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Standing on a busy Anacostia street corner on a recent Saturday afternoon, 66-year-old Gloria Cunningham attracts well-wishers by the horde. Passing drivers honk and yell hello, a woman in curlers stops to give Cunningham a hug, and others shower her with smiles and affection. With her manicured pink nails, vibrant blue dress, silk scarf, and smoothed-back hair, Cunningham, who stands just over 5 feet tall, personifies grandmotherly elegance. The neighbors seem happy to see her out and about, because the last time many of them saw Cunningham on this corner, the police had her handcuffed, searched, and hauled off to jail in a paddy wagon, charged with selling cocaine and heroin out of her liquor store.
Back in August 1995, Cunningham says she was staring down the barrel of a shotgun while raiding officers and police dogs came bursting into her shop, Galloway’s Liquor Store, in search of drugs. Cunningham says the cops trashed the store and destroyed her merchandise until finally one officer claimed to have found several packets of drugs in the cash-register drawer. The police seized her liquor license and took her to the 7th District station for booking. Cunningham was not released from jail until 5 p.m. the next day, and she was compelled to take weekly drug tests as a condition of her release. “I’m sure I was the oldest person down there doing that,” she says wryly.
The bust was big news, broadcast across the city by a TV camera that had been standing by when the cops went in. The fact that charges against Cunningham were dropped less than a month later didn’t make much of a splash. The criminal case went nowhere, but Galloway’s, a landmark since 1941 on Anacostia’s well-traveled corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Talbert Street, now stands littered and empty. Cunningham is out of the liquor business, but she is anxious to rehab her reputation in Anacostia. She recently filed suit against the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and former D.C. Councilmember Arrington Dixon in the belief that she was set up on drug charges in order to shut down her business.
On a recent afternoon, a woman named “Shorty” stands with a group of Talbert Street friends and spouts her theory on the Galloway’s raid. “That place has been there for years and has never been a problem,” says Shorty, dabbing some ketchup on her takeout from the nearby Family Fish Fry. “It’s nothing but a setup. It’s just a big conspiracy.”
The buzz among Shorty and other locals is that Dixon and his business partners are conspiring to buy up all the land around Galloway’s as part of a potentially lucrative revitalization effort for the MLK commercial strip. Dixon’s house is one block behind Galloway’s on Shannon Place, within shouting distance of an empty lot that Shorty calls “home of the historic learning tree.” The lot is a shady spot where Shorty says neighborhood folks who don’t have yards come to catch up on local gossip alfresco. “It’s a place where we meet and congregate,” she explains.
Annexing Galloway’s and the empty lot, according to the Talbert Street buzz, is a key component of Dixon’s grand plan for the neighborhood. But Dixon’s motivations are the subject of more than just street talk. Cunningham’s lawyer, JePhunneh Lawrence, an independent candidate for the Ward 8 council seat, says Dixon and his business partners want Cunningham’s propertywhich is a block away from the Green Line Metro stop in Anacostiaso they can turn the neighborhood into a private, gated community of luxury town houses.
“There was a campaign to put this woman out of business. The evidence suggests that they have designs on the property,” says Lawrence, who explains that the opening of the Green Line stop just a block away has suddenly made this crime-infested block of Anacostia valuable. “They’ve already made preliminary arrangements for financing.”
While Lawrence fails to produce any of this evidence, he promises it will all come out in court. On Aug. 16, Cunningham filed a $20-million lawsuit in U.S. District Court against MPD, Dixon, Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell, and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner David White for allegedly providing false information to the police and to the Alcoholic Beverage Control board to put Galloway’s out of business. The suit charges Dixon et al. with making threatening phone calls to Cunningham and with spreading “slanderous rumors” about her in the community. “We’re talking about a nearly 70-year-old woman,” says Lawrence. “Nobody apologized to her or anything. And everybody in the community [now] believes that the woman did what they said she did.”
In response, Dixon says he finds the whole suit and the neighborhood conspiracy theories “completely ridiculous,” the product of a publicity-seeking D.C. Council candidate. “I have no designs on any property other than the property I live on and work in,” he says. Dixon says he was born in the neighborhood, and his only mission is to improve the community.
