Stop the Tower

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Column in Metro section, The Washington Post, 12/12/00

Tower Backers Sending Out An Ugly Message

Marc Fisher

When is the erection of a TV tower a question of black against white?

When it's happening in Washington, D.C., of course.

In expensive ads in the city's daily papers and black weeklies and on black-oriented radio stations, American Tower Corp. and the local PR firm it has hired are fanning the flames of racial division. In a clumsy attempt to pressure Mayor Williams to spurn Tenleytown residents who oppose a 760-foot broadcasting tower just off Wisconsin Avenue NW, the ads accuse Williams of "favoritism toward affluent voters," "pandering to the wealthy residents of Ward 3," and failing to give "inner-city citizens the same consideration."

Not explicit enough for you? The ad's author, William Reed--whose Business Exchange Network hosts awards programs for black professionals--says he was asked to join the pro-tower campaign by Robert Cooper, American Tower's local lawyer. Reed wouldn't tell me who paid for his $23,000 ad campaign. But the checks paying for the ads come from the Graham-Williams Group, American Tower's local PR firm. And Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator who runs that PR company, says he is among several broadcasters and other businesses who helped pay for the ads.

Reed is happy to be the public face of the ad campaign because he believes the mayor has thumbed his nose at Washington's black majority. "Look at his aides," he says. "I challenge you to see if they demographically look like Washington. There's a heavy preponderance of white and Ward 3 people around him. Therefore, many of his decisions tilt that way."

There is some truth to what Reed says. Williams was elected with massive support from mostly white parts of town. And the mayor did reverse course on the tower after activists in upper Northwest raised hell.

Tim Cooper, a leader of the anti-tower brigade, agrees that his movement succeeded "because we are activists and we know precisely how to move political agendas."

But Cooper and others in the Stop the Tower campaign are also veterans of citywide efforts that bridge the races. Cooper, a stalwart in the home rule drive, has joined in protests against the trash transfer station proposed for Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River.

Reed won't hear it. He wants the whites of Northwest to take their lumps just as black Washingtonians always have. "They've been had," he says. "As Mayor Barry used to say, Get over it." Reed has a solution in mind: "Tell them in Tenleytown to take that trash dump there; we'll take the tower and call it even."

Let's not go there. Let's ask instead why a big national company gets in bed with a racial divider. On his Web site, Reed posts an essay questioning the mayor's blackness and baldly stating that Williams has "returned whites full control of the city's contracts."

Williams deserves better than such spurious charges; he hasn't been terribly effective in pushing through his proposals, but the most ambitious of them, such as his Anacostia waterfront plan, are almost all directed at the city's most hurting neighborhoods.

If Williams has done the politically expedient thing by opposing the tower, that's politics. It may also be right. I have no problem with putting another tower on Broadcast Hill; towers have been there for decades and as one of the city's highest points, the location makes sense. But this project sneaked in without a hearing, leaving neighbors with no way to protest against extending the hilltop antenna farm down to the sidewalk, where it looks awful and where ice falling from the tower could pose a threat.

With simple concessions, the company might have won over enough neighbors to get the okay. But by playing the race card, it has scotched any chance of compromise. This baby's going to court.

American Tower general manager Robert Morgan won't budge. "I fully support Bill Reed's message," he says. "He's hitting the nail on the head."

But how does using race solve this? "I'm not from there," Morgan says from Boston, "but the people advising us tell us that's a big part of what happens in Washington." Doesn't injecting race poison the well? "They started the process," he says, referring to the city.

"They started." Just what kids say after a schoolyard fight.


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