Persecution Or Prosecution?

It's as if the court case of Marion Barry were occurring in parallel universes.

In one realm, the mayor of Washington is legitimately on trial for repeatedly using cocaine and lying about it--the prosecutor's coup de grace being the notorious videotape showing Barry smoking a crack pipe in a hotel room. In the other, the mayor is being persecuted simply because he's black--pursued by a white establishment for alleged misdeeds that would go unnoticed if committed by one of its own.

The former view is that of the U.S. Justice Department, which spent years investigating Barry and is prosecuting the case that will soon go to the jury. It seems reasonable enough, given Barry's remarkably bad judgment in allowing himself to be at the Vista International that evening; even many blacks hold Barry culpable. Yet the other, more sinister, perspective on Barry isn't merely his own self-serving defense. It's developed into a rallying cry for such black leaders as Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. And last week in Los Angeles, it became a focal point of the 81st annual NAACP convention. "At no time since Reconstruction has there been a comparable period of incessant harassment of black elected officials," said executive director Benjamin Hooks, before 3,000 delegates of the largest U.S. civil-rights organization.

Hooks cites other examples. The Justice Department leaked that the FBI was investigating vaguely defined financial irregularities by House Majority Whip Rep. William Gray III. (In fact, he never was an FBI target.) Hooks also saw racial motivation in a probe of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's alleged use of his job for private gain. (Bradley has not been charged with any crime in this still ongoing investigation.) And Hooks said prosecutors had unfairly accused Georgia gubernatorial candidate Andrew Young of trying to impede a drug probe of a friend. Despite Hooks's charges, the motives for some of these allegations may have had more to do with political gamesmanship than race.

Charges of victimization, racial and otherwise, have existed before in American history. Some had an obvious basis, as with blacks following the Civil War. Some did not, as with J. Michael Curley, the legendary boss of Massachusetts who complained that law-enforcement officials singled him out for being Irish. Curley ultimately was convicted of fraud. But the charges by Hooks seem to come at an ironic time, when blacks are gaining political power. (Blacks now hold 7,370 elected offices, up 60 percent from 1980.) And accusations of harassment are difficult to prove. The Justice Department says it does not break down its records by race. In January, after he raised similar questions, Hooks said the NAACP would investigate how clear the patterns might be. Last week he told NEWSWEEK that the organization didn't have resources for such a study, still, he repeated the charges. That leads critics--few of whom will speak by name, lest they be accused of racism--to suggest that Hooks is cynically manipulating the race issue for political advantage.

Would statistics matter? Even if Hooks were dead wrong, the powerful perception would remain in the black community that federal prosecutions are based on race. In that sense, the Barry trial has turned into a parable of race rather than merely a case about drug abuse. He's hardly a sympathetic defendant. Yet when he was introduced last month at a rally for Nelson Mandela in Washington, the crowd of 10,000--most of them black--roared in approval. "There is a perception and enough high-profile cases to make the perception a credible one," says John Powell, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And that in and of itself is a problem that cannot be ignored." Black historian John Hope Franklin of Duke says mistrust is deeply rooted. "I'm not trying to defend crooks," he says, "but blacks have to be more virtuous than Caesar's wife. We live with the feeling that people are out there waiting to drag us down."

For other blacks, the issue isn't so much overt racism as what they view as selective prosecutorial enforcement. "It's worth discussing the amount of money that the government has put into the Barry case, but I don't see that as having any particular racial element," says Drew Days III, head of the civil rights division in the Carter Justice Department. Hooks says the Barry prosecution has cost $40 million; the government puts the cost at $2 million to $3 million.

In the end, there are any number of messages to be grafted onto the trial of Marion Barry and the investigation of other black officials. Perhaps the best interpretation is that the inquiries are a paradoxical symbol of success. "Political classes are defensive about their boundaries when they're still in the formative stage," says Martin Kilson, a political scientist at Harvard. "The black political class has emerged at a time when scrutiny has become part of the system." The current charges reflect the tragic legacy of racism in this country, even if they may tend to trivialize it. But in an odd way, they also may be the price paid by blacks as they slowly become part of an imperfect political culture.