Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Racial Tension in Columbia Heights

I was about to drop in to Red Rocks on my way home around 10 PM last night, when a frantic looking Hispanic man approached me and stammered something about the police. I couldn't understand what he was saying at first, but quickly realized that they had been attacked and didn't have a phone to call for help. I called 911 as he motioned that I follow him down the street. Another guy had been standing outside Red Rocks when he approached and we both went with him down 11th Street towards Monroe.

The man was with another younger guy who hadn't spoken and was holding his head, but looked like he was pretty dazed. Halfway down the block there is an alley that goes to an open lot behind 11th between Park and Monroe, and a third Hispanic guy was standing in the alley entrance, clearly having also been attacked. At this point I was still on the phone with 911, after having given them the address about six times. (For some reason, "11th Street Northwest between Park and Monroe" was baffling to the operator.)

A cop was there about two minutes later. An ambulance did not arrive for at least 15 minutes. In that time, what ensued was my first personal experience of how racial tensions exist on the street in my neighborhood.

The cop was black. The three victims were Hispanic. The first guy, who had originally asked me for help, spoke pretty good English. The other two guys who had been beaten up did not speak English. They were all clearly at various levels of drunkenness. I explained to the cop what had happened: they had been hanging out in the empty lot (presumably drinking) and had been attacked and robbed by five or six black guys. Did I see them? No, I wasn't there. Who called the police? I did. How long ago did this happen? About 5 minutes. Did anyone see the perps? I indicated that victim #1 had seen them.

The cop asked him to describe them. (Below is of course paraphrased, since I didn't take notes on the conversation, but this is basically how it went).

Vic: Why should I tell you? You're not going to do anything.
Cop (talking to me, not victim): I can't do anything if he won't talk to me.
Vic (to me): He doesn't give a crap about us.
Me (to Vic): You gotta tell him what they look like.
Vic: I know these guys. I know them.
Cop: Do you know where they live? Do you know who they are?
Vic: I know them. I don't know where they live, but I know them.
Cop (now holding a sketch pad): Just tell me what they look like. I can go after them.
Vic: You won't do anything anyway, why should I tell you?
Cop (to me): It's too late now. They'll be long gone.

The first cop had called in after he arrived and asked for a bilingual backup. Another cop eventually arrived, but did not speak Spanish. He said they were having trouble finding a bilingual officer. The other guy I had come from Red Rocks with went back there and grabbed a friend from there who spoke Spanish, but at that point it really didn't matter.

The subtext to this exchange was that there is massive mistrust of the police by the Hispanic community, and there is a lack of respect for the Hispanics by the police. The cop wasn't being a jerk or anything, but I basically felt like neither the victim nor the cop were interested in talking to each other. They were talking through me. The vic did not trust the cop. The cop did not take the vic especially seriously. Sure, he was drunk, but clearly he was also freaked out. His friends were bloody and beaten up pretty well, it was not a joke.

The Mt. Pleasant riot, sparked by an altercation between a black rookie cop and a Salvadorean man, was 17 years ago next month. It is pretty obvious that those wounds are far from healed in this town. When I think of racial tension, I usually think of tension between upper-class white gentrifiers and the lower-middle class long-time residents in Columbia Heights, largely African American families but also Hispanic immigrants. I've always thought of that tension as driven just as much buy socioeconomic status as by race. But this conflict - working class Hispanic guys mugged by black guys, black cop responding, white guy translating, is completely different yet just as much a part of the challenges that our community is facing. I don't know what the answer is but the situation has apparently changed very little in 17 years.


an orange county girl said...

i work with the latino community in the columbia heights and mt pleasant area and i can assure you this mutual disrespect b/n the latinos and african americans in the neighborhood is alive and well. in fact, i think it's been getting worse since the renewed spread of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. i'm not surprised that this incident happened, but it's still upsetting.

Mr T in DC said...

Nice choice of photo - that was a great episode and one that led me to believe we would have made a lot more progress towards a colorblind society today.

vvk said...

As someone who gets mistaken for both Latino and African-American - I'm actually from India - I get to see a lot of the mistrust and animosity. It's sad.

Anonymous said...

I think it's sad that the author attempts to link this attack to something that happened 17 years ago. I agree that we still have a long way to go when it comes to race relations, but to open old wounds doesn't serve anyone any good. Let's view this for what it is, an unfortunate incident that needs to be addresses by a community by driving out the criminal element...

Jamie said...

Anon - Your comment about driving out the criminal element is pretty silly so I can't take you too seriously. This is about the interaction between a member of the Latino community and a black police officer. The Latinos were victims, remember?

The connection to the Mt. Pleasant riot seems pretty obvious to me. There was mutual mistrust between the victims and the officer. This is exactly what sparked the riots in 1991. The point is that many years later little seems to have changed in the relationship between them. This has nothing to do with "criminal elements." It has to do with different cultures.

Anonymous said...

I've been living in this neighborhood for a number of years and I have to say that generally things are fine between Blacks and Latinos, but every once in a while you do see sparks. I can easily see a situation where tensions between the two groups could cause another riot.

The strange thing is that a lot of young African Americans seem to view their fellow Latino school mates as outsiders. Its like no matter how long Latinos live in this area, many Blacks will never view Latinos as locals. That's really troublesome and causes resentment amongst Latinos.

Also, the lack of exposure in the black community, especially in the Eastern part of the city, to people of other ethnic groups (Latino, Asian, or otherwise) also sometimes causes problems because they don't know how to react to different names, customs, manners of expression.

I wish all of DC were like Columbia Heights. The diversity we have forces us to continually think outside the box. Here, we see a little of the real America which is never completely White, Black, Latino, or Asian.