A new statue in Washington, D.C., just blocks from the White House, is supposed to honor a city leader. Some, however, see it as a monument to the corruption that has ruined the town.
Earlier today, the Washington, D.C. city council unveiled a statue of the late Marion Barry, who served as mayor and city councilman beginning in the 1970s until his death in 2014. A picture of the statue is below.
That was not continuous service, however. In between, Barry served six months in prison after he was caught on video smoking crack in an FBI sting. That also led to some years away from politics, before he was reelected again in 1994 to the mayor’s office.
Although he is considered a national joke to most, to Washington D.C. insiders Barry is a hero. The statue is proof of that.
For many Americans, Marion Barry was something of a punchline. The late Washington mayor was largely known around the country for having been caught on video smoking crack cocaine in a 1990 FBI sting.
But inside the District of Columbia, Barry’s legacy is far more complicated and emotional. The man who dominated a generation of Washington politics is adored by many as a champion of civil rights and advocate for the city’s downtrodden.
These complexities will be on display this weekend when a bronze statue of Barry, who died in 2014, will be unveiled outside the Washington City Council building. The 8-foot statue by sculptor Steven Weitzman will loom over Pennsylvania Avenue just blocks from the White House.
The move to honor Barry in such a way may seem mystifying to non-Washingtonians. But among Barry’s supporters, the statue is an appropriate tribute to a legitimate DC icon — a man so popular and influential that he walked out of federal prison and immediately began winning elections again with one of the most improbable comebacks in American political history.
“He was a living legend,” said City Councilman Trayon White, during an appearance Thursday on an influential local radio show hosted by Kojo Nnamdi. “Marion Barry was an integral part of getting DC where it is today… To honor a man like that who touched so many people — it’s right for the city.”
Not everyone views Barry so fondly. When the radio show started taking phone calls, the first caller blasted Barry as an “abysmal mayor” who presided over an era of corruption and mismanagement but now benefits from what the caller referred to as “convenient historical amnesia.”
Regardless of the personal opinions on him, there’s no denying that Barry had a massive influence on the capital city. With modern Washington undergoing widespread gentrification and large numbers of poorer black residents being priced out and leaving, Barry evokes an earlier time when the District truly was “Chocolate City” — one of the power centers of black America.
In 1978, he became Washington’s second elected mayor. He served three terms, which were marked by increasingly erratic behavior, corruption allegations and widespread suspicions of drug and alcohol abuse.
The 1990 sting and subsequent trial caused him not to seek a fourth term. He was sentenced to six months in prison for cocaine possession, although a deadlocked jury couldn’t convict him on some of the more serious charges. After his 1992 release, Barry immediately ran for and won a seat on the city council, then successfully ran for mayor again in 1994 and served one term.
Barry left politics for few years, then ran for city council again and won in 2005, serving until his death in 2014.
Throughout his entire career, Barry was dogged by legal troubles, corruption allegations, drunk-driving arrests and a host of other issues that would have obliterated the career of most politicians. But Barry’s ultimate legacy and popularity might be summarized by the campaign slogan he adopted when he emerged from prison and dove straight back into politics: “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.”
Here is news coverage of the district’s plans.
Here is a picture from Saturday’s unveiling ceremony.