We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams has said from the start that he will admit his mistakes and learn from them. It’s an attempt to sell himself as a self-correcting politician who’s not afraid of accountability.
In 1999, for example, the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics determined that Williams hadn’t properly reported consulting income he received during his first mayoral campaign. “[M]y inadvertent failure to disclose the fact of my outside employment earlier than I did was wrong,” declared the mayor.
A few years later, when the D.C. inspector general released an encyclopedic report on improper nonprofit fundraising in the mayor’s office, Williams expressed more remorse. “Because of insufficient management oversight, mistakes were made,” the mayor told the local press.
Last year, when the city’s Board of Elections denied the mayor a spot on the primary ballot after finding pages and pages of improprieties on his nominating petitions, Williams expressed further sorrow. The mayor admitted again that “mistakes were made.”
So the pattern goes like this: Some government authority issues a report saying that Williams has messed up. The document falls into the hands of the press. Seeing no alternative, the mayor issues a mea culpa.
Except in the case of Pershing Park, a monumental D.C. screw-up that has yet to draw a word of contrition from the city’s chief executive.
On the morning of Sept. 27, 2002, during a weekend of citywide World Bank-International Monetary Fund (IMF) protests, Metropolitan Police Department officers arrested and charged nearly 400 people in the park at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW with “failure to obey a police order” to disperse. Initial press reports of the Pershing Park arrests included allegations that the cops had never given any warning for the crowd to disperse. Evidence of police misconduct was public knowledge from the moment the protesters were hauled away (“Boss Hogtie,” 1/17).
The mayor apparently heard none of it, though. Later that day, he stood behind Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who explained the mass arrest as a necessary public-safety precaution. “The intent of this group is to shut down all of D.C.,” Ramsey explained at the time. “They leave here and go someplace else and do something else.”
Williams smiled as Ramsey delivered his weak explanation. Perhaps he skipped his civil-rights lectures at Harvard Law School.
The “marauders” cited by Ramsey and Williams included nurses in town for a convention, commuters bicycling to work, and resting protesters who happened to find the park benches hospitable. Mayor Williams praised Ramsey’s police work, saying he had balanced “the need for an open city and…open expression.” Even with the press and others asking questions about Pershing Park, he did not request an investigation into what happened until more than a month later.
The roundup triggered four lawsuits against the District, all seeking damages for improper arrests. “If they filed a suit, that’s their right, and we’ll answer it when the time comes,” a cavalier Ramsey said a few weeks after the protest. “I don’t have any problem with any of the actions taken during the IMF weekend.”
Others had quite a gripe. On Oct. 24, 2002, three witnesses appeared before the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and alleged that they had been unlawfully arrested and detained. The witnesses testified that police had “hogtied”in other words, tied wrist to opposite anklethose rounded up in Pershing Park.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other law experts argued that the arrests were improper and violated basic civil rights. “You’ve got to arrest people on the basis of their individual violations of law,” American University law professor Herman Schwartz told the Washington Post. “You can’t just sort of surround a public park and say, ‘Everyone in here, you’re presumed to be prepared to shut down the city.’”
When asked why nurses and other passers-by were considered public-safety threats, Mayor Williams told the Washington City Paper in January: “Any allegations always trouble you….I happen to believe there isn’t a basis. Everybody comes into a situation with their own views and beliefs. That’s my view. I’ll let you know if there’s a change.”
Williams in fact had an opportunity to change his mind only a few weeks later. On Jan. 25, a confidential report from an internal police team investigating the misconduct allegations was delivered to Chief Ramsey. The mayor also received a copy.
“The decision to arrest everyone in Pershing Park was not sound,” reads the report from the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility. “It is more than probable that numerous persons inside of the park had arrived there lawfully with no intent to commit any violations of the law.”
The internal police investigation agreed with the protesters. “As previously stated, each arrest form from Pershing Park indicates that a specific officer saw the listed demonstrator engaging in unlawful activityin this case, walking in the streetand subsequently issued an order to that particular demonstrator to cease that activity by returning to the sidewalk,” reads the report. “Further review of this matter exposed that this was in fact not the casenone of the officers could actually testify that he or she gave the defendant described in the field arrest a warning.”
