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June 4, 2008


Dear Fire Crackers:

I regret to report that the city council failed to pass an emergency declaration to ban all remaining legal fireworks (including sparklers, snakes, fountains, and the firecrackers that are used to celebrate Chinese New Years) that had been proposed by the mayor. It was supported in the council only by Councilmember Jim Graham, who introduced it, and Councilmember Tommy Wells, who spoke in favor of it. I regret to report that because I was hoping to blast the council for its blockheaded stupidity in passing it, but they frustrated me by acting sensibly instead.

In recent years, rather than concentrating on legislation and oversight that would improve the operation of the government, the city council has devoted a great deal of time to regulating the smallest details of the private lives of citizens. Councilmembers are concerned that we eat, drink, and smoke things that they disapprove of, and they are determined to substitute their better judgment for the poor decisions we make for ourselves. For our own good, of course. They also disapprove of the activities that we are fond of, such as celebrating the Fourth of July, and want to guide us in the proper path of righteousness and deter us from doing anything pleasurable that may have the smallest possibility of harm associated with it. They want to legislate a world free from the slightest risk, and this complete ban on fireworks should have fit in well with their agenda. I’m amazed — and I have to admit pleased — that they at least postponed passing this bill until after they held a public hearing on it. Unfortunately, most of those who spoke against the bill opposed it because it had been introduced as an emergency just a month before the Fourth of July, rather than because of its contents.

DC already bans the private possession and use of any fireworks that are any fun. My father and our next door neighbor, Bud Hoch, used to team up to give a really great Fourth of July fireworks display every year, followed by a late barbecue dinner. It was a nice family event that we all enjoyed, the kind of celebration that the mayor and city council believe must be suppressed in favor of herding everyone into a crowd of over a hundred thousand people on the Mall, where we will be kept hundreds of yards away from the fireworks. For our own good, of course. Now, I like the Mall display, but it’s not the same thing as family fireworks in the back yard. Mine is an outdated viewpoint, I know. The modern viewpoint is that it is especially important that on the Fourth of July we celebrate our freedom and independence only at government-approved, regulated, and licensed events, and that the police shut down individual, private celebrations. For our own good, of course. Those dangerous and polluting barbecue pits will be the next to go.

Basically, it is illegal in DC to have any fireworks that fly off the ground or that make a big noise. One of the two major arguments for the ban on all remaining legal fireworks is that there is a lot of fireworks noise for a few days before and after the Fourth of July. Since all the fireworks that make a great deal of noise are already illegal, the bill’s solution to this is to outlaw the remaining categories of fireworks, the ones that don’t make a lot of noise. This is blatantly illogical, but the bill’s supporters said it with straight faces, as though it made sense. The other major argument for the ban is that all fireworks, including sparklers, snakes, fountains, and firecrackers, are inherently dangerous. There is no proof of that, of course. Reported fireworks deaths and injuries include all categories of fireworks, including those that are illegal in DC. There are always some reported sparkler injuries, but almost all of those are minor — a child grasps a sparkler or drops one on his foot, and gets a small burn. That’s regrettable, but learning to handle burning objects safely is part of growing up. Whatever we do to prevent it, some kid is going to touch a hot stove or get a blister by keeping his hand over a candle. That’s how kids learn not to do it again. (And it’s the kids who do it again that we have to worry about.)

Nationally, deaths from fireworks and fires started by fireworks averaged six per year from 2002 to 2005, and this includes any deaths of professional fireworks handlers and fireworks manufacturers. This figure is from the National Fire Protection Association, which campaigns to ban fireworks, so you know it isn’t a low ball number. There is no statistic for how many deaths occurred from the use of sparklers, snakes, fountains, firecrackers, and the other fireworks that are still legal in DC; I suspect because there were none. Deaths from fire, smoke, and flames average over three thousand a year; there were 3,377 in 2002 (Statistical Abstract). The two major causes of house fires are cooking and arson; trailing them by significant margins are candles, space heaters, and smoking. Obviously, if the mayor’s and council’s real concern were safety, it would be thousands of times more important to ban cooking, candles, space heaters, and smoking than to ban fireworks. I hesitate to mention this, for fear that the next version of the bill will include a ban on all these things. For our own good, of course. I doubt there’ll be a ban on cooking, the major cause of house fires, unless key members of the administration and council are members of the raw food movement. But I could be wrong.

