Eugene Puryear’s testimony opposing D.C.’s racist checkpoints

On June 7, the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., established a checkpoint and dragnet sealing off part of the Trinidad neighborhood, setting the stage for a martial-law-like occupation. The ANSWER Coalition, along with other concerned organizations and individuals, took to the streets to oppose the measure, maintaining a presence at the checkpoints nearly every day or night they were in effect. On June 12, in the face of growing community outrage, the MPD announced the temporary suspension of the checkpoints.

On June 16, the D.C. Council’s the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary held a public oversight hearing on “The Executive’s Public Safety Initiatives and Their Impact on Civil Liberties.” Below is testimony submitted for the record by Eugene Puryear, a National Organizer with the ANSWER Coalition.

ANSWER flyer distributed at DC checkpoints, June 2008
Read the ANSWER Coalition flyer
distributed at the checkpoint (PDF)

I want to thank the Council for holding this hearing and for the consideration of this testimony. My name is Eugene Puryear. I am a student here in D.C. at Howard University and I am a National Organizer with the ANSWER Coalition, which stands for Act Now to Stop War & End Racism.

While I appreciate this opportunity to speak in a forum discussing the nature and possibility of civil rights infringement due to the implementation of the Neighborhood Safety Zone initiative in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast Washington, I must object to the structure, location and timing of this event.

No input was requested from the residents of Trinidad prior to the execution of this new initiative. And now those most directly affected by this program are asked to take off of work on a Monday afternoon so that their voices can be heard by officials who claim to care about the opinions of those responsible for their election.

And even if this public hearing were in a different location or at a different time, I would still be here to speak in opposition to the Neighborhood Safety Zone initiative.

Mayor Adrian Fenty, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Attorney General Peter Nickles should be ashamed. The checkpoints are more than civil rights violations. They provide a smokescreen for the city government’s gentrification schemes, for its criminal neglect of the city’s poor Black neighborhoods, and for the city’s obscene inequalities.

The city government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on assault rifles for the police. But when it comes to schools, libraries, health care programs or jobs, the funds always seem to run dry. Washington, D.C., is a tale of two cities. One is rich and predominantly white and the other is working class and predominantly African American.

Since 1991, the African American population in D.C. has decreased by 7 percent. In the same period, the white population has increased by 6 percent. According to the Washington Post in October 2007, the poverty rate for blacks is more than triple that of whites.

Twenty-seven billion dollars are currently being spent on development projects, and this is now one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. If we look back to 1991: Downtown Bethesda was barely worthy of the name. There was no Dulles Town Center, no Verizon Center, no new stadium, no Green Line. Washington’s football team—yes, the one with the odious and racist name—played at RFK. Between 1998 and 2006, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of jobs in the District, according to the Washington Post. A lot can change in 17 years.

But in those 17 years, no community college or effective job training program has been established. Mayor Fenty—who claims to be so concerned about stopping violence—recently implemented a school “reform” plan that closes the only trade high school in the city. His administration let the school fall apart, keeping it in an unsafe condition—which included exposure to asbestos—and canceling many advertised programs.

The solution to poverty, inadequate education and housing provided by the current administration seems to always include violence against the Black community. We urge those before us to not only listen to the testimony provided today. We urge you to provide additional forums for discussion of the problems innately embedded in the Neighborhood Safety Zone initiative. We urge you to provide real solutions to the problems faced by the African American community in the District outside of checkpoints, aggressive police tactics and gentrification.

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