March 30, 2008

FIRE: APRIL 4, 1968

Sam Smith

 The issues the Capitol East Gazette covered in the 1960s and the causes it pressed ran the gamut. We campaigned for the then novel idea of packer sanitation trucks to replace the high sided open trash trucks. And we warned readers not put dog and cat dirt in their trash cans, quoting a trashman as saying, "How would you like to stand up in that truck in that stuff all day?'

We also quickly became a leading voice of the anti-freeway movement, and a precocious supporter of light rail and bikeways years before such phenomena became popular. My wife would later recall going to an anti-freeway meeting and being astounded that we thought we were actually going to stop a highway. In fact, we didn't stop the one we were fighting; it sliced through Southeast Washington, dividing public housing from the rest of the community. The Gazette ran a photo two young boys looking wistfully up at "Southeast's Berlin Wall." But before it was all over, people like us all over DC had stopped hundreds of lane-miles that would have made the city look like an east-coast Los Angeles.

There was always something to save - such as the 200-old trees in Lincoln Park - and something to promote -- such as a new swimming pool - and something to cover - such as activists Janie Boyd and Marguerite Kelly, who were taking on the local supermarket chains. They challenged quality disparities between outlets in different parts of town and campaigned for the open dating of meat. Meat at that time was dated with a code known only to supermarket employees. The Gazette took the bold position that "an understandable date on each package of meat would be of considerable value to the shopper," noting that "we have shared with other consumers the experience of having meat go bad soon after it has been brought home and put in the refrigerator."

The consumer activists also went comparison shopping, coming up with prices at inner city Safeways up to a third higher than those in a white section of town. Further they demonstrated that prices were hiked when welfare checks came out.

During congressional hearings, Rep. Henry Reuss double-checked the figures at lunch time, returning to the hearing room with bags of groceries that he placed on the podium. When a Safeway official blamed some of the price differences on human error, Reuss responded, "In an hour and half I found quite bit of human error."

We also ran a feature on Jane Hardin who had opened a combination laundromat and legal services office on Pennsylvania Ave., where on the first day someone stuck a quilt into a washer, jamming up the pipes. And we wrote about community police officer Ike Fulwood who, as we drove past some grim public housing, remarked, "There's trouble. They never ask the police their opinion when they build public housing." Fulwood would eventually become the city's chief of police.

But things were already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America's cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced the white businessmen of H Street to form a organization dedicated to involvement in community problems The group, the Gazette reported, "intends to deal with such issues as employment, welfare, safety, health, housing, recreation and urban planning."

In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended a meeting on January 31: 7 white and 7 black.

Among our purposes:

To share our group differences so we can increase our knowledge of one another's group positions, plans and needs.
To increase opportunities to share our group concerns so that we can better support one another's group efforts.
To obtain full representation for our community in civic and governmental affairs.
To unite in common action where we have agreement.
Your participation in the Council does not commit your organization to any position or organizational arrangement.
In February 1968, I wrote in the Gazette:
As contrary as the thought is to our national self-image, it is entirely possible that we are giving up the struggle to solve the deepest problems of our cities. ~ National Guard troops are undergoing special training. Hotlines are being established. Armored trucks are being purchased. Police riot equipment is being beefed up. ~ Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General, was probably correct when he told a group of police chiefs and city officials recently that the nation's power to deal with urban riots is increasing faster "than the underlying layers of frustration that cause them."
On March 6, I wrote a prospective member
Although the Leadership Council has yet to establish a formal structure, the present trend appears to be in favor of a loose federation of leaders, relatively unstructured, and designed so we can act effectively when we have agreement but not get hung up when we don't.
In the issue that appeared in late March, I wrote:
It seems like a lot of people, both the militants and the extremist moderates, are putting down Martin Luther King. I share some of the doubts that have been expressed as to whether his efforts this spring will make any difference. On the other hand, I wonder whether anything will. MLK does have one big factor in his favor. He is doing something. Congress isn't. The White House isn't. The District isn't. The Urban League isn't. Stokely isn't. Possible or impossible, King's show is the best we have in town this spring and it behooves all who would like to see some changes made to lend a hand.
That same month, the US Court of Appeals ordered the city to halt construction on four major sections of the city's freeway system. For a change, it looked as if we might be winning.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor's house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.

The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn't have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.

There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.

We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.


At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn't in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any windows, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.

That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were and I did not want t alarm them by speaking what was in my mind.

For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration, and helplessness washed up on my mind's shore.

I subconsciously prepared myself for it to get worse. In the middle of one of the riot nights, I awakened to a rumbling noise in the street and ran to the window expecting to see tanks rolling past our house. There were no tanks. In fact, the physical threat of the riots barely touched us.