MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We wrap today's show with another story about communication and what happens when communication breaks down. More than twenty years ago on an otherwise unremarkable day in May, the streets of Mount Pleasant in Northwest, D.C. were crammed with rioters. Young men were gathering to protest what was rumored to be a case of police brutality between a female African-American rookie officer and a 30-year-old Latino man. Emily Friedman takes us back to those three days of violence and explores how through the riots D.C.'s Latino community found its voice.
MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN
Jose Suero (sp?) was at his desk when the riot first started. He owned a local newspaper, El Diario de la Nacion and when he got the call that something was going on in Mount Pleasant Street he was as surprised as anyone.
MR. JOSE SUERO
In D.C. you don't have a lot of this happen. Disturbances on the street or uprisings are not supposed to happen in Washington, D.C. but it did happen. It happened those two nights.
It was a regular Sunday night, May 5, 1991. People are out enjoying the evening. Two cops are walking the beat.
There were two rookies together, which should never happen, and they were walking down together in Mount Pleasant and they tell this guy who didn't speak a nick of English, get rid of the alcohol or put it away or. He's drunk and he's got cohorts around him and they start to create a ruckus, (makes noise) you know, and the street starts to fill up with people. And when that starts happening they begin to get very serious with this guy like we're going to lock you up.
One of the officers points her gun and shoots the guy. The official report says he had pulled a knife on her. Others, including one D.C. Latino involved in the riot said that's not what happened at all. He asked that his name not be disclosed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 2
My uncle was there. He saw it happen. And his version is this policewoman was trying to arrest a drunken Salvadoran man. He tried at that moment to take his belt off. This is very typical of Salvadorenos when they get drunk and they fight with each other. They take their belts off and they fight with their belts. Before he could even do that, she shot him in the chest.
The officers call for backup and soon there are more police cars on the scene.
They come busting up the street, push people out and pick this guy up. It enrages the crowd and suddenly I think rocks or bottles start to fly. And it starts to really get out of hand.
We weren't thinking riot. No one was thinking riot. I mean I grew up in this neighborhood seeing people get beat up by the police. We were asked to get on our knees and searched for no reason at all. But it was always that sense of there's nothing we can do about it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1
Nobody would do anything about it so there was a moment. It was like as we say in Spanish, es la gota que rebaso el vaso.
In English we say, the straw that broke the camel's back.
CHIEF CATHY LANIER
My name is Chief Cathy Lanier and back during the Mount Pleasant riots I was a rookie police officer. It was right after I came out of the academy. It was either my first day or my first week.
She's now the police chief for the entire city.
I do remember very vividly trying to protect my head as we stood on line and rocks and bottles coming at you. It's not a good feeling, that's for sure.
So they sent the paddy wagon up and these kids bombarded the paddy wagon, (makes noise) The guards in the paddy wagon, these two cops, they crawled out the windshield and left it and the kids (speaks foreign language). They ran up to the paddy wagon, opened the door, grabbed the flare, opened the gas tank and went (makes noise) and the cops are 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 like about an hour, you know, go and get your cousin from Park Road. You, go tell my brother on Kilbourne Street, (speaks foreign language) .
They didn't have to go far. Within the few blocks that make up Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan there were as many as 85,000 Latino immigrants.
The dynamic here is they were dealing with a young, recent immigrant population mostly Central American, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Honduras and El Sal.
Thousands of families had come to D.C. during the '70s and '80s fleeing civil war. Many of the rioters spent their childhood running from the enemy.
They knew more about urban guerilla warfare than the police did.
But what created this whole riot was misinformation and we didn't have the ability to stop it. Word in the community spread that the officer shot a handcuffed prisoner and it fit right into what the nation was thinking about the police, that force was excessive and of course there was the rumor that he was shot because he was Latino.
It takes all night for the cops to get the riot under control. 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 a peaceful march isn't going to stop anything.
I've seen frustration in communities. I've seen clashes with police. But I've never seen anything like Mount Pleasant Street on the second night. It was literally, it was like a war zone.
These young kids, that second night they saw it all on TV. They said, let's go up there.
We would see people like gunning their cars, grabbing Pampers, bags of shoes and we're like, what is going on here? This is going crazy.
I think at some point some people came just to loot.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 1
News force, Joe Johns joins us live with the latest from Northwest Washington.
MR. JOE JOHNS
Doreen, there is a problem.
Police shot cans of tear gas into the crowd.
...hospitalized, 230 people were arrested. The state of emergency...
At some point, Sharon Pratt Kelly, the mayor came by. Of course, she got chased out of the neighborhood.
MS. SHARON PRATT
I am Sharon Pratt. At the time of the Mount Pleasant riots, I was the recently installed mayor of Washington, D.C. I had been so hopeful and optimistic about our ability to more effectively embrace the Hispanic community and suddenly we were upended by this real tragedy.
The mayor declared a 10:00 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.
There was built-up, pent-up frustration for many years of feeling marginalized and nobody could answer that angst and resentment in a moment and certainly not that kind of moment.
MR. PEDRO AVILEZ
All of a sudden, we became visible and then questions began to emerge.
That's Pedro Avilez (sp?) . He was the spokesman for the Latino Civil Rights Task Force, the main Latino advocacy group that formed after the riots. His agenda was clear.
No programs for economic development, unequal access to services, discrimination, and bad police community relations.
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. Then things really began to change. The police department created an entire bilingual police unit. It's still around today. Money flowed into Latino social agencies and non-profits. The city hired more bilingual employees and then all at once things stopped changing. Again, Pedro Avilez...
Unfortunately, the city became bankrupt and was intervened by Congress and the president of the United States. The control board begins to cut left and right and there's no process. There were no hearings. We have lost big, big, big gains.
Without extra help from the city, Washington's natural political dynamics resurfaced. Bibi Otero is the deputy mayor of health and human services in the Gray administration.
MS. BIBI OTERO
This city was one of the first, if not the first city, that the African-American community had the kind of foothold and power that it did. You were asking a group of people who were traditionally in the history of this country also not politically empowered, asking them to open up power for another group of people. I'm not saying that we didn't have the right to ask for it, but it was a very tough piece.
Latinos make up nearly 10 percent of the city according to the census and significantly more if you count those undocumented. But the community's size hasn't meant more representation. As of 2011, Maryland and Virginia have elected Latino representatives, but there have been no Latinos elected to the D.C. city council. While the riots didn't singlehandedly level the playing field for Latinos, what they did do was permanently change the conversation. Here's former mayor, Sharon 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. It wasn't deliberate, but who cares if it's deliberate, you're still being ignored. I think Washington just began to grow up.
In a city obsessed with race issues, the Mount Pleasant riots made it clear that in D.C. race would never again be a matter of black versus white. I'm Emily Friedman.
And that's "Metro's Connection for this week. We heard from WAMU's Sabri Ben-Achour, Kavitha Cardoza, Emily Friedman and Rebecca Blat. Jim Asendio is our news director. Our managing producer is Tara Boyle. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts'' and our ''Door To Door'' theme "No Girl" are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can see a list of all the music we use on our website, metroconnection.org. And while you're there, you can find us on Twitter, you can like us on Facebook. You can listen to individual "Metro Connection" stories. And if you want to listen to the whole show, just click the podcast link at the top of the page. We hope you can join us next week when we bring you a bunch of great stories and interviews featuring people and places across the D.C. region. In the meantime, on your next trip to the grocery store, don't forget everything on your list.
Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese and maybe a snack for her brother Bob.
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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