More on the mugging/hugging

Xavier Cervera took the dogs for a 1 a.m. walk to Lincoln Park via an alley behind the 1300 block of Constitution Ave. NE, where he’d been hosting a small party at his condo. He left the gate in the tall wooden fence unlatched, since he would return in a few minutes. But while he was gone, a man walked into his backyard and pointed a gun at his guests’ heads, demanding money.

The rest is history. A July 13 Washington Post story recounted how the guests pleaded that they were just drinking wine and eating cheese, and how the would-be robber had a change of heart and asked for hugs instead of cash. TV and print news outlets all over the world seized upon the story, and everybody involved (except the criminal) is experiencing his or her 15 minutes. But the Post story didn’t have space for one detail, Cervera says. After the gunman had stopped pointing his weapon, one of Cervera’s sisters admonished him:

“Your mother would be ashamed,” she said. The young man saddened. His mother was dead, he told them. And then he asked for the hugs and wine, and left through the gate with a glass of Bordeaux.

“There’s a nocturnal culture of alley crawlers,” Cervera says, noting that his cars have been repeatedly robbed and vandalized in the year he’s lived there. Cervera’s alley winds and has multiple entrances, making it particularly hospitable to the bizarro alley crowd. He wishes that he’d been there with his dog, Henry, a big menacing mix of King Shepherd,
Malamute and wolf. Cervera says Henry knows how to take a bite out of crime.

No such mouthful this time; Cervera and the dogs came home to a massive police presence. He learned what happened, and that everyone was OK, and then he accompanied police officers on a walk through the alley. Not far from his back yard, they found the wine glass, delicately standing in the middle of the alley. It still had wine in it.

The D.C. Council’s case of hearing loss

At a public hearing on a bill to restrict excessive non-commercial public noise, the D.C. City Council on July 9 discussed the legislation’s merits at volumes twice what Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells would outlaw — volumes approaching ear-damaging levels!

Tony Norman, a lawyer and chairman of the McMillan Park Committee on North Capitol Street, cut right to the hot stuff in his testimony on the legislation: “It is dangerous and it is insidious,” he screamed. “It’s about using the pretext of noise to ban free speech.”

(Well, he didn’t actually scream, but we’ll get to that later.)

Wells’s bill would restrict noise above 70 decibels from 50 feet if deemed excessive by a “reasonable person.” He introduced it because of a group of street preachers who irritate his constituents by making an obnoxious amplified racket every Saturday at H and 8th streets NE.

Norman pointed out that the preachers on H Street specifically criticize white people and gentrification. “Essentially, you have a small group of whites that take offense to this.”

Anwar Saleem, the (non-white) director of an H Street revitalization group, raised his voice in support of the proposed law, and a rep from the AG’s office testified to the bill’s careful balance of protection for eardrums and free speech rights. But the most strident testimony came from witnesses who oppose the measure.

“This bill — which was generated as a means of dealing with an irritating neighborhood problem — is a cure that is far worse than the disease that it seeks to remedy,” shrieked Jos Williams, president of the AFL-CIO Metro Washington Council.

“The First Amendment can not, must not be the victim of expediency,” bellowed Johnny Barnes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for the National Capital Area. “If an intolerant government is in place, armed with this law, it may well be able to suppress the unpopular views of others.”

“What this bill does is impede our right,” wailed John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25. “We deserve to be heard. You have an obligation as elected officials to protect that. And in doing so, you need to get rid of this bill.”

David Klavitter, the three-year Washingtonian who’s publicized the H Street noise problem more than anyone, was disappointed and surprised to find himself “outgunned by the union’s political machine.” He told Hillscape he thought their rhetoric overly sensational when “all we want them to do is turn down the amplifier.” He called the race issue “absolutely a distraction.”

Wells massaged his temple as he asked Linda Argo, interim director for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, if the DCRA receives many complaints about the non-commercial public speech he seeks to restrict. She said such complaints make up an “itsy bitsy” fraction of noise calls, and that almost all of those are for this particular group of preachers.

Argo offered a live demonstration of how noise is quantified. She counted to 10 while an aide operated a noise-measuring device at one end of the room. The device reported the volume of Argo’s voice through the chamber’s speakers to be 79 decibels — almost as loud as a factory! Louder than traffic in midtown Manhattan! Ruinous to quality of life! And nine decibels louder than twice the perceived volume of what the Wells bill would prohibit from 50 feet.

The exercise was immediately abandoned. Mary Cheh, Ward 3 council member and chairwoman of the committee on public services and consumer affairs, called the demonstration “useless.”

(Hillscape, who likes to have some fun with certain issues, wants to note for the record that the aforementioned people were not really screaming, shrieking, or bellowing.)

Klavitter has staged noisy protests in places like Georgetown and Adams Morgan to demonstrate the H Street problem to other ’hoods, and to drum up support for changing the law by drawing citywide attention. But judging from this hearing, only a small number of D.C. residents want this law, and a broad coalition opposes it.

Mayor signs bill to save the children

On July 9, Mayor Adrian Fenty signed legislation to close a loophole that prevented thousands of D.C. children’s primary caregivers from obtaining legal custody. The loophole opened as a result of an Aug. 31, 2006 decision in the D.C. Court of Appeals, which found that a lower court overreached in giving custody to a child’s non-parent. Superior Court judges subsequently took the ruling to mean that only biological parents had standing to sue for custody, which, in bad cases, left kids vulnerable to kidnapping by estranged, biologically related deadbeats looking to cash in on housing benefits.

Among other problems caused by the appeals decision: “Non-parents couldn’t get kids enrolled in school, they couldn’t get them signed up for medical care,” says Matt Fraidin, a family-law expert and co-director of the HIV/AIDS clinic at the University of the District of Columbia law school. “Now they can.”

The “Safe and Stable Homes Act of 2007” makes it possible for non-parents to sue for custody. Fraidin was among the leading proponents of a legislative fix for the problem when it appeared the Appeals Court decision would stick. The bill was Tommy Wells’s first piece of legislation as a D.C. Council member.


Hillscape went with a friend to see the new “Transformers” movie at Union Station on July 3. The movie featured lots of product placement: Hasbro toys, Mountain Dew, General Motors — and the Washington Redskins. A major character sported a Clinton Portis Redskins jersey for most of the film, and the camera absolutely savored the ’Skins lanyard around his neck.

Wondering how much Redskins owner Dan Snyder might have paid for this plug, and failing to get an answer from the Redskins media office by press time, Hillscape sent a query to local sports savant Dave McKenna, columnist for The Washington City Paper.

Well, what does one expect from a profit-mongering megalomaniac? “He’s transformed a lotta fans into non-fans, so it’s a nice fit,” McKenna wrote.