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In February 2005, Sinclair Skinner called a press conference. He and a group of Howard University students gathered on Georgia Avenue NW, just south of New Hampshire Avenue. They stood outside a vacant building that would be the future home of Temperance Hall, which was to be a white-owned restaurant along the predominantly black commercial corridor of Georgia Avenue. A yoga studio was planned for the top floor. Most of the buildings on the block were boarded up.
The crew handed out copies of the Georgia Avenue Defender, published by the Lower Georgia Avenue Business Association. Skinner is listed as its president in the Defender’s masthead. The back page of this particular edition carried a striking political cartoon—a devil-horned caricature of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham with two apparently gay boys gazing up at him (they’re referred to in the newsletter as his “preferred companions”). To the right is a black man being lynched. Across the top, it reads: “Gramzilla’s Plantation.”
Jeff Jennings, at the time a Graham aide, stopped by to check on the press conference. “This is a press event—where’s all the press?” he remembers chiding Skinner.
The ribbing finished, Jennings crossed Georgia Avenue to get to the recently completed Metro. He stopped when he heard shouting between Skinner and Taylor Chesnik, a white resident and 2001 George Washington University graduate. Chesnik had been passing out anti-Skinner fliers at the conference because he disagreed with the activist’s positions on community development. Skinner called Chesnik an outsider—a taunt to which Chesnik responded by stating his nearby address. Chesnik and Jennings remember Skinner screaming something along the lines of, “Good, now I know where you live. You better watch yourself. I’m gonna get you.”
A few months later, posters resembling the picture in the back of the Defender appeared throughout Ward 1 neighborhoods. The one that features Graham and the lynching victim—labeled a “Trouble Making Neighba”—is dated June 9, 2005, and is sponsored by BlackUSA, short for the Black U Street Association. Around that time, Skinner represented himself as BlackUSA’s executive director.
The following fall, Skinner was hired to be the field coordinator for Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty’s mayoral campaign. Upon learning of Skinner’s role in the campaign, Graham went to Fenty and asked, in effect, WTF? “What he has said to me over and over and over is that Sinclair has said he was not involved,” says Graham. “I made my point of view clear on this at the outset, and Adrian made his point of view clear. Once you go through that, there’s not much to add.”
Whatever concerns Graham expressed haven’t diminished Skinner’s role in the Fenty campaign. The community rabble-rouser runs the field operations for a campaign that a recent Washington Post poll positions as the prohibitive favorite in a five-candidate race in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary. His prominence has raised the prospect that Skinner may eventually occupy a high-level position in the District government.
That very prospect scares some folks who’ve watched Skinner take on gentrification from much less exalted posts. “The black people who have been here a long time know how to get along with everybody. I know a lot of people in D.C., but not many like Skinner,” says Conrad P. Smith, a black former school-board president, civil-rights attorney, and neighbor of Skinner’s. “You can’t have somebody like that in the government.”
Opinions like Smith’s have turned Skinner into one of the few issues that follow Fenty on his stoop-to-stoop outings. Chesnik has helped to supply the pressure. He and others who’ve butted heads with Skinner have lobbied Fenty to cut off the campaign aide. In 2005, Chesnik launched DumpSkinner.com, a site that has gotten some play in the press. WTOP and the Washington Post have done reports on Skinner.
A single thread emerges from the Skinner coverage—namely, that Fenty is sticking by his controversial field-operations boss. When asked about Skinner, the candidate commonly sidesteps the issue, referring to allegations against Skinner as things that happened prior to his joining the campaign.
Then he moves on to other topics. If there’s one thing the Fenty campaign is determined to do in these waning weeks of primary season, it’s to hide Skinner. When questioned about Skinner on Aug. 1, Fenty said he couldn’t remember when he hired him and wasn’t sure how often he is asked about him on the trail. Asked how and when he met Skinner, Fenty offered, “A few years ago.” He then added that he couldn’t really remember that, either. After less than a minute, he cut the interview off and asked that questions be e-mailed to him instead. Fenty, famous for rapidly returning e-mails from his BlackBerry, did not respond to the written questions.
Fenty’s staff, too, is assisting in this game of hide-the-firebrand. After getting assurances that Skinner would be available for an interview, a reporter on Aug. 1 went to the campaign office to find him. The door was locked, but Skinner was briefly seen inside. After 30 minutes, an aide came out, shut off the lights, and said that Skinner had left. Five minutes later, Skinner emerged from the darkened office, saw a reporter, and ducked back in. Fifteen minutes later, he darted into a car that had just pulled up, ignoring questions.
