Marion Barry, former contentious DC mayor, dies at 78.
November 23, 2014 6:35 AM   Subscribe

Marion Barry, former 4-term mayor of Washington DC, has died at the age of 78.
posted by chainsofreedom (57 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
The man did a lot. Some of it good, some very much not, but he loved his city and left it better off in many ways. He, and the city and the people he represented, are worthy of respect.

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posted by oneironaut at 6:43 AM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


And with that, the DC of my childhood is truly gone.

I'm really dreading all the stupid crack jokes. Yeah, I know. But DC is a real place, inhabited by real people, and they deserve better than your glib, stupid, generally ignorant, almost always not-funny attempts at humor.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:46 AM on November 23, 2014 [26 favorites]


When he was first elected mayor, he was definitely the right man at the right time. It's easy to forget that.

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posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:49 AM on November 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Please save the crappy jokes for your twitter or whatever.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:51 AM on November 23, 2014 [10 favorites]


I can't help think of Marion Barry without thinking of a woman who works in the government office where I am these days. She's in a motorized wheelchair, she can barely move her neck and arms, and she has a very severe speech impediment. But she has a lovely spirit, and she will tell anyone who will take the time to understand her speech, "Marion Barry helped get me my job."

It's easy to make jokes, but some locals will remember a different Marion Barry than most of the public.
posted by zennie at 6:51 AM on November 23, 2014 [18 favorites]


The man did a lot. Some of it good, some very much not, but he loved his city and left it better off in many ways. He, and the city and the people he represented, are worthy of respect.


Did he, though? Marion Berry was a patronage driven machine politician who made the city worse while benefiting his lackeys. Screw him and all others of his ilk. Corruption isn't any better because you're a charmer.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:51 AM on November 23, 2014 [9 favorites]


His fourth term was just beginning as I landed in DC. I'd never lived in a place where the mayor's name had been emblazoned on everything from "Welcome to" signs to parks, to garbage cans, to snow removal equipment. I'd also never lived in a place where my garbage sometimes wasn't picked up, my street was never plowed, and it took a week to register my car.

I know DCs problems are long standing and complex. Marion Berry has a back story that is inspiring and he was the center of a powerful machine, but for me he represented political power gone awry and ineffective government. DC has been far better off since he left the stage.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:55 AM on November 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


Big ups for the man who came from nothing, rose to power and in the process started conversations about drug addict and rehab, while scaring the hell out of white people. Rest easy.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:59 AM on November 23, 2014 [9 favorites]


It was said of him, “While you are sleeping at night, Marion Barry is up planning his next move.” Later, there was another axiom: “The mayor will spend more time cultivating his enemies than his friends.”

About as good a summary of the man as you could come up with.
posted by arcticseal at 7:04 AM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's not possible to talk about Barry's legacy without talking about the really complex dynamics of race and class in D.C. My parents are white liberals, and they followed the typical white liberal trajectory: they voted for him enthusiastically in '79, and they turned on him when things went to hell in the '80s. But he would have said that he wasn't the mayor for people like my parents. He was the mayor for working-class black people, who made up the majority of the city and who continued to support him. It was their city, and we just lived in it. And I mean, I'm not going to claim that D.C. in the '80s was a super-functional place, because it was a mess in many ways. But I also think that mine isn't the only or maybe even the main voice that gets to appraise his legacy.

And now the whole city has changed, and I couldn't afford to live there if I wanted to, and I don't even know what to do with that.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:05 AM on November 23, 2014 [17 favorites]


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posted by oceanjesse at 7:06 AM on November 23, 2014


Politically, he had one of the most interesting and complex trajectories of any twentieth century politician I can think of. I have never lived in DC so can't assess his leadership in a personal way, but he deserves far more than the simple joke that he is often reduced to from the outside.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:13 AM on November 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


Marion Berry was someone who protected his own power above all else. Whose first reaction upon being arrested was to crassly blame the woman he was with. Who, to the day he died, called it entrapment.

Did he do well with constituent services? Did he help some people? Sure. People don't get elected if they don't. But that didn't make him an effective leader.

