirm that charge and report on its veracity or lack thereof. We hear many supposedly responsible people repeating this kind of allegation, but the only "proof" they ever come up with is generally based on hearsay, misinformation, or misconstruing the presence on the street of some less than agreeable-looking person as a crime about to occur.

Consistently, the Metropolitan Police Department has been unable to document charges of criminal behavior due to these ABC-licensed establishments. Why? Because there is no such criminal activity generated by the presence of these establishments. Not only has former, and much-respected, Officer Joseph Zelinka (he recently retired from MPD) told The InTowner that in the several years he was assigned to patrol 17th Street there was no indication that there were any crime problems traceable to the licensed establishments, but Third District Commander Jose Acosta has reaffirmed this fact in absolutely unequivocal terms. Why won't people listen to what he has reported?

In a letter that Commander Acosta provided to the ABC Board in which, among other things, he rebuked a subordinate, Sergeant John Kutniewski, who apparently was recruited by the moratorium's proponents to bolster their cause, the commander has made it clear that the sergeant's appearance at the ABC hearing wearing his uniform was out of line. Clearly, it was, in the view of many observers, an attempt to intimidate and lend credence to unproven allegations. This was wrong, but not surprising to anyone who looks back to old press accounts from the day of Carrie Nation.

Let's share some of Commander Acosta's information, thereby bringing about a dose of reality.

Noting that, although he was only recently put in charge of the Third District, as a young officer he had been assigned to this area 28 years ago and that he was back in the neighborhood as a Lieutenant from 1991 to 1995. "During my tenure," he wrote the ABC Board, "our enforcement efforts never centered on any problems or ABC violations that could be attributed to the 17th Street corridor." This statement confirms the view of former Officer Zelinka.

As for real crime, Acosta states that in 1998 "only 28 [crimes] were reported in the area of the 1600 to 1700 blocks of 17th Street [and that of these] only 3 were crime[s] of violence (robbery or assault). The rest of the 28 were thefts or larceny from autos. None were ABC related."

In addressing issues of "public nuisance," Acosta stated, "[V]iolations attributed to panhandling or public drinking has never been an obvious or serious problem in comparison to Adams Morgan or the Dupont Circle area of Connecticut Avenue. We have no arrest statistics for the 17th Street corridor to support a problem that can be linked to ABC establishments. Most panhandling or street vagrants are concentrated near the McDonalds, Safeway or the 7-11 Store."

If Carrie Nation were still with us, she might agitate for the mob to wreck McDonalds, Safeway, and the 7-Eleven.

We found it particularly interesting that the commander expressed views at the conclusion of his letter that are precisely what we have been writing in these pages on and off for years. Some excerpts:

"As a law enforcement official, it has been my experienced [sic] that any new business . . . will increase or attract activity in the area. For the most part, the increase is healthy and safe for the community. Heavily traveled business corridors . . . have proven to be less of a problem for public safety. . . . [I]ssuance of licenses to restaurants/bars or small eateries similar to the ones already in existence in the 17th Street area do not create safety problem[s] for law enforcement. In view of this, it is my opinion, based on the facts presented[,] that the lifting of the moratorium . . . will not have an impact on public disorder or deteriorate the local neighborhood." [Italics supplied.]

So, there you have it. Now, wouldn't it have been better for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and at-large Councilmember Carol Schwartz to have held off filing their own letters of support for the moratorium until they had had an opportunity to weigh other information? We had also heard that at-large Councilmember David Catania was filing a letter for the ABC Board's hearing record, but this we were unable to confirm at press time. Our inquiry to the councilmember's office went unanswered.

We hope Catania did not submit such a letter, not so much because it might, like that of Evans and Schwartz, be in disagreement with our views, but because we believe it is bad policy for legislators who will ultimately have to vote on the ABC Board's recommendations for a change in the liquor control statute to announce a predetermined position long before they have conducted their own legislative hearings and had the benefit of the full city council's debate.

