Today in D.C. History: Mount Pleasant Riots Start 20 Years Ago
On May 5, 1991, rioting broke out in Mount Pleasant following the shooting of a Salvadoran man by a rookie Metropolitan Police Department officer. At the time, there were disputes about whether the man, reportedly intoxicated, had threatened the officer with a knife. What resulted was a multi-day standoff with police, looted stores, and torched MPD cruisers and Metrobuses. Twenty years later, WAMU-FM has a nice history of the riots, which details the cause of the violence, how it played out, and why local Latinos felt so marginalized and ignored. A U.S. Commission on Civil Rights inquiry into the violence found that Spanish speakers in the District had uneven access to city services, few opportunities, and a police force with bad community relations.
As Washington City Paper wrote in its May 10 issue that year, the scars of the violence were quickly cleaned up: "With the exception of the shattered bus shelters along 16th Street NW, daily downtown commuters through the area saw no signs that major disturbances had rocked the community for two straight nights. The grimmest reminders of the violence—Church's Fried Chicken and the 7-Eleven on Mount Pleasant Street, architecturally the most obnoxious structures on the street—were quickly being restored to operating order."
According to WAMU's Emily Friedman: "While the riots didn't single-handedly level the playing field for Latinos, they did permanently change the conversation."
City Paper, at the time, noted the disconnections between local Latinos and the D.C. government:
The riots, however, demonstrated the acute lack of leadership within the city's Hispanic community. No one leader could speak with any authority to the group seeking confrontations with the police. The factionalized community can barely set aside its own cultural and geographic differences long enough each year to put on the annual Hispanic festival. ... At one point Monday night, local and national Hispanic leaders, unable to get demonstrators to put down their rocks and bottles and follow them, decided to talk among themselves at the El Tamuzul Restaurant on 18th Street NW. During the session, they drew up a list of demands, and a meeting with Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon was at the top of their list. That demand was fulfilled within a half hour because Dixon had been circulating through the area all evening, looking for community leaders to confer with.
Relations, fortunately, have improved considerably since then.