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Anger, confusion at Fenty press conference on D.C. shootings

Like any politician, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) likes to control the settings in which he appears before TV cameras.

This was never more evident than Thursday evening during a strange scene in front of District police headquarters at a press conference that almost didn’t occur.

After news broke in the morning about the 14-year-old boy wrongly arrested in last month’s drive-by shooting and mass killing in the District, Fenty’s office e-mailed reporters at 4:24 p.m., saying the mayor, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles would hold a 5 p.m. press conference at the headquarters building on Indiana Avenue NW.

A half-dozen TV news crews arrived and were told to set up their equipment outside the building. They hurriedly did so -- a laborious process, with their cameras, microphones and tangle of cables snaking to satellite trucks in the street. The mayor’s podium, bearing the D.C. government seal, was at the foot of the stairs in front of headquarters. By 5 p.m., everything was in place, and the reporters stood waiting for Fenty, Nickles and Lanier to appear.

Then a group of angry people arrived outside the building, including Nardyne Jefferies, mother of 16-year-old Brishell Jones, one of the four victims killed in the March 30 drive-by shooting; and Norman Williams, father of 20-year-old Jordan Howe, whose March 22 fatal shooting touched off the cycle of retaliation that led to the drive-by attack a week later. They said they had heard about the scheduled press conference and had come to confront the officials about the continuing violence on D.C. streets.

Jefferies held a morgue snapshot, blown up to 8 ½-by-11-inches, showing her daughter with a gaping bullet wound on the left side of her head -- not exactly pleasant TV for the mayor.

Seeing Jefferies and Williams outside, and apparently realizing why they were there, a couple of Fenty staffers in front of the building began furiously typing on their BlackBerrys. Moments later, another Fenty aide appeared at the mayor’s podium and announced that the news conference had been moved: It would not be held in public, she said, but inside the headquarters building, on the third floor.

The TV crews howled in protest, saying they were on deadline and complaining about how long it would take to break down their equipment, haul it upstairs and set it up again. But the staffer was adamant, saying Fenty, Nickles and Lanier would not be coming outside. She would not explain why.

The reporters were accustomed to the Fenty administration’s efforts to control media images. And it seemed that everyone outside building reached a sort of breaking point at the same time. This wasn’t Rosa Parks on the bus, of course, and no one chanted “Attica!” -- but it was a clear moment of solidarity.

No, said the journalists -- not softly. They were not going to move.

The standoff dragged on. A pair of city workers quickly showed up and told the TV crews to remove their microphones from the mayor’s podium. Then the workers folded up the podium and carted it away on a dolly. A pastor representing Jefferies, Williams and the other angry people announced that they would hold a press conference of their own -- and said they would talk only with reporters who stayed outside the building, and not with any who acquiesced to Fenty and went inside.

The TV crews set up a microphone stand in place of the hauled-away podium.

“They don’t want to address this in public. That’s why they won’t come out here,” said Jefferies, displaying the photo of her daughter. “They don’t want to look up in our faces and explain to us why not only our children have been slaughtered, but so many children before.”

“They’re afraid to address the real public,” Williams said. “And since they’re public servants, they should have a press conference out here. Don’t be afraid of the real public.”

Fenty, Nickles and Lanier finally emerged from the building about 6 p.m. -- an hour after the scheduled start of the press conference. Jefferies, Williams and the others stood quietly by while the mayor, chief and attorney general spoke. The family members allowed the officials to finish explaining why the teenager had been wrongly charged in the drive-by shooting before confronting them about violence in the city. When Fenty, Nickles and Lanier were done, and were turning to leave, a TV reporter began peppering them with questions about their delayed appearance outside.

“Can anyone explain why the press conference was moved inside?”

Fenty shrugged it off, offering no clear answer. “As we said in the beginning, we kept you all waiting, and we apologize,” the mayor said. “I think we were just trying to let everybody -- we didn’t know how long we were going to be, so we apologize."

“Why move it inside?” the reporter asked. “Because you didn’t want to be around the family members?”

“We just didn’t want to keep people waiting,” Fenty replied. “We apologize for taking so long.” Then he turned again to walk away, with a slight wave. “Thank you all very much.”

He and Lanier quickly disappeared into the building -- before Jefferies, Williams and the others had a chance to confront them. The only official to remain outside was Nickles, standing face-to-face with Jefferies and Williams, surrounded by TV cameras, as Williams jabbed a finger and loudly harangued the attorney general about gun violence on the streets.

Nickles listened, nodding politely, saying little.

-- Paul Duggan

By Washington Post Editors  |  April 23, 2010; 12:09 PM ET
Categories:  The District , Paul Duggan , Homicide  
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