On not over-praising the dead

Marion Barry is dead. That doesn’t give him in retrospect virtues he lacked in life.

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  – “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.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “On not over-praising the dead”

  1. This reminds me of what someone said over on the obituary thread at Balloon Juice. Corruption and retail politics were (and are) pretty common in big American cities, but the difference between Richard Daley's machine and Marion Berry's machine is that Daley's machine actually got the stuff that needed to be done done while engaging in corruption. Berry was just incompetent and riding off of a popular jobs and summer youth jobs program – if he hadn't been the first black mayor of D.C. elected after the "plantation" period of governorship by racist, corruption white congressional leadership, the guy would have much fewer sympathizers.

  2. Sorry, but I had to comment further on this:

    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,

    That reminds me of a Venezuelan blogger who pointed out that the government was so corrupt you actually had to pay a bribe just to pay taxes. The local bureaucrats had figured out that you needed a stamp showing proof that you had paid taxes, and so naturally they turned that into yet another extortion opportunity.

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