Tuesday, May 5, 2015

May 5, 1991 -- The Mt. Pleasant Riots erupt in Washington, D.C. Three days of riots, looting, burning cars, and smashed businesses ended after then-D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon (the first female African American mayor of a major city in the U.S.) imposed a curfew on the area.

In the decade prior to the riots, the Mount Pleasant area of Washington, D.C., located just two miles north of the White House, had become home to a very large population of immigrant Latinos, most of them fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. Unemployment among this group was very high.

Relationships between whites and Latinos in the area were very poor, and there was extensive friction between the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the Latino community.

Since the start of Home Rule in 1973, D.C. had used Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) as a means of generating local input into the way the city was governed. The Mt. Pleasant neighborhood had roughly equal numbers of black, Latino, and white residents (along with small numbers of Indians, Koreans, Laotians, and Vietnamese). But the Mt. Pleasant ANC was dominated by upper-middle-class and wealthy whites, and had refused to listen to Latino citizens in the area. The ANC repeatedly pressed the MPD to reduce public drunkenness, public urination, littering, aggressive panhandling, and loitering in the neighborhood. Both black and Latino residents perceived the ANC's actions as an attempt to drive minorities out of the neighborhood.

Police-community relations were also poor. There were almost no Latinos on the police force, and few officers spoke Spanish. Many Latino immigrants also assumed the police were a repressive force, as police forces in Central America often were. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood (a rotten cop) had ordered his officers to stop Latinos in the street for petty offenses and demand to see immigration papers. This outraged native-born and legal immigrants, and created sense of fear and anger among all Latinos. Whites, blacks, and black Latinos were never targeted in this way.

In the six to nine months prior to the riot, street crime and drug-related violence had soared in the Mt. Pleasant area. Whites, blacks, and Latinos blamed one another for the problems.

There were large crowds out drinking on May 5, 1991, as local radio stations had begun to heavily promote Cinco de Mayo for the first time. Twenty-seven-year-old Office Angela Jewell, a rookie African American, was walking a beat with Officer Grisel delValle for the first time in Mt. Pleasant. At about 7:30 PM, they saw a group of five or so men leave a carryout restaurant at 17th and Lamont Streets NW, carrying open cans of alcohol. All the men were drunk, and some so intoxicated they could barely stand. delValle, who spoke Spanish, told them they could not drink in public. Two of the men were armed with knives, and delValle demanded the weapons. They were handed over. DelValle then told Jewell (in English) that they were arresting the two men. Jewell handcuffed one while delValle handcuffed the other.

Twenty-nine-year-old Salvadoran immigrant Daniel Enrique Gomez (who spoke no English) was part of the group, so drunk he was having trouble standing. A third police officer, Tymia Prince, arrived in a squad car, and Gomez was making belligerent gestures and trying to verbally express his anger at the arrest (although he was too drunk to make much sense).

By now, the street was filling with people, nearly all of them Latino.

As Jewell put her prisoner in the car, delValle told the third officer to arrest Gomez. The officer got one handcuff on Gomez, when Gomez punched the officer in the chest. Another man leapt on the officer, and Gomez attempted to flee.

What happened next was a matter of dispute. One eyewitness said that Gomez attempted to take off his belt (Salvadorans sometimes fight with belts), and Jewell thought he was pulling a weapon. Others said that a melee ensued as Jewell attempted to stop Gomez, and -- surrounded by as many as 10 people -- she pulled her weapon and fired. Some said Gomez had been handcuffed completely, and Jewell shot him when he approached her. Jewell claimed Gomez pulled a knife.

What is not disputed is that Jewell pulled her gun and shot Gomez in the chest. Gomez was only wounded, and an ambulance was called for. More police in cars arrived.

The angry crowd starting throwing bottles. Then rocks. The windows of local businesses were smashed. Local homes had windows broken, fences torn down. Rioters attempted unsuccessfully to enter some homes.

Chief Fulwood decided that a massive show of force was needed to quell the burgeoning riot. But because of the ineptitude of the Marion Barry administration (which had left office in January 1991), the MPD had little communication equipment and not much riot gear. Instead of a mass of police arriving at once, officers tended to arrive in small numbers. These small squads were quickly overwhelmed by rioters. Several officers were forced to take refuge in squad cars (which rioters unsuccessfully attempted to overturn or torch) or in local businesses or homes (which were then attacked with rocks and bottles). Abandoned police vehicles were set on fire, and rioters tossed a flare into the gas tank of a police paddy-wagon -- causing a huge explosion and fire. The massive police response only angered the rioters more.