He created the punchlines that are happening.
posted by inturnaround at 7:14 AM on November 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


"Marion Barry helped get me my job."
“As an elected official, Marion often misconstrued the mission of his government as one to provide reparations to black Americans,” says Jarvis. “Somehow he came to believe the government was the employer of first resort. He hired without much criteria. His greatest failure was in not training city workers for their jobs. It would have helped the government and in their own lives.” Barry made sure that African-American companies got their share of city contracts, though he did a poor job of holding them accountable. In the process, he enriched many political allies.*
posted by stbalbach at 7:17 AM on November 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


"A Rake's Progress" by Matt Labash. This is a fantastic article by a talented writer who followed him around for a few days in his later years. Shows his character. This article made the The Best American Essays 2010.
posted by stbalbach at 7:22 AM on November 23, 2014 [8 favorites]


I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC in the 1980s. It was from Marion Barry and Ronald Reagan that I learned what a politician was. The two of them shared something very special -- the ability to say to people, "No matter what they say about me, even if it's kind of true, I'm on YOUR side, never forget that." And not only to say that -- not only to get people to believe it -- but, I think, to truly believe it themselves.
posted by escabeche at 7:22 AM on November 23, 2014 [8 favorites]


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posted by Renoroc at 7:23 AM on November 23, 2014


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posted by JoeXIII007 at 7:31 AM on November 23, 2014


Great line from the Labash article:

There is Kim Dickens, though, who Barry admits he "takes out" sometimes and who was kind enough to donate a kidney to Barry after his renal failure. She basically saved his life, but makes no great to-do about it. I ask Kim if she misses her kidney. "I do have separation anxiety," she says. "But I visit him enough. So the kidneys see each other."
posted by chavenet at 7:46 AM on November 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


Marion Berry was a patronage driven machine politician who made the city worse while benefiting his lackeys.

Marion Barry was a civil rights hero who helped kickstart the gentrification that makes DC what it is today, for good or bad. He stood up loud and proud for the black middle class and lower class of this city. He was an addict. He was the first black Eagle Scout from Tennessee, and integrated his all-white chemistry doctoral program. He helped found SNCC and was its first chairman. He often handed out money from his own pocket to strangers who stopped him on the street. He gave a good portion of one generation of this city their first summer jobs, through his summer jobs program - and while you may call that wasteful, it gave kids exposure to what other paths and other lives looked like. People sometimes say "Mayor for Life" in this eye rolling way that implies DC's love of all things Barry is attributable only to his skin color, but Mayor Barry is so one-of-a-kind it's difficult to find words to describe his charm, chutzpah, attitude, and impact. We have had more than our share of "patronage driven machine politicians," but no one else is valued the way Mayor Barry was and is.

Who, to the day he died, called it entrapment.

That is far from a ridiculous assertion.
posted by sallybrown at 7:57 AM on November 23, 2014 [37 favorites]


... Somehow he came to believe the government was the employer of first resort. He hired without much criteria...

stbalbach:
1. I don't think Marion Barry controlled federal jobs where HR was in another state.
2. WTF, really? This unqualified quote is an appropriate response to a story about a disabled worker?
posted by zennie at 7:59 AM on November 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


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Yes, the first thing that comes to mind is crack, but so what? I don't personally like cocaine, but why begrudge a little powder or rock to someone who enjoys it and develop systems to manage the unfortunate side effects, much like the systems to help people with alcohol problems.
posted by Radiophonic Oddity at 8:41 AM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've always found it fascinating to just watch him: you could literally tell, just from his clothing, how politically embattled or safe he felt --- look at the level of kente cloth he's wearing, it'll tell you all you need to know about any situation. The dashikis, of course, date from his community organizer/political outsider days. Those were replaced by suits, but keep an eye on the shirts, neckties, pocket squares, and headgear. He seemed to generally prefer the standard politician's neat-but-bland when things were quiet; the kente cloth came and went, but for example it came to a peak just at his release from prison; when he was fighting tax troubles a few years ago there were kente ties and pocket squares; lately, there was none to be seen.