So did Williams admit that the nurses were just enjoying the scenery before they got hauled off for attempting to shut down the city?
Nope. In fact, the mayor said little of anything about the events at Pershing Park.
Other city officials were much more vocal. “The Metropolitan Police Department, under Mayor Tony Williams, stands compromised by their own actions last fall and by the mayor’s inaction since that time,” said Judiciary Committee Chair Kathy Patterson. She pressed the mayor about the investigation and requested that he release the report to the public.
Despite his own department’s conclusions, Ramsey stood by the arrests. In a letter to the mayor, he defended his police officers and their actions at Pershing Park. “Finally, I have determined that since the actions of the police officials involved in making the decisions to arrest at Pershing Park under rapidly evolving circumstances were made in good faith, there is no need to subject them to disciplinary action at the adverse action level,” Ramsey wrote.
The mayor and police chief refused to release the Jan. 25 report.
A month later, Patterson went on the offensive. The Judiciary Committee chair put pressure on the mayor by releasing the significant findings of the report, though she failed to release the report itself. She put that responsibility on Williams.
“We’re balancing an open society with a safe city,” Williams said on Feb. 26 in response. “It’s important to evaluate and review what [police] have done but also to recognize that when they are on the spot and making very, very difficult decisions, it’s important to back them up.”
The mayor hasn’t deserted that opinion. In his Wednesday press conference, Williams defended his actions on Pershing Park and called the City Paper’s coverage largely “unfair.” Yet when asked why he had refused to release the report, he moved on to other topics.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who is overseeing the Pershing Park lawsuits against the city, ordered the report released to the public on Sept.11. He stated that “the mayor and the chief of police should step up to the plate and tell the citizens what they did wrong” last Sept. 27.
Apparently, Williams doesn’t take federal judges as seriously as he does the city’s inspector general or its elections board.
BILL OF GOODS
In recent weeks, Williams has been meeting with various councilmembers about his agenda for the upcoming D.C. Council session.
But that doesn’t mean the mayor actually says much.
According to accounts, the meetings have gone something like this: Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Legislative Affairs Gregory McCarthy runs through about 20 bills. The priorities include revitalizing the Anacostia waterfront, giving Chief Ramsey his retirement benefits, and various public-safety and economic development initiatives. McCarthy goes through the fine points of the plans with the councilmembers.
And the mayor sits there, nodding.
A few theories on why the mayor doesn’t pipe up:
•He never has. City politicos have always described Williams as verbally challenged, even on the most passion-inducing topics.
•He dislikes the councilmembers more than ever. Over the past year, the mayor and the legislative branch have battled bitterly over the city’s credit-card program, over Chief Ramsey, and over Inspector General Charles C. Maddox.
•He believes his job is done. In his first term, Williams set out to restore the city’s financial health, sunset the financial control board, and make Wall Street and regular citizens optimistic about the city’s future. Put a check by all three.
•All the talk of the Anacostia River makes him daydream about canoeing.
The administration is following Williams’ mum’s-the-word approach to a crucial piece of legislation: the school board. Next year, the mayor and council must decide whether to renew the hybrid elected/appointed school-board configuration that it approved in 2000.
The mayor’s legislative agenda acknowledges this area as a priority. Yet the legislative memo makes no mention of what changes, if any, it will push.
“I’ve always pushed for a nonelected board,” Williams told LL this week.
•e In various phone calls to LL this week, Ward 8 Democrats President Philip Pannell has threatened to “ride into the sunset.”
“I’m done with local politics,” Pannell announced to LL more than once.
LL won’t take the tireless activist out of our Rolodex just yet.
Last Saturday, the Ward 8 Dems voted for Pannell’s successor. In an al fresco electiondue to a power outage at the Washington Highlands public libraryEugene Dewitt Kinlow became the organization’s new president, garnering more votes than Williams-administration staffer Lafayette Barnes or activist Joyce Scott. In fact, Kinlow’s entire “Unity Democrats” slate was elected.
The Ward 5 Dems also went to the polls this week. After one invalidated election, the organization elected Anita Bonds over Harry Thomas Jr. for chair of the ward cell. Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr. invited the victorious Bonds slate over to his house for a celebration later that night. CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, x 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.