In his 2000 victory over longtime Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, Fenty helped to mold a new model for a winning D.C. campaign. The upstart went straight to the people, door-to-door and apartment-to-apartment. Flanking him were campaign assistants with yard signs. By the time it was over, Ward 4 looked like a thoroughly colonized territory, and Fenty drubbed Jarvis by a margin of 14 points in the September primary. Kwame Brown adopted the same strategy in 2004, when he knocked off entrenched At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil.
Fenty is sticking to what he knows best in this year’s mayoral contest: Just about every day the candidate hits the streets. He has turned door-knocking into an art form. The Fenty canvassing team arrives in a neighborhood, starts ringing doorbells, and directs the star attraction to doorways where voters are waiting to have a word with the candidate. His staff records the responses of registered Dems on a hand-held device. And of course, the orders for yard signs are filled quickly, if not on the spot.
In late July, documentary filmmaker Nicole Boxer shot footage of Skinner and the Fenty crew at Barry Farm.
“They looked like they’d been working together awhile,” Boxer says of Skinner’s people. Skinner coordinated the field operation and, according to Boxer, did so with skill. “He was very diligently going door to door. He would sort of advance Fenty,” she says. “[Skinner] definitely had a presence. It was very clear he was coordinating what was going on in the field. He was definitely running the show.”
According to D.C. Office of Campaign Finance records, Skinner gets paid more frequently than other Fenty staffers, who receive monthly payments. In February 2006, he took a total of $2,900 in three tranches. In May, he got four checks on four different days for $467, $2,000, $1,300, and $700.
At public events, Skinner is no showboat. You’re more likely to find him huddled in the lobby or hallway with community activists than posing next to his boss. He’s usually engaged in serious-looking conversations, not the standard shake-the-hand, slap-on-the-back small talk.
He brings to the Fenty campaign some much-needed street cred. The Fenty faithful come from all corners of the city, but despite the candidate’s strong populist leanings, he’s never emerged as a hero in the poorer sections of the city where Skinner can unsheathe his thoughts on the evils of gentrification.
It’s not as if Fenty couldn’t use some more African-American followers. According to the recent Post poll, Fenty draws stronger support from whites than from blacks. He’s the darling of the upper Northwest liberal crowd clamoring for their very own Barack Obama.
Furthermore, Skinner is a skilled campaigner and organizer. As a young radical at Alabama’s Tuskegee University, where he enrolled in 1987, he was elected student-government president; his friend Nik Eames won the vice presidency. The two used their positions to organize demonstrations and building occupations against the administration, led by Andrew Brimmer, who would later head the District’s financial-control board. Skinner would later transfer to Howard University. He told Jonathan Hutto, a Howard classmate, that he’d been expelled from Tuskegee for his activism.
In the summer of 1995, Skinner helped organize students nationally for the Million Man March. He, Eames, and Hutto came under the wing of civil-rights legend Lawrence Guyot, who helped all three get elected as advisory neighborhood commissioners. Skinner, who served six years on the U Street/Lower Georgia Avenue ANC, developed a following at Howard. He regularly brought a herd of Howard students with him to important community meetings.
Skinner brings brotherly loyalty to the campaign, as well. In 1989, he joined Kappa Alpha Psi, a powerful fraternity that counts Fenty as a member. The two were close friends at Howard, says Hutto.
The House is a strip club on Georgia Avenue, formerly known as the Penthouse. A red stage, red carpet, red chairs, and red barstools give it a warm feeling. On a Saturday in late July of this year, a woman’s gyrating body appears red in the glow of the bar’s rose-colored lights. In February 2003, a dispute arose over a blocked view of the stage. Two men went outside, and one of them was shot to death on the sidewalk.
That’s the white version, anyway.
Lenwood Johnson, a Columbia Heights ANC member and friend of Skinner’s, says the story of the killing near the club is an example of the white hysteria that can surround black-owned clubs. “There were rumors that [the victim] had gotten into an argument inside the club and it spilled into the street. There were even rumors he was shot in the club and dragged out,” says Johnson, who thinks the killing was either a random robbery gone bad or, if it did have anything to do with the club, wasn’t something within the establishment’s control. “[The victim] was driving a car with Georgia or Carolina plates or something like that. Maybe they saw this person coming out of the strip club and figured he probably has money.”