Rioting continued through the evening, and stopped at about 1:30 AM on May 6 when rain began to fall.

During the day on May 6, Mayor Dixon met with Latino community leaders to seek an end to the riots. The meeting was ugly: The community leaders expressed anger at how Latinos were being treated in the city, and demanded immediate action to alleviate problems facing Hispanics. Dixon, however, only wanted an end to the violence. Although they pledged to do their utmost, the Mt. Pleasant immigrant Latino community was only very loosely tied to local community organizations and the Latino leaders had no power to control anything. Mayor Dixon also ordered an end to all liquor sales in Mt. Pleasant and Chief Fulwood deployed every single Spanish-speaking officer he had.

The rain stopped in the afternoon.

By now, Fulwood had his communication problems under better control, and police in full riot gear massed in units of hundreds. As twilight fell, several hundred youths began to march south on Mount Pleasant Street NW near Lamont Street NW. When a Metro bus stopped at a traffic light, the youths began smashing the bus windows and terrifying the passengers inside. Police responding by firing multiple rounds of tear gas. Passengers fled the bus, and the mob set it afire before dispersing. When firefighters and ambulance workers arrived, the crowd were pelted them with rocks and bottles.

At 7:30 PM, Mayor Dixon and several hundred police and a few local civic leaders tried to walk the neighborhood to restore calm. But when crows of youths approached them, police fired tear gas and Dixon was forced to flee to a mobile city command post for her own safety.

As the night of May 6 wore on, more than 1,000 police were on the streets. But the rioting spread south to Adams-Morgan and east into Columbia Heights area. Crowds of young men -- 200 strong, with some as large as 500 to 600 -- gathered on street corners every two or three blocks. Black youth began to join the Latinos. A clothing store, People's Drug, Embassy Drug, Safeway, and Giant Food were looted. A dumpster was dragged into the street and set afire, blocking police responders. A mob began tossing rocks at a Church's Fried Chicken restaurant, and terrified patrons had to flee as the crowd smashed its windows and began looting it. The place was then set afire. Cars were torched throughout the area, hundreds of businesses were attacked, and police injured a man who began a fight in a restaurant (and once more, EMTs were pelted with rocks and bottles when they arrived to assist).

Uneasy calm settle on Mt. Pleasant during the day of May 7. Mayor Dixon imposed a 7 PM-to-7 AM curfew on the area. Anyone found outside after 7 PM risked arrest.

The curfew ended the riots. Police arrested more than 50 people for curfew violations, but there were only scattered reports of minor incidents throughout the night. The curfew continued into a second night, and only a handful of people were arrested.

The curfew was lifted on May 9. Police had arrested only 230 people during the riots, most of them for curfew violations. Fifty police, EMTs, and firefighters had been injured, but only a handful of citizens. More than 60 police vehicles and 21 Metro buses had been destroyed or damaged. More than 30 businesses had been looted, although losses were minimal and were estimated to be less than $1 million.

Mayor Dixon fulfilled her pledge to community leaders, and by the end of May had established a Latino Civil Rights Task Force. Although the task force ended Chief Fulwood's racist stop-and-search practices, added a large number of Hispanic officers to the MPD, helped channel more city services to Latinos and immigrants, and got the city to start delivering services in Spanish, the city's financial meltdown under Mayor Marion Barry between 1994 and 1995 (which led to the imposition of a federal Financial Control Board from 1995 to 2001) largely ended its efforts as well as efforts to improve city services for Latino citizens.

In some ways, D.C. has regressed from the achievements made in the 1990s. In part, this is due to the city's dire financial problems in the mid to late 1990s. But, in part, this is due to amnesia about the 1991 Mt. Pleasant riots -- which quickly faded from memory. With D.C. booming under Mayor Anthony Williams (1997 to 2001) and becoming one of the best cities in American to live in, the problems identified by the Mt. Pleasant Riots seem distant and resolved. But, in part, this is due to the dispersal of the Latino community from Mt. Pleasant. As D.C. has become increasingly expensive to live in, Latinos have largely left the city for more affordable housing conditions in Fairfax County, Va.; Prince George's County, Md.; and Montgomery County, Md. The problems didn't go away; the community dissolved.

For poor or immigrant Latinos still living in D.C., the problems which caused the Mt. Pleasant Riots still exist. There's just no political power any more to fix them.

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