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Mount Pleasant Riots: May 5 Woven Into Neighborhood's History

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Following the riot, the owner of a laundry mat assesses the damages.
Nancy Shia
Following the riot, the owner of a laundry mat assesses the damages.

Twenty years ago today, the streets of Northwest D.C.’s Mount Pleasant were filled with rioters when people gathered to protest what was rumored to be a case of police brutality between an African-American rookie police officer and a 30-year-old Latino man.

Jose Sueiro wasn't on the street when the riot first started, but he can tell you exactly what happened. He owned the local newspaper, "El Diario de la Nación," and when he got the call that something was going on Mount Pleasant Street, he was as surprised as anyone.

"Disturbances on the street, or uprisings are not supposed to happen in Washington D.C.," says Sueiro. "But it did happen those two nights."

Serene Sunday takes a turn

It's a regular Sunday night, May 5, 1991. People are out enjoying the evening. Two cops are walking the beat.

"They tell this guy, who didn't speak a nick of English, to 'get rid of the alcohol' or 'put it away'," says Sueiro. "But he's drunk and he's got cohorts around him and they start to … create a ruckus. The street starts to fill up with people."

The police "begin to get very serious with this guy, like 'we're gonna lock you up'," he continues.

One of the officers points her gun and shoots the guy. [He ultimately survived.] The official report says he had pulled a knife on her. Others, including one D.C. Latino man involved in the riots, say that's not what happened at all. He asked that his name not be disclosed.

"My uncle was there. He saw it happen. The police woman is trying to arrest a drunken Salvadoran man, and he tried at that moment to take his belt off," he says.

He explains what the man was probably trying to do. "This is very typical of Salvadoreños, when they get drunk, they fight with their belts," he says. "Before he could even do that, she shot him in the chest."

The officers call for back up. And soon there are more police cars on the scene.

'We weren't thinking riot'

"They come busting up the street, push people out, pick this guy up. It enrages the crowd. And suddenly, rocks or bottles start to fly. And it starts to really get out of hand," says Sueiro.

"We weren't thinking 'riot.' I grew up in this neighborhood seeing people get beat up by police," says the man whose uncle witnessed that opening scene. "I remember one time being asked to get on our knees -- 15 of us. 'Get on your knees, everybody gets searched.' But there was always a sense of 'there's nothing we can do about it.'"

Alex, another man who participated in the Mount Pleasant riots but does not want to give his last name, describes the incident as a turning point. "So there was a moment, as we say in Spanish, rebalso la gota el vaso'".

In English: the straw that broke the camel's back.

h3>Police quickly outnumbered

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier was a rookie police officer during the Mount Pleasant Riots. "I remember trying to protect my head as we stood on line and rocks and bottles coming at you," she says. "It's not a good feeling, that's for sure."

Police sent a larger vehicle to collect rioters they arrested, and before police knew what was happening, it was bombarded. "These kids, they knew! They opened the door, grabbed the flare, opened the gas tank and went 'Shoooomp," says Sueiro. "The cops were like 'Whoa! What the hell is this?'"

Police cars were next. One by one they were flipped over and lit on fire.

"They organized an army in about an hour," says Sueiro. "'Go get your cousin from Park Road, you go tell my brother in Kilborne Street. Vengate, trayeme otro.'"

Within the few blocks that make up Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Adams Morgan, there were as many as 85,000 Latino immigrants.

"They were dealing with a young recent immigrant population mostly Central American: Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador," says Sueiro.

Thousands of families had come to D.C. during the '70s and '80s, fleeing civil war. Many of the rioters spent their childhoods running from the enemy.

"They knew more about urban guerilla warfare than the police did," says Sueiro.

Day 2: Calm, and then a storm

The rioting goes on until the middle of the night but by morning it's pretty quiet. Mayor Sharon Pratt holds a press conference, showing her concern, and a lot of players start to come in. Jesse Jackson joins all the Latino community leaders as they link arms and march together down Mount Pleasant Street.

But then school lets out, and it becomes clear that this peaceful march isn't going to stop anything.

"I've never seen anything like Mount Pleasant Street on the second night after the police shooting occurred. It was like a war zone," says Chief Lanier.

More and more people saw the T.V. reports and went over to Mount Pleasant Street.

"We would see people like, grabbing pampers, grabbing bags of shoes," says Alex. "And we were like 'what's going on here? this is crazy!'"

"I think at some point, some people just came to loot," adds the man whose uncle was there at the beginning.

Police shot cans of tear gas into the crowd, and News4 reported that 230 people were arrested. At some point Mayor Pratt came by, and she was chased out of the neighborhood.

Pratt had been recently installed as D.C.'s mayor. "I had been so hopeful and so optimistic about our ability to embrace the Hispanic community," she says. "And suddenly we were upended by this real tragedy."

She declared a 10 p.m. curfew in Mount Pleasant, and by the following day, the riot was over. The rioting damaged more than 60 police cars, 21 metro buses, and more than 30 businesses.

Pervasive frustration leading up to riots

"There was built up, pent up frustration for many years of feeling marginalized," Pratt says of the city's Latino community.

The country was also still reeling from the beating by Los Angeles Police of Rodney King, and the race riots that followed. "What created this whole riot was misinformation," says Chief Lanier. "Word spread through the community that an officer shot a handcuffed prisoner, and it fit right in to what the nation was thinking about police -- that force was excessive."

"And of course, there was the rumor that he had been shot because he was Latino," Lanier adds.

Pedro Aviles, who helped form the Latino Civil Rights Task Force after the riots, says: "All of the sudden we became visible and questions began to emerge."

The way he saw it at the time, the issues were clear.

D.C. Latino civil rights violations 'appalling'

"Unequal access to services. Discrimination," says Aviles, rattling off the problems. "Bad police-community relations. No programs for economic development."

These grievances prompted the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to hold a hearing about D.C.'s Latino population. The final report found "appalling" denial of basic civil rights.

Things really began to change. The police department created an entire bilingual police unit. Money flowed into Latino social agencies and nonprofits. The city hired more bilingual employees. And then, all at once, things stopped changing.

It started with the budget problems that plagued the city in the early 1990s. "Unfortunately, the city became bankrupt and was intervened by Congress and the President," says Aviles. "The control board began to cut left and right and there were no questions asked. We had lost big, big gains."

In addition, Washington’s natural political dynamics resurfaced.

"This city was one of the first that the African American community had the kind of foothold and power that it did," says Beatriz “BB” Otero, now D.C.'s deputy mayor for health and human services. "You are asking a group of people who are, in the history of this country, also not politically empowered, to open up power for another group of people.

"I'm not saying we didn't have the right to ask for it, but that's a very tough piece,” she adds.

D.C.'s Latinos continue uphill battle

Latinos make up nearly 10 percent of the city, according to the 2010 census, and many believe that number is significantly higher if you count those undocumented. But the community's size hasn't meant more representation; no Latino has ever been elected to the D.C. Council.

While the riots didn't single-handedly level the playing field for Latinos, they did permanently change the conversation.

"Painful as they were, the riots helped us to stretch and accommodate people of different cultures," says Pratt. "Washington, D.C. is a city that had struggled so much to deal with issues around traditional race, that we had not stopped to pay attention to other communities and their desires. I think Washington just began to grow up."

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