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D.C.’s Crack Users Were On the Streets — And In City Hall

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Mayor Marion Barry, with his wife Effi Barry, speaking at press conference outside the U.S. District courthouse after facing drug charges.
(Photo by Robert Sherbow/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Mayor Marion Barry, with his wife Effi Barry, speaking at press conference outside the U.S. District courthouse after facing drug charges.

Marion Barry was the dominant force in D.C. politics in the mid-1980s. The former civil rights leader handily won a third term as mayor in 1986, the same year he launched Operation Clean Sweep, an aggressive new campaign to arrest drug dealers.

But even as Barry battled drug use by others, there were persistent rumors that he was using cocaine. Political reporter Tom Sherwood, who covered the mayor for The Washington Post and later for WRC-TV Channel 4, recalls how some residents in the city reacted.

“The famous story is when Barry walked through one of the public housing projects as he often did to rail against drugs and crime and all of that, trying to do better for the people who lived there, and some of the people would shout out 'Crackhead!' There was even once a sign that someone hung out of the window that said 'Crackhead mayor' or something like that," he says.

During a March, 1989 presentation at the National Press Club, Barry faced questions about possible drug use. “How do you address the rumors about your own drug problem and that it’s impeding your ability to run the city?”, asked one reporter.

Barry responded: “First of all I don’t think they impede my ability to lead the city. We have the same powers that we had two years, or six years ago. I think what’s happened here, because I've stated my unequivocal lack of drug use, and those who know me well will make the same conclusion. I think we’re a victim of guilt by association.”

But even as Barry denied using drugs, federal investigators were preparing a sting operation.

The Vista Hotel

On January 18, 1990, a former model named Rasheeda Moore invited Barry to the Vista International Hotel in downtown D.C. In FBI surveillance footage from that night, Barry is seen allegedly taking two drags of crack from a pipe. Shortly thereafter, federal agents swarmed into the room, arresting Barry on a misdemeanor drug possession charge.

The CBS Evening News Report on Barry's arrest.

In a press conference the next day, Barry said that he had to “look his human weaknesses straight in the eye." He added: "I've had to realize that God made Marion Barry the same as he made other people, a flesh-and-blood creation who rises and falls just like any other human being."

The news was stunning to D.C. politicians, including former congressional Del. Walter Fauntroy, who commented the next day in an interview televised over C-SPAN.

“I would be less than candid if I did not admit that like so many of our citizens I am in a state of shock over the developments of last night. A state of shock that comes when any family member who has been told repeatedly by someone he cares about that he’s not using drugs, finds out that that is not the case," he said.

In the weeks that followed Barry’s arrest, the mayor was indicted on thirteen additional charges, including three felony perjury charges. His trial lasted 10 weeks. In the end, he was convicted of only one misdemeanor drug possession charge — which was unrelated to the 1990 sting — with the jury deadlocking on 12 offenses and acquitting him of another. He served six months in federal prison.

Decades later, many D.C. residents continue to feel Barry was unfairly targeted by the FBI.

“That’s the way many African-Americans feel about Barry. That a lot of this — that these people took advantage of his flawed characteristics and set him up, because they wanted to get him out of office," says Frank Smith, who served on the D.C. Council from 1982 to 1998.

Smith also says he thinks history will remember Barry for far more than just the crack scandal.

“I think this is a mixed story, because one, in Barry’s case, he does have a track record. And I think that record, just like all of our presidents and ex-presidents, when Barry’s gone, the more time passes, the more people are going to appreciate what he did," he says.

'We Lost Our Sense Of Purpose'

WAMU 88.5 made repeated requests to talk with Barry for this story, and, after several months, we were granted a 10-minute phone interview. The former mayor declined to discuss how crack had touched his own life, but voiced contrition about his leadership during the crack epidemic.

“I regret that I didn’t know more… I wish I could have done more, but none of us knew a lot. We had meeting after meeting with the U.S. Conference of Mayors about what do we do about this, and none of us had any real solutions," he says.

Sterling Tucker, who was D.C.’s drug czar at the time, says that Barry’s arrest made it a lot harder for the city government to handle the crack epidemic. “It was a distraction which was going to take up a lot of time — his time and a lot of other people’s time. I mean, who wants their mayor to be arrested?”

Former Metropolitan Police Department Chief Isaac Fulwood says Barry’s fall was both a personal tragedy for the mayor as well as a symbol of broader problems that emerged in the 1980s and 90s.

“We lost our sense of purpose, which was really crazy. And if there’s anything I ever really got mad with Barry over, it was the fact that this man was in the civil rights movement, and fought like hell to get blacks a fair shake. I mean, he was hellbent on that, and then the fall from grace because of that… it was just unforgivable.”


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