Marion Barry, the much maligned former mayor of Washington, DC, is mostly known as a punch line. As a synonym for “smoking crack,” he embodied white America’s media-based fantasy of 80s urban blacks—entitled, lazy, corrupt, drug addled, and taking advantage of poor white people’s Christian tendency toward guilt and giving.
By Ian Svenonius
He was the hyper-masculine counterpart to Reagan’s “welfare queens,” leeching from the till that had been carefully built up by generations of courageous hard-working pilgrims. Before today’s “Bushisms,” there were compiled lists of Barry quotations, some real, most imagined, that proliferated in an effort to expose the dangers of giving power or representation to the black proletariat.
Barry was usually described in magazine and newspaper profiles as a “cat” or a “lion,” an animal who frequented ghetto strip clubs and lorded over his principality like a modern day Colonel Kurtz. He was imagined to be a dashiki-wearing Jim Jones who had duped his flock with black-power platitudes. DC was—like Mobutu’s Zaire—lost to the world, a jungle of corruption, the Eastern seaboard’s own Dark Continent.
When DC became the murder capital of the nation and one of the major loci of the crack epidemic, it was thought to be the logical conclusion of black rule. And when Barry was caught in an elaborately staged, high-tech FBI sting with a former girlfriend/FBI provocateur, smoking crack cocaine at her insistence, television viewers of the United States of America were overjoyed by the spectacle. His arrest tagline: “Bitch set me up” was featured on shirts and coffee mugs, and the news of his downfall was happily received by the latently racist everywhere. His rule of the Capitol widely considered a glaring example of why democracy was in fact mob rule, the ultimately scary and untenable 19th-century daydream of some “enlightened” crackpot.
When Barry was shockingly reelected five years after his disgrace, the elite saw it as a childish admonition by the blacks—a nihilistic tantrum by the mentally unfit who couldn’t understand that white America’s stern paternal care was in their best interest. The United States Congress stepped in to limit his power with a Federal “Mayoral Control Board” in an extraordinary act of intervention. Barry, faced with this bizarre predicament, chose not to seek a fifth term. Now a lowly city-council member, Barry was in the news again a couple years ago due to recent allegations of drug relapse. He’s a favorite punching bag for the media, ever useful as an invocation of the specter of black power’s intrinsic corruption.
Barry was not despised by everyone, however. In fact, in some quarters he was seen as a Medici figure, a paragon of enlightenment who had spread opportunities to the forgotten, the outsiders, and the non-conformists—including anticorporate underground rock ’n’ roll groups. Remember that Washington, DC, besides being the dastardly nexus of devil worshipping Masonic lobbyists and their whoring Congressional counterparts, also birthed a highly influential strain of activist punk and underground bands under Barry.
A strong sense of patriotic localism flourished in all the US hardcore communities of the era, a throwback to Renaissance Italy and the city states of ancient Greece. This was partially a reversion to tribalism à la West Side Story but also the refutation of a centralized entertainment industry that was completely out of touch. The early 80s was an era when the LA/NY juggernaut had gone soft. Arrogant executives were still listening to the Eagles and hadn’t infiltrated the underground—they didn’t even know it existed. Hollywood and Madison Avenue were highhanded and aloof and the cultural fantasies they created in videos like “Beat It” and TV shows like Miami Vice had nothing in common with the styles or the lives of their intended audiences. A vacuum was created that was filled by very particular music scenes in towns that weren’t traditional entertainment centers—places like Athens, GA; Minneapolis; Olympia, WA; Portland; Austin; and Washington, DC.
While a progressive or even radical political bent was not uncommon to punk or underground groups of that era, the bands of the DC scene were differentiated by the holy terror of corporate contamination that characterized them. They were held in both contempt and awe by their peers from other scenes for what was seen as a crypto-religiosity. DC punks overwhelmingly subscribed to a temperance philosophy called “Straight Edge” which was promulgated by a band called Minor Threat who urged their followers to defy the socially mandated manhood rituals of alcohol and LSD consumption. DC bands were therefore lampooned as an austerity cult of ascetics who practiced self-flagellation and meted out ultraviolence to nonbelievers. There were rumors that DC punk was an actual cult like the mysterious Hashasheen of Iraq, mystic warriors from the 11th century who fought the Crusaders, or an offshoot of one of the many 70s CIA counter-gang mind-control sects that were used to destroy hippie political activism.
DC punk’s strange character, like those of the other cities’ contemporaneous music scenes, developed from the social conditions and political stimuli encountered by its participant members. These were governed by the reigning mayor, that maverick rebel known as Marion Barry. Barry had actually nurtured the fledgling punk scene with a creation called NPC—Neighborhood Planning Council—that served to facilitate one of his summer specific campaign boasts: “For every youth a job.” NPCs across the city gave youth gainful employment in the form of made-up jobs that revolved around archaeological digs, dance programs, old soldiers’ homes, horticulture, and rock ’n’ roll groups among other things. The kind of welfare state thing you would expect to see in Sweden. NPCs actually paid children of high school age to play rock ’n’ roll and invited them to charge their band’s practice time to the city. Bands under Barry were legitimate employment and they performed at venues subsidized by the city, some of which persist today long after the Barry era, notably the Ft Reno stage that was made famous in the filmmaker Jem Cohen’s Instrument, about DC stalwarts Fugazi.
Barry’s bands were thrown together pell-mell so as to garner revenue from the city and most were novelty acts that dissolved with the end of summer, but some of the children who learned to play in them went on to play in other groups and carry on the Mayor’s message of playful socialism. Barry had famously declared, “What can I say? I’m a night owl” to DC police during an early morning accident, and his rock ’n’ roll progeny brought his mix of night-breed crypto-commie swagger with them in the fight that defined that era of art.
Barry’s great contribution to these particular musicians weren’t the bands that they started under his enlightened aegis, or his implied dialectical materialist philosophy, but the spaces he permitted them to use. The NPC office near Wilson High School on Wisconsin Avenue above Georgetown became the headquarters for a scene of dropouts, and was used to launch their operations against the official record and concert promotions industry. These people, though sometimes quite “privileged,” were not expressing themselves in a way that was necessarily encouraged, and they wouldn’t have achieved anything without a community space. Barry provided the clubhouse and a tacit unspoken encouragement to shiftless ne’er do wells to skip school and take refuge in a new school of aesthetic activism.
Because music at the time was so localistic and obsessed with its place of origin, Barry—the egotist mayor whose name was on every DC municipal sign, and who was at war with the occupying army of the Federal government (who eventually annihilated him politically)—couldn’t help but define his egotistical anti-authoritarian offspring. The hard-partying shepherd and his flock of teetotalers formed an unlikely whole—an inevitable paradox in fact. If authority snorts cocaine, the perverse will abstain. Barry’s other characteristics however, such as his heroic sensibility and his attempt at egalitarianism, were absorbed by the groups he helped create and sustain.
Since Barry has gone, the Washington Post elected Anthony Williams and then Adrian Fenty to be mayor. Both are bean-counting running dogs who have sold the city to bloodsucking realtors and transformed it into a suburban strip mall. Social workers are aghast at the abandonment of any and all programs for the poor. And the majority of the teenaged groups are coke-snorting corporate careerists, noticeably absent of political consciousness. We lament the loss of Marion Barry, the best mayor Washington DC ever had.