It smacks of rush to judgment. That's what Carrie Nation was able to stir up through her crazed antics--a rush to judgment. Let's not repeat the same mistakes. A more deliberative approach must be taken. After all, an ABC-licensed establishment is not an ABC-licensed establishment is not an ABC-licensed establishment. Neighborhood cafes should not be lumped in with neighborhood stores selling half-pints of Ripple or huge dance clubs or places geared to serving gang groups from around the region. Each license should be judged on its own merits, case-by-case. And, each applicant deserves to receive true due process from the very start and not have to hope that they can undo later on in the process false conclusions based on supposition and rumor.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Our Contributing Editor Michael Romanello's February "op-ed" commentary addresses an issue that we at The InTowner feel strongly about and know to be of concern to our readers who seek racial harmony and understanding

Although I realize that nearly everyone would like to put the recent David Howard affair behind us, I think there are still some questions to be asked and issues to be considered with regard to this matter.

The circumstances surrounding former Director of the District of Columbia's Office of the Public Advocate David Howard's resignation last month could cause an observer to conclude that the entire matter was somewhat silly; a comedy of errors, the geneses of which was a simple misunderstanding by one person of a rather arcane word used by another. That is certainly what Howard and Mayor Anthony Williams believe, or at least say they believe. But perhaps the matter goes deeper, and that is a question that I think bears a closer look.

Let's assume that, as has been said, the whole thing was a simple misunderstanding caused by what Howard himself has termed a lack of racial sensitivity on his part. Does this mean that considerations of race and political correctness in our still English-speaking society have ascended to the point that an individual must apologize--and, in the case of a public official, resign his position--because someone erroneously attributes sinister meaning to a benign, properly used English language word? If so, this goes far toward explaining why meaningful interracial communication is becoming increasingly difficult.

Howard's resignation served to highlight the sense of frustration and futility many white and other non-black Americans feel when they attempt to engage in open and frank discussions of race or racial issues with the many black Americans who profess to seek such a dialogue. While most are willing to make an attempt at being sensitive to racial concerns, a growing number of people are finding that weighing each word and examining its usage for any possible offensive definition or interpretation when talking with a black person often seems to be hardly worth the level of discourse achieved. To then have to take into account that those with whom one is speaking may not understand a word's use or may attribute derogatory meaning to innocently spoken words, as now appears is required, serves to make even superficial conversation, let alone serious dialogue, impossible.

One result of this situation has been the engendering among a growing number of white people of a "why bother" attitude when it comes to discussions of race. In others, the language barrier and considerations mandated by political correctness have helped give rise to a feeling of outright hostility toward any discussion of racially-charged issues. These folks have been pushed beyond why bother, to who cares. That the David Howard affair is being dismissed as a simple misunderstanding is a classic example of just such nudging.

On February 3, I received by fax a press release from the Mayor's Office of Communications titled "Statement By Mayor Anthony A. Williams Regarding David Howard." In his statement, which was drafted following the completion of an investigation of the matter by investigators from the Corporation Counsel's office, Mayor Williams said, "The recently completed review of the incident confirmed for me that Mr. Howard did use the word 'niggardly' but did not use a racial epithet. The review also showed that an employee of the Office of the Public Advocate did misunderstand Mr. Howard to have used a racial epithet." The Mayor went on to add, "I met with David Howard on Wednesday, February 3rd and asked him to withdraw his resignation as Director of the Office of the Public Advocate and return to work. Mr. Howard indicated he would prefer to serve in another capacity within the Williams Administration. Mr. Howard is working with my Chief of Staff and the Office of Personnel to determine to which position and when he will return to work for the District of Columbia."

That evening and throughout the following day the news media reported the Mayor's findings. Williams and Howard were interviewed and both expressed regret over the incident. Howard held forth at length in several interviews about how much he had learned over the past week about how white people should not try to be "color-blind," but rather should try to see and hear things through the eyes and ears of black people. Perception, he said, was far more important than reality.

Although I agree that perception is important, it is important to examine realities if one really wants to find answers. So, what was the reality of the Howard affair?

On January 15, then-Director Howard had a conversation with two subordinates, Marshall Brown and John Fanning, during which he discussed the ramifications for the Office of Public Advocate of certain of Mayor Tony Williams' budget decisions. Howard told Brown and Fanning that because of the amount of money available to run their office, he would have to be niggardly in his allocation of funds.

