Thursday, December 22, 2011

Capitol Hill Crime, 1981-1985

Today I was watching the Rachel Maddow Show when she did a thorough lambasting of current Iowa Caucus leader Ron Paul, taking him to task for his overtly racist (and also anti-Semitic) rants in the various Ron Paul newsletters published in the 1980's and 1990's.  Among other things that went out under Paul's name (which he later denied approving) were statements that whites should arm themselves, since it was fashionable for hip-hop inner city blacks to engage in carjackings;  that Martin Luther King Day should be called  "Hate Whitey Day;"  that black youth in DC were 95 percent criminals;  that blacks ran so fast, no white woman stood a chance of catching a purse snatcher; and that the only reason the race riots in Los Angeles came to a stop was that blacks had to get in line for their welfare checks.  Rachel also reminded us of Paul's adamant opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I guess after all this, Ron Paul won't be stealing too many black votes from President Obama, or from anyone else for that matter, although it is heartening, at least a little bit, that Paul has since disavowed all the above statements (except for his continued opposition to the Civil Rights Act).  Nonetheless, this whole episode adds a whole new dimension to the Iowa Caucuses, doesn't it?

That said, the latest Ron Paul kerfuffle did remind me of a time when there was plenty of paranoia in Washington, DC, particularly among the gentrified whites of Capitol Hill, about the "black crime" problem.  I was not immune to this myself, and for good reason, as I was the victim of such crime on several occasions during the early eighties, when I was living on Capitol Hill.  A few years ago, I wrote down a narrative of my encounters with crime on the Hill, which I append below.  The Hill is a much more peaceful place these days, for both blacks and whites.  Ron Paul might not even mind living there.

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 11.7
Soviet Desk 1981-1985.

Capitol Hill Crime.
When I first moved into Capitol Hill with Peter Maxson and his buddies back in 1971, the Hill was known as a high crime area.  It was still in transition, with the older black families moving out to the suburbs, particularly Prince George's County, and Yuppies moving in, “gentrifying” the area.  The danger zone began out beyond 8th Street, Southeast.  Closer in to the Capitol was considered much safer.  Nonetheless, it was a shock to me and my roommate, Mike Anderson, when we returned home one afternoon from FSI and found that there had been a break-in.  Mike took one look at where the record player had been and said “Damn!”  The front door was unlocked, which led me to suspect that maybe some local kid, noticing the open door, ran in and stole the turntable.  In any case, nothing else had been taken.  I called the police, who dusted for fingerprints and advised me to put in an alarm system, which I did.  This led, over the next few years to a series of false alarms that eventually caused me to take out the alarm system and just trust to bigger and better locks.  With one minor exception, that plan worked.
The Car Radio and the Golf Club.
Ten years later, as the 1980s rolled in, Capitol Hill was still known as a problem area with regard to criminal activity.  It was not as bad as some areas of Southeast DC, but it was clear that crime, mostly robberies and muggings, was still on the increase.  Even in my area, which was within sight of the local 1-D-1 Police Substation, there were frequent break-ins.  One particular favorite of thieves in the area was car radios.  Few people had garages on the Hill, and most used on-street parking.  I parked on the street as well, and for years thought nothing of it.  I never left anything in my car, and, since I drove a 1969 Chevy, I did not think that it was the sort of car that would be targeted by thieves.  I was complacent. 

In 1979, I sold my old Chevy to a Polish diplomat in Moscow, and bought a brand new 1979 Chevy Caprice once I was back in Washington.   It was a great car, but as my tastes had gotten somewhat more spoiled, I decided to put in a fancy car radio.  I continued to park on the street.  Nothing had happened before, I thought, so why should it now?  The fancy radio lasted about a year, and then one morning I came out to find that during the night someone had stolen it.  I had been the victim of theft before, but somehow, this particular crime enraged me.  I determined that I would replace the radio and put in a car alarm, but one that was silent, so that I could catch the thief.  What was I thinking?