No matter how it happens, a murder is never good for public relations. This one came at a particularly bad time, as the House was fighting a protest of its liquor license sparked by a shooting two months earlier. The club took the challenge seriously, well aware that several other black-owned nightclubs were under attack following violent incidents associated with them.
Skinner came to the defense of the House, arguing that the club wasn’t responsible for the killing and that closing it would be driving one more black business off Georgia Avenue.
Playing defense on behalf of nightclubs was a common posture for Skinner. Whenever a club came under attack, Skinner would emerge to denounce the offensive as an effort by gentrifiers to wipe out the historic black culture along Georgia or U Street or wherever the club was. As an ANC member, he was a staunch supporter of the clubs’ liquor licenses. Following a high-profile slaying at Club U, he held a candlelight vigil outside the club under the slogan“Catch the Killer, Save the Go-Go.” Occasionally, the pro-club position would prevail. U Street’s Cada Vez is still open despite a campaign against it. But Graham and his allies succeeded in closing Club U, Kili’s Kafé, and Between Friends—black-owned businesses that live on only in the Gramzilla posters.
In the summer of 2005, tensions over these club closings were high, with much of the resentment directed toward Graham and other white anti-club forces. Along came a liquor-license application for Temperance Hall, a bar and restaurant proposed for Georgia Avenue. Skinner, say both his allies and his enemies, saw a chance to play offense. He came out in opposition. “To his mind, that was just a tit for tat,” says Graham. Johnson agrees. “I think the opposition to [Temperance Hall] might have been on the heels—like, retaliation for Club U being closed down,” along with the challenge to the House’s liquor license, he says.
Skinner’s support for the House and opposition to Temperance Hall is Exhibit A for prosecutors of the idea that Skinner bases his positions on racial considerations. In testimony before Graham’s committee, which oversees the liquor board, Skinner spoke to the racial dimensions of the club wars. “We see a disparity when there’s a black-owned business where there’s real strict guidelines, but when there’s an establishment owned by whites or newcomers, oftentimes they’re given a pass.”
Members of the United Neighborhood Coalition—a Parkview group formed by gentrifiers—had at first been skeptical of Temperance Hall and the need for another bar on Georgia Avenue. But they researched the owner, Joe Englert, who is also behind Lucky Bar, the Big Hunt, DC9, the Pour House, and a number of other bars and restaurants around the city. “Both ANC commissioners and the police had nothing but good things to say about Englert and his businesses,” says Greg Pendleton, a white Parkview resident who moved in three years ago and is active in the coalition.
The tavern issue appeared on the coalition’s meeting agenda for February 2005. Skinner showed up and brought with him 10 or 15 Howard students. The meeting was a mess, thanks in part to the ground rules, which state that only people from the neighborhood could speak. Skinner lived about 10 blocks down Georgia Avenue, well outside Parkview’s boundaries; the students didn’t live in the neighborhood either. That didn’t stop Skinner’s troops from voicing the opinion that the white proponents of Temperance were racists and hypocrites, say several members who attended. If there are supposedly too many liquor establishments on Georgia Avenue, went the refrain, why are you supporting this one?
At the end of the meeting, Skinner stood up to speak. Terri Pendleton, Greg’s wife and a white coalition member, says Skinner’s message was peppered with racially charged language. “I have no bones about saying he’s…weird in the way he wants to keep Georgia Avenue solely black-owned. He was very upfront [in his speech] that that was his problem with Temperance,” she says. Coalition board members were eventually able to silence him; according to an article about the meeting in the Defender, Skinner wrapped up by saying, “Thank God this is America.”
Chesnik approached Skinner as the meeting broke up and told him he suspected that the only reason Skinner was opposing Temperance Hall was because of its white ownership. Chesnik says Skinner went into a rage, shoving chairs out of his way to get at Chesnik. Greg and Terri Pendleton and another coalition member in attendance describe the same scene. Police, who were on hand because of tensions in the neighborhood, intervened. “I think he called me a little bitch,” says Chesnik. After tempers subsided, he apologized to Skinner for calling him racist, but now regrets the regret.
Johnson says he tried to talk Skinner off the Temperance ledge. “[W]hen he was fighting Temperance Hall, I did have a serious talk with him about how difficult it is for small businesses to get started and to exist, especially on Georgia Avenue,” he says. “I told him that although Temperance Hall—I believe at the time I told him, although it’s a white-owned business, I told him that didn’t matter because at least it was a business coming to Georgia Avenue.”