On the other hand, for a smart man he could say or do the dumbest things; I still recall one of his comments from his last mayoral campaign: that any white person who didn't vote for him was automatically a racist, while any black person who didn't vote for him was a traitor to their race.
posted by easily confused at 8:54 AM on November 23, 2014 [5 favorites]


Barry was a larger-than-life figure in many ways and surely has to be on the list of iconic US politicans of the 20th century.

He was the first black Eagle Scout from Tennessee, and integrated his all-white chemistry doctoral program.

I did not know this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:57 AM on November 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


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posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:10 AM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


He once said something along the lines of we need to keep these "dirty Asian" businesses out of our community and replace them with ones run by African Americans.
posted by ChuckRamone at 9:38 AM on November 23, 2014


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posted by allthinky at 9:43 AM on November 23, 2014


My friend Toby made a movie about him. He is definitely a complicated character, who did some amazing things (taking on the establishment in DC) and some unforgivable things. Kind of like another famous black figure in the news right now - okay, not THAT bad.
posted by fungible at 9:56 AM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


DC is a real place, inhabited by real people, and they deserve better than your glib, stupid, generally ignorant, almost always not-funny attempts at humor.

Please forgive me for believing that DC also deserved better than Marion Barry.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:59 AM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


Please forgive me for believing that DC also deserved better than Marion Barry.

The thing about "deserving better" is, the vast majority of the time, you have to work with what you have rather than what you wish you had.

I'm asking this honestly: Who would have been better, and in what ways? I mean, given the opponents he bested in election campaigns. Remember, too, that there is a lot politicians can do, but there is a lot they can't, and they get credit for the former but blame for both.

One of the things about elections and politicians is that you don't actually know who or what you're getting unless they've been elected before. I'm not unhappy Obama is president, but if you asked me in 2008 what the Obama presidency was going to be like, very little of it would have turned out to be the case. So it's really easy to think "so-and-so would have been far better" while experience suggests the odds are greater that they probably would not.
posted by maxwelton at 10:10 AM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


There is Kim Dickens, though

Not the actress, FYI.
posted by dhartung at 10:17 AM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


There are many things said about Marion Barry, and most of them are true. Like so many people, he was a complex mix of the good and the bad. Self destructive? Yes, but a pioneer in the civil rights movement and shaping DC from a backwater to the vibrant city that it is. From placing a major city building in the heart of the 1968 riots on U Street, to shifting the police force to be more reflective of the city it patrolled, there is little that stands in DC today of social import that was not influenced by the Mayor.

Say what you will, about the man, but he was a brilliant politician and a powerful force. I never understood the appeal of Mr Barry until I sat next to him on a flight back from Atlanta one evening. It was after his most public escapades, but before he rejoined as the council member from Ward 8. He was flying coach, and in a middle seat. I watched as Barry The Politician charmed a young woman sitting next to him with stories of the city, and demonstrated what charisma really means. They went their separate ways after the flight, but like the District of Columbia, I suspect she will always remember the Mayor for Life.
posted by petrilli at 10:30 AM on November 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


Eventually a smart man is going to look the camera straight on and say along the lines of 'yes, I smoked some powdered cocaine. Since I'm Black, it is called crack. Do I seem incoherent, or do I come across as illiterate, or otherwise lacking in a developed form of intelligence via college and proper schooling?

I had no idea he had done doctoral studies in Chemistry. None. All the news, all the media, never a single mention of it. Bot OMG, here is a five second clip of some guy smoking something. Way too late hindsight, but wow, OMG, BFD. So the dude took a head-trip or two.
posted by buzzman at 10:46 AM on November 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


Interesting that the people here who reflexively bash him can't even be bothered to spell his name correctly.
posted by jindc at 10:57 AM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


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posted by jindc at 10:57 AM on November 23, 2014


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posted by Cash4Lead at 10:59 AM on November 23, 2014


The above comment comparing him to Reagan seems spot-on, and interesting. Prior to Barry, most black politicians were very much political reformers, for obvious reasons. Barry was one of the first black southern politicians to take a page from the white southern playbook: Get people to vote for their own impoverishment and denial of services by reminding them that you are One of Them, and your opponent is The Other. Like Sarah Palin, he used reformist rhetoric to crush those who could have opposed his rise, then used patronage to lock in his voting bloc (though unlike Palin, he was smart enough to stay out of the national spotlight). As such he's emblematic of the collapse of the civil rights movement from revolution, to normalization, to disillusionment and corruption, and perhaps of the similar move in the New Left more broadly.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:12 AM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


A gentleman every time I met him around town. Always had a smile and time for a quick chat.

