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All summer, whenever Muriel Bowser and Eugene Puryear have been in the same room, it usually means trouble for the mayor.
In May, Bowser tried to end a sleepy affordable housing tour of Shaw with a press scrum at Uprising Muffin Company. What could go wrong with muffins?
Puryear, who works nearby, was at Uprising on his coffee break. He saw his chance. In front of a cafe full of TV cameras, he confronted the mayor about Metropolitan Police Department tactics next to a visibly uncomfortable HUD Secretary Julián Castro.
The muffin incident was only a warm-up for last week, when Puryear and more than a dozen other activists affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement tried to shout down Bowser. Puryear stood in front of TV cameras with a protest sign, prompting the mayor to ask him to sit down in the middle of her speech.
Bowser came to the Congress Heights gymnasium to announce her plans to control the rising homicide rate; she ended up looking like she couldn’t even control a decent-sized crowd. The mayor eventually answered questions from reporters behind guarded doors, where the likes of Puryear couldn’t interrupt her again.
After a summer that has left the District with as many homicides so far in 2015 as in all of 2014, Puryear finds himself part of a coalition of activists that says Bowser’s new crime plan amounts to a crackdown on poor black men. Whether the communities that Puryear and co. purport to help actually want their assistance, however, remains to be seen.
Puryear, a 29-year-old Charlottesville, Va. native who came to the District in 2004 to attend Howard University, plans to run for vice president next year on the socialist ticket. (Being too young to legally hold the office in the bizarro world where he could win, Puryear says, is just another kind of protest.)
But District voters probably remember Puryear best from last year’s general election, when he ran for one of the at-large set-aside seats on the D.C. Council. He nabbed less than 4 percent of the vote, a surprisingly decent return for a member of the blighted Statehood Green Party.
Puryear, who now lives in Congress Heights, says he won’t run for a Ward 8 or at-large seat next year. That means he has even more free time to hassle the mayor and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier.
Officially, Bowser sympathizes with the movement that has blocked District highways and left presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders flustered. She peppers her speeches with promises to make Black Lives Matter “more than just a hashtag.” Her “Safer, Stronger D.C.” crime plan, headed to the Council later this month, woos activists with promises to reduce nuisance traffic stops and offer some criminals easier paths out of jail.
At her backroom press conference, Bowser said she didn’t understand why the activists crashed her speech. After all, who supports murders?
For Puryear, though, Bowser’s promise to add more police on the streets will amount to more officers available to monitor, push around, and potentially kill black Washingtonians. After the Washington Post reported that detail of the plan, Puryear says his group, Stop Police Terror Project D.C., started organizing with other affiliated groups to crash the speech.
In their telling, adding more police and making it easier to search violent offenders on probation might be the quickest solution to the District’s rising murder rate, but it’s not the best one.
“Many of us felt, ‘OK, we’ve gotta be there now,’” Puryear says.
The protest meant headlines and television time for Puryear and his colleagues, but it has also opened up a rift between him and community bigwigs.
“Most of those people in [the protest], I ain’t never seen them in my community,” says anti-violence worker and longtime Bowser Green Team associate Ron Moten.
To gain supporters, the city’s Black Lives Matter activists have to convince communities to look for longer-term solutions like job training instead of welcoming new MPD officers to their street corners.
That could be a tough sell. As laid out in Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside, and demonstrated in countless viral videos, black communities across the county are regularly over-policed on minor crimes like vehicle violations or the sale of loose cigarettes, but under-policed on more serious crimes. In some parts of the city, a larger MPD presence could be a welcome change.
Ward 8 pol Sandra Seegars, for one, is happy to have more cops in her neighborhood.
“The rational people do want more police,” Seegars says.
Puryear faces another problem in his campaign: the popularity of Lanier, who has managed to run MPD for eight years while avoiding any career-ending controversies.
Over the weekend, MPD’s union voted overwhelmingly that it had no confidence in Lanier, albeit with less than a third of its membership participating. Its members are pressuring the chief on the other side of Puryear, demanding the return of vice units that activists blame for “jumpout” searches. But even the union’s poll of District residents found that Lanier enjoys a roughly 60-percent approval rating.
Lanier is down from her stratospheric 84-percent approval rating four years ago, but the numbers don’t suggest she’ll be fired any time soon. That leaves Puryear trying to figure out the reasons for her longevity, and he thinks he’s found one: her appearance.
“Obviously, she can’t help who she is as a person,” Puryear says. “But I mean, you know—blonde woman, youngish look, something that is traditionally a sort of friendly meme, avatar kind of thing in our American culture.”
Puryear sees the District as one suspicious police killing away from a Ferguson- or Baltimore-style uprising. He cites the 2007 police shooting of 14-year-old DeOnte Rawlings in a Washington Highlands public housing complex as an example of the kind of death that would provoke widespread protests now.
Seegars isn’t convinced. Despite this year’s rising death total, she doesn’t see the relevance in the city’s poorest wards for activists focused on racism and police brutality.
“There’s no white person that snuck over here in the night and killed black people,” Seegars says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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