Howard's use of the word niggardly caused Fanning to react quizzically and prompted a hostile reaction from Brown. When, at Fanning's request, Howard re-stated the word and attempted to clarify its meaning, Brown listened for a time, then turned and walked away while muttering. "He used the "N" word."

Fanning, an individual who is highly regarded within city government and in the wider community, denies having mentioned the January 15 conversation to anyone prior to Howard's resignation. Although a holdover from the Barry administration who had worked for what was then known as the Office of the Ombudsman for more than four years, Fanning has no political ties to the former Mayor and has never sought to be appointed to the position of director of the office in which he works. Brown, on the other hand, is regarded by long-time District employees and political insiders as one of former Mayor Barry's foot soldiers. He unsuccessfully sought appointment by Williams as director of the Office of Public Advocate, the position to which Howard, an outsider, was appointed by Williams and ultimately resigned because of this incident.

Over the days between January 15 and 25, rumors began to spread, first throughout the Executive Office of the Mayor and then wider, that Howard had not only used the "N" word on January 15, but had also launched into a racial tirade. Statements attributed to Howard by these rumors included that he "can't handle all these niggers coming to the office asking for assistance," and "why don't these niggers go somewhere else," among other things.

On January 25, Howard was called in for an interview by Williams' Chief of Staff Reba Pittman Evans. Shortly thereafter, on January 26, Howard tendered his resignation.

When questioned about Howard's resignation Williams said Howard was a good person who had used bad judgment. The Mayor went on to say that regardless of the meaning of the word niggardly, its use by Howard was inappropriate. Williams added that by tendering his resignation, Howard did the right thing.

Confronted in the days following Howard's resignation by a firestorm of bad publicity and criticism from virtually every quarter, Williams quickly backpedaled. Perhaps he had been hasty in accepting Howard's resignation said the Mayor. Maybe it would be possible for Howard to return to city government in a different position when the air had cleared, hizzoner offered. Then, on January 27, the Mayor announced that he had launched an investigation that would ferret out the truth and weed out of government anyone involved whose conduct was found to be counter-productive.

Howard, although a victim of character assassination whose intentions by resigning I'm sure he thinks were of the highest order, is not free of blame in this sorry episode. Like Williams, Howard displayed a saddening lack of commitment to truth and to what is right. By resigning because of a smear campaign instead of forcing the Mayor to fire him, Howard has done neither Williams nor District residents any favor. For many people, the prospect of David Howard and John Fanning working together in the Office of the Public Advocate held great promise. By resigning, Howard has denied his services to those who badly need them. He has also inadvertently lent his weight to those who through their actions and attitudes do the sort of nudging I mentioned earlier and helped to lower just the sort of inter-racial discourse he obviously thinks needs to be raised.

Why, since he obviously did nothing wrong, did Howard feel obliged to resign? I believe he resigned because, like many people, Howard has with the best intentions bought into the philosophy that even though one may be right in one's opinion or proper in one's actions or beyond reproach in one's beliefs, racial sensitivity requires that if one is white one must always fall on one's sword rather than challenge, displease, or confront blacks. In my opinion, subscribing to this philosophy is condescending beyond measure and borders on racism. Howard is neither condescending nor a racist, so he should reconsider his position.

It takes a lot of guts to eat crow, so I derive no pleasure from saying that the Mayor needs to go a bit further than the actions announced in his February 3 statement--he is being, to borrow a widely understood word, niggardly in his restitution.

The Mayor owes to city residents David Howard's restoration to his former position--a position for which Howard is almost universally acknowledged to be ideally suited and one in which he would no doubt provide great service to the public--and Howard should be gracious and accept reappointment. The Mayor should also immediately terminate the employment of the individual involved in spreading the rumors that gave rise to this incident as he has previously indicated he would. To have this individual remain at the Office of the Public Advocate is an intolerable affront equal to that which the Mayor believed would have existed had Howard actually said the things falsely attributed to him and remained director of that office. You can't have it both ways, Mr. Mayor.

Until Howard is restored to his former position, and until the guilty party is removed from the public payroll, any utterances by the Mayor regarding cleaning up city government or honesty and ethics in public service will ring hollow and be worthy of not much more than a chuckle. .

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