Riots

National Guard patrols Washington, D.C. in the aftermath of the 1968 riots. (Source: Library of Congress)

John Layton, the M.P.D., and the 1968 Washington Riots

By the time John Layton was named Metropolitan Police Chief in 1964, there was a well-established undercurrent of hostility between the Police Department and Washington's inner city African American community. Layton added resources to the Community Relations Unit and promoted the first African American to the rank of Captain. He created a Public Information Division to better coordinate communications with the public and the media. And, in an effort to recognize the African American community’s complaints about police brutality and harassment, the chief went on record that the Metropolitan police department would not rely on lethal force should they need to put down a riot.

Layton’s actions were put to the test on April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN that day, and when word reached Washington, D.C., angry crowds began gathering in the streets.

Mount Pleasant Boils Over, 1991

Youth clash with police during 1991 riots in Washington's Mount Pleasant neighborhood. (Source: Flickr user secorlew. Used via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.)

Angry mobs clashing with police… Looting… Flames…. It was a scene out of the 1968 riots. But this was a different time and place. The year was 1991 and D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood was boiling over.

The firestorm started at around 7pm on the evening of May 5. Angela Jewell and Girsel Del Valle, rookie cops from the Metropolitan Police Department’s 4th District, were out on patrol in the neighborhood. They approached a group of men who appeared to be drinking in public at 17th and Lamont Streets, NW. Angry words were exchanged and the men supposedly became disorderly. The officers began to make arrests.

What happened next was the source of some debate.

Petey Greene (Source: Wikipedia)

Petey Greene Talks Down the Riots, 1968

“God gave me a talent, and that talent was verbal skills”. Critically acclaimed as America’s first “shock jock,” Petey Greene had the mouth and charisma to roar in the ears of people in the streets of Washington, D.C. His impact was no more apparent than in April of 1968 during the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Running down the streets outraged, a group of about thirty young people burst into a drug store. “Martin Luther King is dead,” they shouted. “Close the store down!”. 26-year old Stokely Carmichael, former chairman of the SNNC and the initiator of the what became the “Black Power Movement” in 1967, led Washington, D.C. civilians down the streets demanding that all businesses close out of respect of the death of King.

Although the initial goal was to maintain peace, things quickly went out of Carmichael’s hands. Emotions boiled and violence broke out.