Phil Pannell, a Ward 8 activist who works for Dixon, says, “In my whole life, I was only in that place three or four times. I’d like to know how they think I hopped over the counter and planted drugs in the motherfucker.” He says he was as surprised as anyone by the bust, which he read about in the paper. “The stuff about how she was handcuffed and paraded around town like out of some Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, I had nothing to do with this.”
What Pannell and Dixon say they did do was challenge Galloway’s’ liquor license when it came up for renewal. As a concerned citizen, Pannell says, “I had every right to do that.” He, too, thinks the suit is a publicity stunt by an overly litigious Lawrence to get more votes in his Ward 8 council race. “JePhunneh Lawrence, who practically doesn’t win any cases, by the way, and who constantly runs for office and hasn’t won a single oneeverybody knows he’s a fool,” says Pannell.
Pannell argues that the store was the epicenter of criminal activity. He claims that after the nearby Savoy Elementary School was broken into, the person who pulled off the heist set up a fencing operation right in front of Cunningham’s store. Pannell and Dixon both fear that the lawsuit will have a chilling effect on other community activists who challenge the liquor licenses of establishments like Galloway’s. “Everybody knew that Galloway’s was a problem. It was so glaring, even Ray Charles would have seen that blindfolded at midnight,” Pannell suggests.
Seventh District Inspector Winston Robinson concurs, saying the police had received reports that drugs were being sold in and around the store and that the store was selling alcohol to minors. He’s not sure why the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped the charges against Cunningham. But, Robinson says, “We went in there for legitimate law-enforcement purposes. The drugs were found as reported in the cash-register drawer, and they field-tested positive for heroin.”
No amount of testimony from Pannell or the police, however, could convince the Talbert Street regulars that the Galloway’s bust was legit. Walking past the Savoy School, Shorty points to a spot on top of Dixon’s house where she says he used to have a video camera mounted and aimed at the lot. Shorty says Dixon used to buy a case of beer and hand it out to the folks under the treesometimes he’d even crack one open himself. Then, she says, he’d go back home and call the cops and have everyone locked up for drinking in public. The incident is legend among Shorty’s friendsseveral of whom also claim to have been on the scene when it happened. The tale has worked its way into Lawrence’s diatribe against Dixon as well.
For his part, Dixon denies the allegations. He does say, however, that on the Fourth of July a few years back he did buy some beer for the men in the neighborhood as a friendly gesture, but he says, “I certainly would not call the police on someone for drinking beer. That’s ridiculous.”
Dixon is even more famous for some of the alley closings he supposedly worked through his political connections. Talbert Street used to turn into an alley that ran right next to Dixon’s house, but Richard Price, another Talbert regular, says, “He did a Jack Kent Cooke” and had the alley closed and the space converted into his own private yard. And in the days before the Anacostia Metro station opened up a block away, Shorty says Shannon Place used to get a lot of traffic from commuters looking to park near the bus stop. Dixon apparently put a stop to that by having one end of the street blocked off. Now, Shorty says, “You can go out, but you can’t come in.”
Shorty says that while Dixon aspires to emulate Cooke, “He doesn’t have any money.” So she is convinced that he started the rumors about Galloway’s as a way to get the police to seize Cunningham’s property and then buy it on the cheap.
Dixon says the street and alley closings are all a matter of public record and that he is not personally responsible for the changes. “The city council did that,” he says. He also denies any kind of plot to take over the land around Talbert Street. He does think that building something on the empty lot behind Galloway’s is the only way to get rid of the criminal activity that takes place there. “I would like to see something built on that lot. I’m tired of seeing people playing horseshoe, urinating, and selling drugs on that lot,” he says, but adds that Shorty’s assessment of his net worth is on the moneyhe doesn’t have the cash to invest in land development.
Pannell writes off these tales as Talbert Street trash talk.”There was nothing we did that was untoward. Gloria Cunningham has got to be a giant jackass,” he says. “It isn’t anything to her that that community was going down the drain. That place is like Skid Row. Galloway’s was a contributor to that. I have no regrets about my role in closing it down.”Stephanie Mencimer