News & Politics

Watch a Young Marion Barry Talk About the Police

Years before he was the mayor-for-life, Marion Barry made his name in the District as a civil-rights organizer and home-rule activist. He also played a leading role in a short-lived federal program after the 1968 riots that attempted, unsuccesfully, to fix a growing chasm between DC’s police department and the communities it patrolled.

The Pilot District Project was a two-year progam funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity—a now-defunct agency that birthed several lasting programs, including Head Start and the VISTA volunteer program—to establish a community board to pacify the hostility between police officers and residents in the Third District. While the district includes a tony slice of Kalorama, it is centered around 14th St., Northwest, which was in ruins after 1968.

Barry wound up being named chairman of the community board created by the Pilot District Project, but the program quickly deteriorated over the board’s internal disagreements and the fact that it lacked real teeth to enact police reforms. By 1971, the project was being wound down after spending more than $2 million. Of that money, $197,879 went to the film company Guggenheim Productions to make a series of training films and a one-hour documentary titled The People and the Police. The films were completed, but they never screened and sat in a National Archives vault in College Park.

But the Archives recently dug the films out, and the shorts will finally get their day next week as part of the C-SPAN series American History TV. While Barry is prominent throughout The People and the Police, he is the star and narrator of much of one of the shorts, Development of Community Control. The 15-minute black-and-white film opens with Barry, clad in one of his trademarked dashikis, walking around the corner of 14th and Girard streets in Columbia Heights with an unnamed school-aged boy. Barry asks the kid what he thinks about the police, and his answer, in 1969, does not seem that unfamiliar today:

“They ain’t nothing but pigs, man,” the boy says. “They pick me up just ’cause I wasn’t in school, shit like that. So I say, ‘Man, what you all gonna do with me?’ They say, ‘I’m gonna take you to the pig pen.’ “

The rest of the film focuses on Barry walking through several other neighborhoods and attending Pilot District Program meetings. While it all takes place several years before the start of his elected career, Barry’s belief in confrontational, and sometimes unpleasant, politics is apparent. And at points in the film, confrontation is very necessary, such as a scene in which Barry is allowed into a community meeting while other activists are kept out by a police line.

“The only thing we have at our command is our bodies and our voices,” he says in the film. “This country got started on using destructive tactics, that was the revolution. I learned that from America.”

The three training films air Monday at 9 PM on C-SPAN 3. The hour-long The People and Police is available on YouTube through the National Archives.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.