After that, I slept soundly at night, naively unworried about the fate of my car radio -- until, that is, one night at 4am when the alarm on my nightstand went off, telling me that someone had broken into my car.  Now, all my smug assumptions went out the window.  What, I thought, do I do now?  The first thing I decided to do was to check and see if there really was someone in my car.  Every night, I had managed to park my car on the street directly under a street lamp and in front of my own house.  I carefully raised the window shade of my front bedroom window and peered out at my car.  I could see nothing.  Evidently, it was a false alarm.  I was just about to leave my vantage point with a considerable sense of relief when, suddenly, my blood ran cold.  A ghostly hand had appeared from inside the car and was picking up a tool on the dashboard.  Someone was in the car!  Now my heart really started beating fast.  After a moment's thought, I backed away and quickly dialed the number of the local police station.  The Sergeant on duty answered, and, with my breath catching in my mouth, I told him that someone was in my car and stealing my radio.  The Sergeant jotted down the particulars and told me not to worry, a squad car was on the way. 

I set down the phone with a sense of relief and went back to the window to keep and eye on my car radio thief.  Sure enough, a couple of minutes later a squad car appeared from the direction of the police station.  I saw the thief quickly duck down, and the squad car rolled right on by without stopping!  At this point, something inexplicable came over me.  I was convinced that the police had missed my thief, and all of a sudden, I decided that I was going to have to go down and catch him myself.  I looked around for a weapon, and picked a seven iron out of my golf bag.  I ran down the stairs and out the front door dressed in pajamas and bathrobe, brandishing my golf club.  It never occurred to me that the thief might be armed.  I was not thinking, I was just acting on witless instinct.

What I didn't know, of course, was that the police had only pretended not to see my thief, and were sneaking up on him from behind with the lights out.  The thief saw them about the same time I did, and he jumped out the passenger side door, where he came face to face with me and my seven iron.  He was a short, twenty-something black man dressed in a tan trench coat.  As he looked at me, and as his eyes and mouth grew wide in astonishment, I yelled “What are you doing in my car!”  His response: “I'm not trying to steal your radio!”  And with that, he took off at a dead run down the street in the general direction of the police station, with me chasing him, waving the golf club about and yelling at the top of my lungs.  This guy could run, and he was well out of reach after less than a block.  As I stood watching him disappear down the street, the squad car pulled up.  A policeman leaned out and, with a slightly sardonic air said, “We'll take it from here,” and then the car sped off.

They actually caught the thief and I identified him when they brought him back in handcuffs.  I don't know what happened to him after that.  As for me, I decided that there were safer ways to deal with radio thieves.  I took out my silent alarm, and bought a new radio I could take out and store in the house every night for safekeeping.  I was never bothered by radio thieves again.

The Case of the Incompetent Crooks.
Although my car radio was never again stolen, my Capitol Hill neighborhood was still a target.  One day, I got a call at work that there had been an attempted break-in at my home, but that the would-be burglars had been apprehended.  Apparently, one of my neighbors, who wished to remain anonymous, had seen two black men acting suspiciously around my house, and had called the police.  When the police arrived, they cornered one man on the roof and another in the side yard.  The man on the roof claimed he was the gardener, a somewhat suspect story as there was no grass to be mowed on the roof.  The man in the side yard explained his presence by saying “I just arrived on the subway.”  This was also a novel excuse, as the nearest Metro stop was three blocks away.  The police hauled them off to jail, and it was found that they were both parole violators with a long string of break-ins to their credit.

This was not the end of the story, however.  A few weeks later, I got a letter in the mail summoning me to jury duty.  I dutifully took time off from my job on the Soviet Desk and reported to the City Courthouse.  I was ushered into a large courtroom with the rest of the jury pool for a new criminal case, one involving an attempted break-in.  I thought this a little too much of a coincidence, and then things got even more interesting as the attorneys described the case:  it was the attempted break-in at my house!  The attorneys then asked if anyone thought they should be excused from jury duty for any reason.  I raised my hand, and noted that it was my house the burglars were attempting to break into.  This caused much merriment, and I was escorted quickly out of the room.  One of the Assistant DA's took my statement for use as evidence in the trial.  I couldn't say much, of course, since I wasn't present when the attempted break-in occurred.  To this day, I don't know if I just got the wrong letter in the mail, or if it was just an unbelievable coincidence.  In any case, I was never called back for jury duty in DC (although I have served in California).  I don't know what happened to the accused, but the A/DA said they were going to throw the book at them.  I couldn't disagree with that approach.

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