Dimwitted jokes about cocaine and addiction do a disservice to the good work that he did manage to do for this city and his constituents.

A perfect man? No way. But none of us are.
posted by fredericsunday at 11:29 AM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


yes, I smoked some powdered cocaine. Since I'm Black, it is called crack. Do I seem incoherent.

A bit, yes. Is smoking cocaine hcl really a thing somewhere?

I had no idea he had done doctoral studies in Chemistry.

He'd surely know the diff between hydrochloride and freebase then.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:35 AM on November 23, 2014


Anyone got a spare phylactery lying around? Mayor for Unlife!
posted by Evilspork at 1:36 PM on November 23, 2014


"The artist is separate from the art" -- or so I am told.
posted by JackFlash at 1:48 PM on November 23, 2014


WTF, really? This unqualified quote is an appropriate response to a story about a disabled worker?

It's a pull quote to lead into the blockquote about jobs and cronyism which Barry had a public reputation for. I see where it might be misinterpreted, that was not the intention.
posted by stbalbach at 1:58 PM on November 23, 2014


I think of this man every time I eat a marionberry.
posted by octobersurprise at 2:51 PM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's easy to laugh and diminish him because of the arrest and conviction in 1990. I did and still do occasionally. It wasn't until the required half-year course of DC History in 9th grade that I first learned of his life-long devotion to Home Rule and all the people of our city. He was egotistical, loud, flawed, and a constant champion of the otherwise voiceless.
posted by now i'm piste at 3:52 PM on November 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


I acknowledge that Marion Barry was once a potent force for civil rights and a one-time supporter of gay rights. His later career, though, was one that will linger in the minds of many. I see that someone above has mentioned his racist comments relating to Asian-Americans and so I will link only to a speech of his opposing marriage equality for DC.

These positions, and the lasting effects of his administration's (administrations') corruption on the state of basic public services in DC, are also his legacy.
posted by Morrigan at 3:56 PM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


😕
posted by clavdivs at 5:04 PM on November 23, 2014


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Cliche or no, this is the end of an era for DC. Hard to imagine this city without him.

With his passing, be ready for people who would never set foot in Ward 8 to offer firm opinions on what people in Ward 8 need. The political vultures are already circling. Here comes the special election.
posted by duffell at 5:14 PM on November 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


To outsiders, Barry’s political patronage was corruption — and it was. But it also seemed as if the same people who had tried to disenfranchise the city’s black population, who never wanted black people to have any influence on the way the city was governed, were suddenly behaving as if Barry had invented ethnic patronage, as if it hadn’t been a way of life for whites in ethnic enclaves in big cities from New York to Illinois to California. As if the white segregationists who ran the city “like a plantation” were not corrupt.

That's from a fascinating Buzzfeed article (yes, really) on Barry published today. Read it.
posted by duffell at 6:19 PM on November 23, 2014 [7 favorites]


Growing up in D.C. in the 80s and 90s I knew Barry as the one big case of entrapment everyone could point to. I also knew him as the reason the potholes never got fixed.

It's hard to describe how bad the potholes were. Some were the size of a compact car and as a stopgap measure they were covered with steel plates.
posted by clarknova at 7:33 PM on November 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


The jokes about his unfortunate, debilitating and lifelong substance abuse aside (in August 2014, he collided with another car as he was driving the wrong way down Penn. Ave--"hypoglycemic attack," his office said), he pioneered a style of arrogant, the-law-doesn't-apply-to-me corruption that has been considerably more ineptly been carried on by the next generation of black D.C. politicians (see: everyone who, in the last four years, has been accused, investigated, indicted or sentenced for doing shit that no reasonable, law-abiding citizen does, much less someone who's been given the public trust).