Gary Imhoff


Checkpoint Charlie
Dorothy Brizill,

At a press conference today, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Police Chief Cathy Lanier announced two new initiatives to address the rising tide of violence in the District, especially in Ward 5. The first initiative expands the District’s Focus Improvement Areas (FIA) to four neighborhoods in the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh police districts. Started last fall in three neighborhoods, FIA is an effort to address crime by “an increased law enforcement presence with support from human service agencies and community based organizations to address deeper societal issues facing at-risk communities.” The second initiative creates Neighborhood Safety Zones (NSZ). By Wednesday afternoon, this initiative had already resulted in outrage from District residents and scathing criticism in the national media.

Under the NSZ initiative, MPD will seal off entire neighborhoods and establish police checkpoints “for the purpose of determining whether the operator and occupants [of a motor vehicle] have a legitimate reason for entering the NSZ.” According to the press release, individuals will be asked to show a valid identification and provide an acceptable explanation for wanting to enter the NSZ. According to the mayor’s order, the only legitimate reasons that police will accept are that: “the person resides in the NSZ; the person is employed in the NSZ or is on a commercial delivery; the person attends school or is taking a child to or picking a child up from school in the NSZ; or the person is attempted to attend a verified organized civic, community, or religious event in the NSZ.” The mayor’s press release and mayoral spokesmen are claiming that other reasons, such as visiting friends or relatives or attending a party, will be accepted; but this is not true. Under the Mayoral Order that establishes NSZs, these are the only four reasons that the MPD may accept to allow people into forbidden neighborhoods. The Mayoral Order also clearly states that anyone who fails to comply is subject to arrest for failure to obey police directions. There is also an indication that police at the checkpoints sealing off neighborhoods may be allowed to search vehicles without probable cause. That is not mentioned in the Mayor’s Order, but mayoral spokesmen are claiming that it will be done.

At the press conference today, Mayor Fenty stressed that his NSZ had been reviewed by the DC Office of the Attorney General. In response to concerns that were raised about the legality of the initiative, Interim Attorney General Peter Nickles is quoted as saying, “I’m not worried about the constitutionality of it,” and, “We’re not picking on people. If people want to sue, the courthouse is open.” The Fenty-Lanier NSZ crime initiative is the latest public safety misstep by the District government. In March, Lanier announced her “Safe Homes Initiative” that was similarly contemptuous of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. In April, as a result of public uproar over the plan to have police officers knock on doors and ask to be admitted to search for illegal firearms, that plan was quietly abandoned. Also in April, the mayor announced the Video Interoperability for Public Safety (VIPS) program, an initiative to link the District’s more than five thousand video spy cameras into a single, unregulated network. At a city council hearing on Monday before the Judiciary Committee, the administration was asked to put VIPS on hold until it thought through the purpose of the initiative, to reconsider whether it should create a single network of cameras, and until it drafted acceptable regulations for all governmental video cameras. In typical Fenty fashion, prior to today’s announcement the NSZ initiative was shrouded in secrecy, and there was no consultation between the administration and the city council. As Councilmember Phil Mendelson, Chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, wrote, “I support increased police presence to reduce crime, but to stop innocent people, require identification, and require everyone to explain themselves is unlawful. . . . This plan is riddled with problems and it is a reaction that will likely do more harm than good.”

Links for this item: Mayor Adrian Fenty and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier, press release on Neighborhood Safety Zones,
Mayor Adrian Fenty, Mayor’s Order establishing Neighborhood Safety Zones,
Councilmember Phil Mendelson, press release on mayor’s public safety initiative,
Matthew Yglesias, “If It’s Good Enough for Baghdad,”
Megan McCardle, “All Hail Comrade Fenty,”
Michael Neibauer and Bill Myers, “Lanier Plans to Seal Off Rough ’Hoods in Latest Effort to Stop Wave of Violence,”
Allison Klein and Debi Wilgoren, “In DC’s Trinidad, Police to Set Up Checkpoints,”
Sommer Mathis, DCist, “Police to Seal Off DC Neighborhoods,”
Eugene Volokh, The Volokh Conspiracy,, “I see no way this could be legal.”


Welcome to Baghdad, DC
Arthur Spitzer, ACLU of the National Capital Area,

Mayor Fenty and MPD Chief Lanier announced today (June 4) a “Neighborhood Safety Zones initiative.” According to the mayor’s press release, checkpoints will be set up “along the main thoroughfares” of designated “high-crime areas,” and “anyone driving into a designated area may be asked to show valid identification with a home address in that neighborhood, or to provide an explanation for entering the NSZ, such as attending church, a doctor’s appointment or visiting friends or relatives.” Pedestrians, however, “will not be subject to the public safety checks.” Welcome to Baghdad, DC, where you now may need police permission to visit your friends and relatives or go to church outside your own neighborhood — and where driving down a “main thoroughfare” because it’s the best way to your destination is now apparently a privilege reserved for police cars and the mayor’s SUV. We’re no longer taking baby steps toward a police state, but big, grown-up steps.

