Look, de mortuis and all that; if you don’t want to speak ill of the dead, then you’re justified in not mentioning Marion Barry at all. Or if you want to praise his verbal wit Â – “Jesse? Jesse don’t wanna be no Mayor. Jesse don’t want to run nothin’ but his mouth.” – you’ll be on solid ground.
But please, please don’t try to pretend that as a politician and public official he was anything but a disaster to anyone but himself and his cronies. Stealing from mostly Black taxpayers to make some of your friends rich is not giving “working-class black residents a taste of the economic prosperity that racial apartheid had long denied them,” and a summer-jobs program doesn’t really alter that fact.
Of course the racial composition of the DC police needed to change; but too-rapid hiring with too-low standards meant building a force full of incompetent and sometimes brutal grifters, and not having enough senior folks around to train and control them. It’s hard to guess how many Washingtonians who died of homicide would be alive today if DC had had a different mayor, but the number isn’t small. And let’s not forget that DC Statehood was a live issue until Marion Barry turned the District government into a work-free drug place and a national joke.
How bad was the looting? At one point, DC General Hospital ran out of pharmaceuticals because the distributors who supplied the drugs refused to offer the bribes City Hall demanded simply to get their invoices paid, and eventually cut off the hospital when the balance due got too high. That’s right: Marion Barry was prepared to have sick people go without medicine if his cronies didn’t get their slice of the action.
Having said that, I should add in haste that Barry’s conviction on cocaine charges reflected truly outrageous investigative and prosecutorial over-reach. It’s clear from the tape that his interest was entirely in sex, and not drugs; the drug motif was introduced entirely by the undercover. He was guilty of soliciting sex for hire, and guilty of the corruption everyone knew about but no one could prove. But the crack charges were bogus, and his supporters weren’t wrong to say he’d been set up. And no, Barry’s outrageousness provides no excuse whatever for any of the people involved in the investigation or the trial. You’re supposed to convict people of stuff they actually did, not of some manufactured substitute.