Barry may have been a great civil rights firebrand back in the day, but he became someone whose political fortunes depended on the nostalgic and unsophisticated affection of Ward 8. If he "took care" of his constituents, it was very much in the political-machine vein. He made himself and D.C. a punch line and, if he was unable to control his demons and addictions, should've recused himself from public life. It says everything you need to know about the man and his egotism that he chose not to.
posted by the sobsister at 7:38 PM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


He'd surely know the diff between hydrochloride and freebase then.

As a point of reference, the only difference is that crack typically contains some baking soda from cooking, so it's "dirtier" than freebase. However, if it's done "right" and the baking soda is cooked off, there is no way to tell the difference. In fact one slang term for crack is 'base, because really they're the same. Freebasing started among people who were generally well off financially, and crack was associated with poor people, mostly African-American; the difference in terminology is almost entirely racial, as is (was to some degree) sentencing for crack possession vs powder cocaine.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:11 AM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


The thing about "deserving better" is, the vast majority of the time, you have to work with what you have rather than what you wish you had.

Well, obviously, yeah. (See also: almost every presidential election.) Along similar lines: Barry didn’t bring corruption to D.C. He changed who benefited from it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:48 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


The documentary The Nine Lives of Marion Barry did a good job covering the span of his public life.
posted by exogenous at 8:02 AM on November 24, 2014


Charlie Pierce: Marion Barry, RIP
Forgive me if I don't join in the general chortling and good whitesmanship being indulged over the death for former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Take him all in all, as Shakespeare, a truly veteran scribe would say, and he was a man. He lived the arc of his people's modern march to freedom, from Itta Bena, Mississippi, to Memphis, to sit-ins, to SNCC, and to the mayoralty of the nation's capital. Along the way, he finagled and engaged in increasingly baroque shenanigans, but I decline for the moment to define him historically with "Bitch Set Me Up," or, for that matter, as Crack Mayor. Idiots.
[...]
Sometimes, when people rise to claim their share of political power in America, they rise also to claim their share of the corruption right along with it -- whether they were the Irish in James Michael Curley's Boston, or the dirt farmers in Huey Long's Louisiana, or the black citizens in Marion Barry's D.C. It is never an easy process to watch, and it's not what kids would learn in civics class, if we still taught civics, which we don't. But, somehow, through it, eventually, democracy shakes the dirt off its shoes and keeps walking ahead. Somehow, that point got missed throughout Marion Barry's life but probably not because of race, because nothing ever is About Race.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:32 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Forgive me if I don't join in the general chortling and good whitesmanship being indulged over the death for former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry

I'll forgive Pierce for having probably written that piece in advance, but I don't think that this has been the general reaction to Barry's passing at all. I've been very pleasantly surprised by the civility and respect that people are using to discuss his passing -- shockingly, the media (and my DC friends) are leading a nuanced discussion about Barry's long and complicated legacy.
posted by schmod at 12:47 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


1. I don't think Marion Barry controlled federal jobs where HR was in another state.

No one's claiming that. Barry is known in part for greatly expanding employment in the city government.

shockingly, the media (and my DC friends) are leading a nuanced discussion about Barry's long and complicated legacy.

This has kind of stunned me too - I've seen a number of people that I didn't think had any real affection for him have been going on Facebook talking admiringly about his leadership.
posted by psoas at 3:56 PM on November 24, 2014


I think a lot of us who were younger during his biggest troubles are looking back with older eyes and thinking about how much we knee-jerked with sublimated racism and drug war brainwashing. I'm about as strong a proponent of legalization as you'll meet in day to day life but I still grew up though the "Just Say No" era. I never bought it, and always thought that its blatant lies was net harmful, but you soak in something long enough it colors your vision.

Combine that with a more mature attitude about wondering why law enforcement picks the targets it picks and an ever-growing sense of irritation about what level of control DC is allowed over itself and yeah, my outlook on MB is different than it would have been a decade ago when I got to the DC area.
posted by phearlez at 10:03 AM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


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