Will this draconian measure end the killings? Of course not. The location of these roadblocks will be no secret. Anyone who wants to enter the neighborhood with a gun can use another street, or enter on foot, or wait a few days until the roadblock has moved to a different neighborhood. Meanwhile, hundreds or thousands of law-abiding drivers will have to give a good enough reason to proceed, or be turned away. And of course the recent spike of murders will stop — that’s the nature of a spike. Then the mayor and the Chief can claim credit and point with pride to the “success” of this tactic, thus legitimizing its continued use. Then when the next crime spike comes along despite roadblocks, they’ll just ratchet up the police state one more notch.

We hope DC residents share our outrage at this “initiative.” If you do, please let the mayor and your councilmembers (you each have six) know how you feel. And if you live in or near a “high-crime area” and are likely to be affected by these road blocks, feel free to contact us at the ACLU to discuss other possible actions.


DCPS School Reform: Can Truth Persevere?
Candi Peterson,

I am blessed to be part of an amazing, cohesive group of parents, students, teachers, activists, and union leaders. Our stories aren’t told by our mainstream press. Its as though we are invisible. Somehow our local media machine regularly spins editorials and news blitzes that “massage the facts,” which often leaves me wondering whether truth can persevere. For this reason, I am compelled to tell our story. I imagine that our unlikely marriage of labor, parents and community members is akin to the movement created by Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson was portrayed by Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters. He united local farmers as well as his Wiley college students in an unprecedented way to achieve reform in labor and education. All we want like Tolson is to challenge others to think critically, dispel stereotypes and inaccurate information, to seek democracy, and unite all stakeholders to fight for our right to participate in the process. Here are some of the updates of our most recent efforts.

Last week, DCPS school counselors met to strategize on how to best lobby the DC city council and parents in order to preserve our students’ right to a school counselor, like their more affluent peers. DC Councilmember Phil Mendelson tells us that there is enough money to fund school counselors in all DC public schools. The Washington Teachers Union is sponsoring a “Get Active” petition circulated to 4200 DCPS teachers with the help of the American Federation of Teachers. This campaign requests that the DC city council rescind the nomination of Hess and Wong as independent evaluators, due to their history of relationships and other activities that suggest they may be unable to be impartial. It is important to note that teachers, parents, and community members were shut out of the selection process because there was no opportunity for them to provide input during the Request for Proposal or review the responses or qualifications of these applicants. Marc Borbely of Fix Our Schools is making a similar effort to request the city council to reject these nominees.

On May 30, the Council of School Officers met with the soon-to-be-terminated DCPS principals. They invited representation from the DC city council to request that they investigate whether these principal firings were fair. The Council of School Officers states that Rhee’s decisions were “arbitrary, personal, and politically discriminatory.” While this meeting was being held last week, another school protest was sponsored by CSONS in front of Rhee’s central office, in which parents, students, community members, labor and teachers from Ballou, Garrison and Green public schools chanted and held picket signs. Come join DCPS teachers and school personnel, students, parents, community members, and labor as we protest again on Friday June 6 and June 13, from 4-6 p.m. in front of the DCPS central office, located at 825 North Capitol Street, NE. We are protesting because we care about DCPS, the thousands of students who attend our schools; we believe that real reform will happen when all of the stakeholders have genuine input into real decision making.


Outrageous ID Cards at DC Centers
Ted Gest,

I had hoped that the Fenty administration would improve the beleaguered DC Department of Parks and Recreation. Instead, I was met this week with a new requirement, not announced in advance, that every entrant at community centers must get a permanent ID card for entry in the future. No rationale was offered for this at the center I visited — just that they had been ordered to do this by DPR headquarters.

We should be encouraging more people to use these centers, not discouraging them by burdensome ID requirements. Many community meetings are held at these centers involving attendees who normally don’t use the building. Will those people be turned away at the door because they didn’t come early to get their ID card? How much money does this new procedure cost?

I have been to public community centers all over the US, and never have run into this. Why does our DC government want to make our centers resemble the old Soviet Union? Will we have “watchers” in the halls to make sure we don’t misbehave? Free the community centers!


Let’s Make a Deal
Ed T. Barron, edtb1@macdotcom

The Capitol Police and Park Service have radios that do not work. They are all old and obsolete systems. These organizations should cut a deal with Sprint. Sprint is readying to unveil a citywide WiMax system in DC this year or early next year. What better way to demonstrate the effectiveness of this new technology and show that it will be applicable to law enforcement organizations that are in cities as this new technology is expanded?


