Jul 7, 2017

The summer season hadn’t even officially started, yet, and there were already simmering tensions between law enforcement and the D.C. area’s Black community.  This particular episode caught three young Black teens arrested by undercover Park Police for trying to make an honest buck - selling water bottles on the National Mall.

That could have been avoided altogether. Selling water bottles without a permit might be, technically, illegal, but it shouldn’t prompt handcuffing and more incarceration for a demographic already overwhelmed by too much of it.  It’s not like police are going into suburban neighborhoods and handcuffing young children for selling lemonade on the neighborhood sidewalk. 

This also leads to a larger question of why these young men were on the mall seeking loose change and dollars through the unlicensed sale of beverages in the first place. As Black men faced with limited employment prospects, many are forced into creative entrepreneurial pursuits. Would the police have preferred these young men were dealing drugs in the shade or water in the heat? The message sent is not that clear and not all that encouraging. It further puts the Washington area’s Black population between a rock and a hard place.

That crisis appears missing from the debate on what transpired on the mall more than a week ago. Yet, having that conversation can address deeper, more systemic, long-term issues that have been unaddressed for some time.  Tackling the District’s Black jobless and affordable housing crisis can help us all avoid such situations.

According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute analysis of the current population, the Black unemployment rate has grown since the peak of the recession. “Black residents are four times as likely as Hispanic residents to be unemployed, and eight times as likely as white residents,” writes D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute researcher Linnea Lassiter. D.C.’s Black college graduates are more likely to be unemployed in 2016 than prior to the recession in 2007. Prior to the recession, the unemployment rate of blacks was at nine percent, and has elevated to 16 percent as of 2016; whereas unemployment for whites and Hispanics has remained stagnant between two and four percent respectively.

At its core, the arrest of these teens highlights an ever-present trend of misuse of power by police in – but it also reflects a stifling Black unemployment crisis in the District. The Park Policemen who made the arrest explained their actions were for the “safety of the officers and for other individuals.” While vending on the Mall without a permit is illegal, arresting the young men and subjecting them to further embarrassment and processing through the criminal justice system is excessive. D.C Councilman Charles Allen commented on the situation as well: “I can’t help but think how the reaction by these same officers might have varied if different children had set up a quaint hand-painted lemonade stand on the same spot.”