1991 Washington, D.C. riot
Mount Pleasant is a Ward 1 neighborhood in Washington DC, the Ward that former Mayor Marion Barry called the "inner city ward" because it touches none of the surrounding suburbs. The neighborhood was one of the most diverse in the nation comprising a population with roughly equal proportions of black, Hispanic, and white residents, along with populations of Vietnamese, Laotians, Indians, and Koreans.
On Sunday evening, May 5, 1991, following a Cinco de Mayo street celebration in nearby Adams Morgan, Angela Jewell, a rookie Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department police officer of African American descent tried to arrest a Salvadorean man for disorderly conduct in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Witnesses disputed whether the drunken man came at her with a hunting knife, but the result was that she shot and wounded the man in the chest.
As rumors that a Hispanic man was shot and killed while handcuffed spread throughout the neighborhood, crowds of youths, most in their teens and twenties, formed and started to attack the police. Around 400 youths fought running street battles with the police for several hours, late into the night. Police cars were torched and several stores looted. The District’s mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon told the police to hold back from making arrests for looting because she feared it would only antagonize the crowd and lead to more violence. District law enforcement officials also had problems massing enough riot police to control the riot because of a lack of communication equipment. These problems led to an uncoordinated response when the rioting first began. Because of this poor initial response, several police officers were left to fend for themselves as the mob attacked them and had to wait to be rescued by other officers. The violence continued until early in the morning, when the crowds began to break up because of rain.
Hoping to avoid a second night of rioting, city officials met with Hispanic community leaders the next day. But the meeting did little to stop the violence. By evening, even with 1,000 riot police on the streets, the rioting started again. Police fought with as many as 600 black and Hispanic youths, some with bandanas over their faces. The rioters pushed dumpsters into the streets to block traffic, looted and damaged stores, and attacked police vehicles and city transit buses, setting several on fire. Several instances of gunfire were also reported. The police responded by firing tear gas grenades at the groups of rioting youths and by making arrests. When it was obvious that the disturbance was not going to end, the mayor declared a State of Emergency and put a curfew into effect. The curfew covered a four square mile area of the city and included not only the Mount Pleasant area but also the surrounding areas of Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.
By Tuesday night, after two nights of rioting, the curfew resulted in the disorder easing, with only isolated incidents of violence and 33 arrests reported on the third night of rioting. Hundreds of police officers descended onto the neighborhood to enforce the 7pm curfew and curb incidents of violence. Even though there were some reports of rock and bottle throwing, no stores were looted or fires set. Most people in the area stayed in their homes, afraid of being arrested for breaking the curfew. The riot was essentially over.
By the time the curfew was finally lifted on May 9, almost 230 people had been arrested, most of them for curfew violations. Fifty people had been injured, mostly police. Over 60 police vehicles had been either destroyed or damaged, along with 21 city transit buses. At least 31 businesses had been looted or damaged and losses to both city and private property totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Many of the new immigrants to the Mount Pleasant area had come from Central America to avoid the violence there and find work. While there had been some friction between the police and the local community due to language and cultural differences, there had been no major outbreaks of trouble. In the months leading up to the riot, increasing levels of street crime and drug-related violence had fueled racial tensions between black, Hispanic, and white residents, which the Mount Pleasant riot brought to the forefront of the city's attention.
Only 140 of the city's police officers were Hispanic, and the community's Hispanic population had perceived oppression from the police force for some time. In the time leading up to the riots, residents often complained that police were stopping Hispanics and asking them for immigration papers for petty offenses that were ignored when committed by whites. Hispanic residents cited these tensions as a major factor sparking the riots.
In the years leading up to the riots, the Mt. Pleasant Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a largely white community organization, had been pressing police to reduce public drunkenness, urination, littering, aggressive panhandling, and other quality-of-life issues in the neighborhood. Black and Hispanic residents perceived these efforts as an attempt to drive minorities out of the neighborhood, further fueling tensions.
After the riots, the city agreed to add more bilingual officers and 911 operators and to station more Spanish-speaking officers in heavily Latino areas. They also agreed not to ask witnesses or crime victims about their immigration status, so that more people would come forward to cooperate with authorities to make the community safer.
The Mt. Pleasant Report
The United States Commission on Civil Rights transmitted a report in 1993 to the President and others based on the testimonials, research, and field investigations about the atmosphere and feelings of those Latinos living in DC after the riots. The Mt. Pleasant Report was the first volume in a series of Commission Reports on Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities, Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination. It not only analyzed the reasonings as to why the Mt. Pleasant riots took place but also briefly looked at other riots such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots to see if there was any correlation between the two; both had something to do with the causes of urban upheaval.
This 200-page report discovered that the three main things affecting Latinos in Washington, DC during that time were:
- First, there existed a practice of abuse, harassment, and misconduct by the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department against the Latino Community.
- Second, the Hispanic representation in the District of Columbia government was not proportionate to the community's representation in the general population of the District of Columbia.
- And finally, the Latino Community was not receiving its fair share of the government services.
The DC Mayor's Office of Latino Affairs since then has made some progress with the Latino community. In the 2008 Performance Accountability Report it showed that more Latino organizations were getting funds, more parents were playing a bigger role in the schools, and the government was readily making information available in Spanish.
- Farhi, Paul (1990-10-07), Living on the Edge in Mount Pleasent, The Washington Post: A1
- Sanchez, Rene (1991-05-08), Curfew Leaves Mt. Pleasant Area Quieter, The Washington Post: A1
- Newsweek: "Minority Against Minority" Amy 19, 1991
- Castaneda, Ruben (1991-05-06), Simmering Tension Between Police, Hispanics Fed Clash, The Washington Post: A1
- Lewis, Nancy (1991-05-06), D.C. Neighborhood Erupts After Officer Shoots Suspect, The Washington Post: A1
- Sanchez, Carlos (1991-05-07), Dixon Imposes Curfew on Mt. Pleasant Area As Police, Youths Clash for a Second Night, The Washington Post: A1
- Commission on Civil Rights, Racial &Ethnic Tensions in American Communities: Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination. Jan 1993
- Office of Latino Affairs DC, The 2008 Accountability Report