It did come to Georgia Avenue and now serves $6.50 Black Angus hot dogs, grilled-pepper bruschetta, and a fuji-apple-and-fontina dish just under a yoga studio. “The neighborhood’s changing,” says Gloria Murray, day manager at the House, which overcame the challenge to its license.
As the fight over Temperance Hall subsided, Skinner began a little Georgia Avenue revitalization of his own. In July 2005, he and a band of Howard students started painting a mural of Marion Barry on a wall on Fairmont Street, just off of Georgia. Neighbor Beth Lawrence thought it looked like shit and told Skinner as much. Her complaint, she says, was aesthetic, not political. “I thought it would be nice to have a mural of something like flowers,” she says. Skinner told Lawrence that he had already gotten permission from Howard for the project, but he agreed to a neighborhood meeting the following Friday to address her concerns.
Four or five Howard students, a handful of children, and some Georgia Avenue business owners showed up with Skinner for the meeting, which was held at the mural. “Friday night comes, and there’s a whole shitload of people there,” says Pat Nelson, a white guy who has lived across the street from the wall in question for 14 years. “It was quite evident to me Sinclair had gone around town to muster up all the black people he could.”
Skinner began with a moment of silence, followed by a series of speeches by the students. “They were very Afrocentric in their viewpoints. There was a lot of ‘Go back to where you came from,’” Lawrence says. “They were saying a lot of big things for such a small mural.”
Conrad Smith watched the “hullabaloo” from his porch. “Skinner and some people were down there hollering and screaming and all that,” he says.
Furious about the racial ambush, Lawrence and a group of neighbors took the matter to Howard. Within days, Howard community liaison Maybelle Bennett sent a letter back saying that Skinner never had permission to paint the mural and that the university was demanding he clean it up or pay for the damage.
Smith thinks that the dust-up over the mural was petty, but that Skinner made a wrong turn when he said he had permission for the mural. “He said the art project was conceived by students who got permission from higher-ups,” says Smith.
Damion Delgado is a barber at Best Cuts Barber Shop around the corner from the mural. He didn’t make it to the meeting but says that the mural takedown is evidence that the new white people in the neighborhood want to change Georgia Avenue’s historic culture and that Skinner is the one standing up to them. “He wanted a mural with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Farrakhan, Marion Barry, and some other figures, but the white people didn’t want it. They said it supposedly didn’t represent their part of the community,” he says.
Less than a week after the letter from Howard, students were out painting again. Eventually, the mural was painted white. Later, someone spray-painted “Bring back my black block” on the wall. Nelson painted over it immediately, but the words are still legible from across the street. Skinner, in a September 2005 article in DC North, would have the last word. “They painted it white. How poetic,” he’s quoted as saying.
Sinclair Skinner is an unlikely champion of Booker T. Washington, a man reviled by the Civil Rights Movement as a sellout for speaking out against the idea that blacks should struggle for equal rights, instead arguing that through individual betterment each black man and woman could do his or her part to lift the race up. An article in Howard University’s Hilltop newspaper on a dry-cleaning business Skinner opened on Georgia cites Washington as his intellectual inspiration. “He definitely highlighted Booker T. as an institutional figure. He would say that history didn’t treat him fairly,” says Hutto, his Howard friend.
If he’s truly a Washington believer, though, Skinner needs some practice on his accommodation skills. “He is very, very pro-black. He’s not ashamed of it,” says Brenda Williams, a founder of the Nile Valley Business Association, which represents shops on lower Georgia Avenue. Skinner worked closely with Williams in the late ’90s. He left the association and started his own group, the Lower Georgia Avenue Business Association. Williams says Skinner splintered off because he felt businesses shouldn’t be required to pay dues to Nile Valley.
Williams speculates that Skinner’s radical racial politics may come from being raised where blacks have been historically less empowered than in the District. A military brat, he bounced around the country while growing up, spending time in Montana, Missouri, and Florida. “For me as a native Washingtonian, we don’t have to fight that hard because we have a different sense of pride and ownership being from D.C….His battles were not necessarily the battles that people who grew up here would fight,” she says. “We came up in a city where there had been a lot of positives for blacks. My great, great grandfather owned a horse and buggy, which eventually became a taxi-cab company. We’re used to owning our own businesses.”
