Minority Against Minority

Rioting in D.C. tests the new mayor's resolve

Street riots are a familiar American scenario, but this one had a historically significant difference: one minority was in power, another felt exploited. One evening, Washington, D.C., police arrested Daniel Enrique Gomez, 30, a Salvadoran immigrant, on charges of public drinking. Police say Gomez pulled a knife and lunged at Officer Angela Jewell, a black rookie; she fired in self-defense. Word spread in the Hispanic community that Gomez was handcuffed when shot. Within hours, "la mara'--the gang-- filled the streets.

The riots tested the mettle of Washington's new mayor. For two nights in a row, angry Hispanics and blacks set fire to vehicles, looted stores and lobbed Molotov cocktails. To urge residents to remain calm, Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, 47, met with community leaders during the day and stalked the roiling northwest Washington neighborhood at night. At one point, the tear gas became so dense that the mayor took cover in a police bus. But Dixon's dangerous tour strengthened her resolve. "I'll do whatever it takes to put an end to [the violence]," the mayor said later--and, to mixed reviews, she did just that.

Dixon inherited a city where hair-trigger tensions between blacks and Hispanics had been building for more than a decade. "There is a lot of hostility," says Enrique Diaz, cultural-programs director of Casa del Pueblo, a community-service organization. "Our people really get mistreated by the police." Officially, 32,710 Hispanics live in the nation's capital. But many illegal immigrants, largely from El Salvador and other Central American countries, have been moving in since the late 1970s, boosting the Hispanic population to an estimated 75,000 residents. Impoverished and uneducated, they compete with inner-city blacks for housing and jobs at the low end of the economic scale--a situation made even more desperate by the current recession. "The blacks are jealous that we are taking away their jobs," says Diaz, "and the Hispanic community is conscious that we [have not] achieved political power yet."

By the second night, the riots that began as a protest evolved into free-for-alls. Many black youths hit the streets, not to fight Hispanics but to loot and vent their own anger. In response to the crisis, Dixon developed a cautious strategy of containment rather than confrontation. She ordered police to control the riots--but to do nothing to risk lives. The third night, Dixon imposed a 7 p.m. curfew, and la mara shrank, especially when unfounded rumors circulated that Hispanic violators would be reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. With the streets quiet the fourth night, the mayor lifted the curfew on Thursday. All told, the rioting cost 225 arrests, 12 injured police and more than $2 million in damage to city and private property.

Despite having steered her city through the crisis, Dixon had critics. Many area business people said that be restricting the police and waiting to impose a curfew, she allowed more property damage than was necessary. The police themselves claimed it was hard to stand by and watch the early destruction. "It may play well with the public that we exercised restraint," says Gary Hankin of the Washington, D.C., Fraternal Order of Police, "but before the curfew was instated, police seemed to be largely ineffective." Dixon, who says, "You can never exercise too much restraint when saving life and limb," believes her strategy was successful: no one (not even Gomez, now listed in stable condition) died.

The mayor won't have a chance to savor victory. Meeting with Hispanic leaders last week, Dixon pledged a wide range of reforms, a difficult promise for a mayor who is cutting $200 million from the city's budget. It will be even more difficult to lessen the resentments festering on both sides of the ethnic barrier. "It's always amazing that every group that's been discriminated against [can do] the same thing towards someone else," Dixon told "Newsweek.' With the growing ranks of minority mayors and the rapidly changing racial mix of American cities, another sad truth is how easily history could repeat itself.