School fight highlights American divide

Racial harmony seems further away than ever in Washington but at last the President is taking notice, writes Rupert Cornwell
Washington - It all began with a visit by a white newspaper reporter earlier this month to check on the progress of a new black school, boasting a combative principal and a heavily Afro-centric curriculum. What happened next has unleashed racial uproar, and could conceivably change the direction of the city's electoral politics.

Last week, Mary Anigbo, the principal of the Marcus Garvey Charter School, which opened its doors to 62 pupils in September, was indicted by a DC grand jury along with three staff members on misdemeanour charges of assaulting Susan Ferrechio of the Washington Times.

Ms Ferrechio says she went to the school to see Ms Anigbo. As she waited, she interviewed a student, only for a school official to demand her notebook. When she refused, she claims she was set upon by the principal, staff and students who kicked her and made racial taunts before throwing her off the premises. Ms Anigbo contends the reporter pushed her, threatened to use mace (a blinding chemical spray used to ward off attackers) and a knife, and warned she was going to "get you black people out of the building".

Within two hours Ms Ferrechio was back at the school with two police officers and a Washington Times photographer who in his turn was attacked when he started to take pictures, as were the police when they intervened. Finally order was restored, but the real trouble had only begun.

For contemporary Washington's poisonous brew of discredited local government, virtual financial collapse, a school system acknowledged as one of the country's worst, and ever-present racial tensions, the confrontation was one ingredient too many.

A legal verdict will only be delivered by a court. But both communities have already rendered their different judgements. For the white-dominated Washington establishment, the affair simply highlighted the prevailing anarchy of the city's public education system, which led to the appointment last month of Julius Becton, a former army general, whose first step was to sack the entire existing District of Columbia school board.

The fact that Marcus Garvey - which enjoys private status although mostly funded by public money - does not come under the general's jurisdiction, has only increased the outrage - as did the revelation that Ms Anigbo had been charged in 1986 with assault with a deadly weapon, and that one of the security guards at the school had been convicted of armed robbery.

But the city's 70 per cent black majority tends to see matters through a different prism. Courtland Milloy, a black columnist on the Washington Post, wrote of a caller who likened the incident to "that historic racial conflict, Missy-versus-Mammy. It's an arrogant white girl who thinks she owns the house, and a big black woman saying, `Just stay out of my kitchen'."

Small wonder then that the confrontation has been so jarring. Even more sadly, it has come amid with faint but distinct stirrings of hope for Washington.

After four years of almost total indifference to the problems of the city where he lives, President Clinton is now promising a "serious effort" by the White House to help, while Hillary Clinton says she will henceforth devote her formidable energy and talents to the capital's plight.

But the essential precondition for a lasting revival of Washington remains the departure of its mayor. Marion Barry has been stripped of most real power by the financial control board which took charge of the city's budget 15 months ago; but his re-election in 1994 after serving time for a cocaine offence makes him, in the eyes of most Americans, the symbol of the apparent deathwish of the capital. And here too, the Marcus Garvey fracas may have an impact. Mr Barry, first elected in 1978, has not said whether he will seek a fifth term in 1998. But a possible contender touted by the Washington Post and much of the city establishment is Eric Holder, one of the district's leading federal prosecutors - who referred the Anigbo case to the grand jury.

Mr Holder is black, but unlike Mr Barry, comparatively pale-skinned. He is accused by some of Ms Anigbo's supporters of practising "vintage white racism". Last week he told the Post of his misgivings about a mayoral run. "There's no question about it, one of the shots that would be taken at me is, `Is he black enough ? ... Is this guy one of us?' "

Immediately after securing the indictments, he appealed for calm and for Washingtonians of both races "not to permit this incident to increase polarisation".