Johnson says that, empowerment aside, Skinner is battling a racism that is very real in the city. “I think that Skinner sees a lot of stuff as the people fighting the government,” says Johnson. “He believes, like I believe, every penalty for everything you do wrong involves money, and if you have money, then it’s no problem.”
Skinner is no different from most folks, according to his friends—he just has the courage to speak his mind. “He’ll say something controversial and ask who agrees with him. No one will speak up. When he gets home, he’ll have a dozen people calling him saying, ‘You were right, and I’m glad you said that,’” says Johnson.
Skinner’s anti-Graham sentiments are not the exclusive domain of black community activists. In a letter to the City Paper published last week, landlord lobbyist Shaun Pharr refers to rent-control legislation Graham proposed as “a residential version of Graham-zilla.” (See page 4 for Graham’s response.)
Guyot thinks that Skinner is a victim of the District’s inability to discuss race openly and honestly. “We have more public discussions in Washington about anal sex than we have about race,” he says, using as an example the police commander who was recently disciplined for saying that people should be suspicious if they see black people in Georgetown at night. The commander was later reinstated. “If this town has found in its will to forgive the officer, Sinclair Skinner should be forgiven as swiftly.”
If politics places a premium on spin, Skinner has chosen the right field. Ever since the Gramzilla art hit the streets, he’s been asked repeatedly if he was behind the provocation. He’s offered some interesting responses.
The activist was pressed on the Gramzilla incident one evening at an impromptu neighborhood gathering on Smith’s porch. “We talked about how it could be construed as offensive to white people, and he was really surprised by that. We suggested he leave it in his shop instead of taking it door-to-door, and he agreed that was probably a good idea,” says Lawrence.
Skinner’s neighbors also approached Fenty with questions about why he’d hired the activist responsible for Gramzilla. “He told me if what I was saying was true, he wouldn’t let Sinclair stay on the staff,” says Chesnik. Lawrence says Fenty arranged a sit-down meeting with her, Skinner, and himself. “I had a great conversation with Adrian and raised all my points and thought the case was made,” she says.
But Skinner swatted it down, point by point. He insisted he had no editorial control over the contents of the Defender and no idea what was inside it. Lawrence was shocked, she says, thinking back to the conversation on Smith’s porch. Fenty told her it was her word against his, and he couldn’t fire him based on what he said was “hearsay.”
She told Fenty about the Skinner-organized meeting at the mural, at which she was instructed to pack her bags and take her white ass back to the suburbs. Skinner said he didn’t make the most racially divisive comments and couldn’t be held accountable for what other people said.
So she brought up the comment he made about the poetry of the wall’s white paint job in DC North. They misquoted me, said Skinner.
Instead of a firing, Lawrence got a mea culpa—minus the culpa. “This was the apology in a nutshell: ‘If I knew it was gonna come down to having to do this, I never would have done that stuff,’” Lawrence recalls Skinner saying.
The public apology he did offer was posted on a neighborhood Listserv. “Although the Defender was a publication of the Lower Georgia Avenue Business Association and I was the President of the Association at the time of its dissemination, I did not have an editorial role in the publication. As President, I take full responsibility and apologize for the subject matter,” he wrote.
For some, Skinner’s denial is enough. “The man says he didn’t do it. To me, that’s the best defense there is,” says Guyot, who describes Skinner as “a friend, an ally, and a role model.”
Fenty has attempted to use diplomacy to end all the controversy over Skinner. About three weeks ago, he asked Graham to meet Skinner and himself for lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl. The meal was civil but unproductive. “He repeated his points, and I repeated mine,” says Graham. “I told him most people don’t like to see their caricature in a poster next to a lynching of a black man. That’s a very upsetting image. [Skinner] got that—he could understand why I was upset.”
The Linda Cropp campaign is happy to sit back and watch Fenty walk the racial tightrope. “We don’t want to make it appear like we’re making it political, taking a cheap shot,” says spokesperson Ron Eckstein.
Guyot, who says he is a strong supporter of Cropp for mayor, is impressed with Fenty’s decision to keep his frat brother on the campaign trail. “Courage in Washington, D.C., is as seldom seen as unicorns,” he says. “I’m extremely excited that Adrian Fenty, who is very sensitive to white guidance in this city, has not succumbed to the pressure to get rid of Sinclair Skinner.”CP
Additional reporting by James Jones