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Hispanic Neighborhood Was Ticking Bomb, Residents Say With PM-Washington Violence Bjt

May 7, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hispanic frustration and resentment against the police have been ticking time bombs in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood for years, residents say, and only the intensity of the explosion surprised them.

That anger boiled over into two nights of violence as youths pelted police with rocks and bottles and smashed store windows. Tight lines of Washington police, wearing gas masks and riot gear, responded Monday night with repeated volleys of tear gas lobbed into streets choked with people.

″We are very quiet, but when we go to the top, it really explodes,″ said Victor Lilo Gonzalez, a counselor at the Latino American Youth Center in the neighborhood. ″What we want is justice.″

Hispanic residents, especially young males, are angry. They say they want jobs, they want to be able to stay in this country legally and they want respect. Most of all, they say, they want the police to stop harassing them.

The police ″take advantage of their badge,″ said Wilson Stefan Solis, another neighborhood activist. ″The anger here is based on the abuse that they give us.″

Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon promised to recruit more Spanish-speaking police officers and said she would consider creating a commission to look into problems with job opportunities, discrimination, housing and drug abuse.

Around 40 percent of the young people in Mount Pleasant drop out of high school, community leaders say. Decent jobs are hard to find.

Young men, many of whom spend their days drinking in the area’s parks and sidewalks, say they’re tired of being hassled by the police for drinking beer while drug dealers go unpunished.

Many people in this neighborhood of immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic don’t speak English and are here illegally. Those two facts, residents say, explain why the Mount Pleasant cauldron took so long to boil over.

″Hispanic people don’t speak up,″ one said.

They live in streets lined with rundown brick apartment buildings, where places like 7-Eleven and Church’s Fried Chicken alternate with bodegas latinas - small shops filled with Central American products. People live much as they would in San Salvador or Managua: The streets are the center of social life and everyone always seems to be outside.

Some African-Americans and whites live in Mount Pleasant, too. But the neighborhood retains the unmistakable texture of a barrio - unlike the adjacent Adams-Morgan area that also is Hispanic but is being gentrified by an influx of white, middle-class professionals.

People in Mount Pleasant said they had long been worried about simmering tension between neighborhood residents and the police.

″We knew something was going to spark this because there’s a tremendous amount of frustration in the Hispanic community,″ said local activist Rudy Arredondo. ″If we don’t address these issues, there will be more trouble.″

″They’ve been holding the anger underneath,″ said a 58-year-old man named Frank who has lived in the area for about 20 years. ″I’ve never seen it this bad here, never.″ He said the violence reminded him of the riots in 1968, when parts of Washington were burned.

On Monday afternoon, following a night of violence Sunday sparked by the shooting of a man during an arrest, Gonzalez, Solis and other community leaders stood in the middle of Mount Pleasant Street amid a jittery throng of young men.

They said they were trying to calm people down, because they understood the causes of the violence yet they condemned it. Their weapons: a bullhorn, a guitar and Salvadoran folk music.

″We are a community with a soul and a heart. We are not animals,″ one man shouted in Spanish through the bullhorn.

The crowd in the street answered with a raucous cheer.

It was around 5 p.m. and tension was building. A thunderstorm threatened behind dark clouds and the wind started whipping through the tense street. Farther up the street, near the intersection with Lamont, youths were holding up mattresses spray-painted with slogans in Spanish like ″United El Salvador.″

Gonzalez was playing the guitar and singing a Salvadoran folk song, called ″El Carbonero,″ about a coal miner. Some of the young men in the street joined in, and for a moment, it seemed as if calm might return to the neighborhood.

But the tensions under the surface of Mount Pleasant soon erupted again. A thin blue line of police stood at the intersection. Every time a police car drove by, a wave of yelling youths chased it.

″Call me a Hispanic brother,″ said a 15-year-old, as he ran after a car.

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