When Will the Problem of Crime in DC Really Matter?
Tom Blagburn, MPD Ret., Lowell K. Duckett, MPD Ret.,

The level of interpersonal carnage that occurs on the streets of the District of Columbia is well beyond the definition of appalling. For decades the numbers of homicides and crime offenses have fluctuated upward and downward. We applaud reductions and disdain the increases. Yet for many city residents the concern for victimization and fear of crime continue to remain relatively high. Our city seems to accept this continuing saga of young death resulting from violence and crime as if it were the social norm of civic expectation. The recent surge in District’s crime and homicide problems isn’t new. Nor is it an aberration. It is part of the geographical context of public indifference and apathy that has been chronicled for decades. And it always seems to be the summer pretext for more death and victimization even when feeble attempts have been made to manipulate the data.

Crime in DC has been written about, talked about, and rationalized to death. “More police”; “stepped-up patrols”; “get the violent offenders off the streets”; “give youth something to do”; “take guns out of the hands of criminals”: each represents a hollow refrain that has essentially lost its meaning! The public has grown weary, and disillusionment is the new platitude.

How will history portrait a city with so much wealth, intellect, and talent that has allowed a significant segment of its young residents to bear so much pain, suffering, and human tragedy directly resulting from crime and murder? Perhaps historians will say: “But they did debate lifting the District’s Gun Ban”! Sporadic student fights and gunshot victimization, reported and unreported, appear almost every day like scenes from an urban theater without a script or a happy ending. Each represents the unfortunate precursor to more premature death, human injury, and physical disability. It is very sad that the Nation’s Capital, with all its years of practice in fighting crime and murder, still hasn’t learned how to prevent large numbers of its children and young adults from wounding and killing each other. But the question that every District resident must answer is when will the problem of crime really matter to all of us?


Dog Parks in DC
J.S. Mann,

In response to Jonetta Rose Barras’ posting about dog park battles in DC [themail, June 1], non-dog owners misunderstand. “Dog parks” are actually people parks. They promote physical health by getting taxpaying citizens who happen to own dogs to get outside and get fresh air, sunshine, and exercise. Dog parks promote mental health by bringing together a group of people with common interests to enjoy each others’ company and conversation. Many times, deeper friendships grow out of bumping into each other at the dog parks. The purposes of dog parks are akin to those of chess playing areas (such as at Dupont Circle) and other Department of Recreation functions that bring together people with like interests. Dog park proponents need to promote the benefits of dog parks to humans and not to our pets.



DC Public Library Events, June 7-9
George Williams,

Saturday, June 7, 10:30 a.m., Martin Luther King., Jr., Memorial Library. Braille Book Club, ages 6-12. Discuss the book, A Picture Book of Florence Nightingale by David A. Adler.

Saturdays, June 7 and 21, 1:00 p.m., Capitol View Library. Glamour Girls Rule Book/Activity Club, ages 6 - 12. Discuss the book, Addy Learns a Lesson: A School Story (American Girl Collection) by Connie Porter.

Monday, June 9, 6:30 p.m., Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library, Second Floor, East Lobby. All the World’s a Stage Film Club: Reel History, Real Lives. Young adults, adults. Film screening for the June 23 book discussion will be Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall, starring Catherine Zeta Jones.


Doo-Wop at the Historical Society, June 11
Ed Bruske,

Wednesday, June 11, 6:30 p.m. Doo-Wop and Early Rhythm & Blues: DC’s Musical Past. In commemoration of June as Black Music Month, the Historical Society of Washington, DC (HSW), in partnership with The Washington Area Music Association (WAMA) and Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, will host a panel discussion featuring early rhythm and blues performers from the Washington, DC, area whose contributions made an impact on the soundtrack of America. Panelists include Sandra Bears of The Jewels, James “Buddy” Owens of The Velons, Reese Palmer of The Marquees, Harold Winley of The Clovers, Diz Russell of The Legendary Orioles, Herb Fame of Peaches and Herb, and longtime rhythm and blues radio host, Dick Lillard as moderator. Ages 13 to adults. or 383-1828.


Certifying Green Neighborhoods, June 12
Jazmine Zick,

Thursday, June 12, 6:30-8:00 p.m., LEED-ND and Other Certifications. What makes a green neighborhood? What is the best way to encourage efficient use of energy, water, and other resources, and promote greener living for residents? A panel of developers from across the nation will discuss their projects, how they are striving for sustainable certifications such as LEED-ND, and other lessons learned in the field. $12 members; $12 students; $20 nonmembers. Prepaid registration required. Walk-in registration based on availability. At the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Judiciary Square stop, Metro Red Line. Register for events at


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