Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray (WI file photo)
**FILE** Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray (WI photo)

D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray’s recent comments, and those of his staffers, about public safety and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) have caused some of his Ward 7 constituents to question the level of Gray’s engagement with his mostly-Black constituency. 

Earlier this month, shortly before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced the expansion of a previously launched ATV Investigative Unit, Gray encouraged constituents to alert the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to where people are hiding ATVs. 

“When illegal riders know that we’ll take their ATVs, more will be discouraged from breaking our laws and, ideally, they will find lawful places to ride,” Gray said in a statement sent to The Informer. “I support designating safe, off-road locations for ATV recreation, but we need to know that riders will use them before dedicating resources to a solution like this.”

For Ward 7 resident Jay Brown, Gray’s recent position on ATVs doesn’t reflect the nature of the man who he often spoke and texted with after his nephew Jeffery Price’s police-involved death.  

In 2018, Price was killed on Division Avenue and Fitch Place in Northeast when his dirt bike collided with an MPD vehicle during a pursuit. Brown said that since Price’s death, Gray has maintained contact with Brown and his family, even going as far as to connect MPD Chief Robert J. Contee III to Brown so they could discuss how to approach policing in a balanced way. 

Brown said that he and Gray spoke at length before the pandemic about how to address the longstanding ATV conundrum in a manner that met drivers’ safety needs and provided dirt bike riders the latitude to enjoy their pastime. 

Though their conversations have fallen off, Brown said he didn’t expect Gray’s tone to totally change on the matter. He told The Informer that he wants to work with the Ward 7 council member for the good of the community. 

“Why would Council member Gray support these positions without some public dialogue, especially with people in the community who’ve lost loved ones?” Brown said. “There has to be accountability to constituents. We don’t think we have a council member for Ward 7 right now. We’ve been dealing with Council member Gray’s staff and there hasn’t been any real strong coordination with the office on quality-of-life issues.” 

Questions Persist About Ward 7 Representation

Gray’s comments about ATVs followed his introduction of legislation in February to bring the local police force back to 4,100 officers. He, along with D.C. Council members Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) also introduced a bill that exempts D.C. police officers and firefighters from local income tax. 

On Monday, Gray announced, via Twitter, the monthly virtual meeting of the 6th District Citizens Advisory Council where dozens of participants were expected to discuss public safety.  

By that time, MPD had reported more than 40 homicides so far this year.  Nearly a dozen of those homicides took place in Ward 7. Overall, instances of crime reported in Ward 7 over the last two months more than doubled compared to figures reported around the same time last year. 

In January, Gray, who’s recovering from a stroke, expressed plans to temporarily communicate via written statements. A Gray staffer told The Informer he’s “well and very active.” 

Earlier in the year, Gray held a listening session with advisory neighborhood commissioners, civic association leaders and other officials. In a statement, his office said that the forum served as a continuation of other events Gray held in 2016 and 2019 to discuss issues of concern, particularly public safety and health care. 

Gray’s office didn’t specify whether the most recent listening session was in person or virtual. 

A representative of the Ward 7 council member went on to note that messages from constituents this year, received via email, text, phone and in-person communication, have centered on crime and increasing the police presence in Ward 7. This input, in tandem with media reports, social media and feedback received by the office, informs Gray’s decisions as it relates to legislation, budgeting and oversight, they said. 

Deanwood resident Alicia L. Rucker said Gray has surrounded himself with enough people that could help him keep his office running during this precarious time. She said Gray has maintained constant communication via weekly e-newsletters. 

In speaking about Gray’s embrace of the police, Rucker pointed out that he’s responding to the absence of a grassroots leadership and a government-facilitated safety net that’s needed to fulfill people’s basic needs and provide structure for young people. Though she doesn’t support an influx in police officers, Rucker noted that the police seems like the ideal answer for people who are scared and feel like there’s no other immediate solution. 

“Since COVID, people have lost their minds,” Rucker said. “A [civilized] society shouldn’t require police. Our babies are being affected by things that would’ve been corrected back in the day. In order to put the police out of business, we have to shore up our education and out-of-school time programming.”  

Earlier this year, residents came to Gray’s defense against council colleagues who’ve questioned his ability to chair the D.C. Council Committee on Health. There however remains criticism about what some describe as Gray’s lack of attention to health and education issues. 

For some Ward 7 residents, like a millennial known to many as “Aye Brooke,” there’s some uncertainty about whether Gray’s in tune with the constituents. “Aye Brooke” said she’s taken issue with Gray’s insistence on boosting police recruitment, noting that MPD and the U.S. Park Police have jurisdiction over the area surrounding her residence. 

“Aye Brooke” told The Informer that Gray’s announcement about the police retention bill was the first time she heard from the council member in months. She said that she expected one of his first public announcements in the new year would focus on drug abuse and other quality-of-life issues specific to Ward 7. 

For her, it shows a lack of regard for disaffected Black residents.  

“Someone is tweeting from Council member Gray’s account,” Aye Brooke said. “It was ridiculous when he made that move with the police [recruitment bill]. I refuse to believe that a man from the Civil Rights era is supporting the increase of police in a ward that’s heavily policed. Who’s putting the battery in his back or money into his campaign? It’s a bad policy.” 

April Goggans, lead organizer for Black Lives Matter DC, has come to the conclusion that Chuck Thies, Gray’s communications director, has taken over Gray’s office. While Gray has long expressed an affinity for increasing police, as seen in the introduction of legislation in 2017, Goggans said his pro-police messaging intensified with Thies at the helm of communications.    

In the aftermath of the bipartisan Congressional takedown of the Revised Criminal Code Act, Thies and Eric Goulet, the Ward 3 D.C. State Board representative who previously served as then-Mayor Gray’s budget director, have counted among the staunchest critics of the D.C. Council.  

Goggans said that Thies and Goulet’s critiques of a “soft-on-crime” council from their personal Twitter accounts don’t take into account Gray’s support for the RCCA and police accountability legislation that’s currently in the D.C. police union and GOP’s crosshairs on Capitol Hill. 

For Goggans, their rhetoric, and particularly that of Thies, reeks of anti-Blackness and represents a threat to  Black political representation east of the Anacostia River. 

“I don’t know if anyone has watched the shift,” Goggans said. “This office is no longer being run by Vince Gray. It should be scary to everyone, not just Ward 7. It just means the voice of Ward 7 is not a native Washingtonian Black man.” 

Some Residents Want to Find a Middle Ground 

In the District, it is illegal to operate ATVs in public spaces — including streets, sidewalks, alleyways, bike lanes and public trails. 

Though a no-chase policy prevents MPD officers from pursuing ATVs, commuters have increasingly demanded a response to the bikes seen driving along the District’s major corridors. 

In 2013, a class-action lawsuit filed against MPD alleged that D.C. police target Black motorcyclists. Last year, attorneys representing the family of Karon Hylton-Brown established a similar pattern during a trial that led to the conviction of Terence Sutton and Andrew Zabavsky for Hylton-Brown’s 2020 death during an MPD pursuit. 

After ATV riders took over a portion of the National Mall last year, District officials explored methods of curbing illegal ATVs. MPD reportedly formed an ATV investigative unit that summer. 

On March 6, Bowser revealed the expansion of the Multiagency Nightlife Task Force which had been entrusted with, among other goals, seizing ATVs operating in public spaces. The task force, which the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice set up along U Street and Connecticut Avenue, added Adams Morgan as a location. 

Despite the fervor for penalizing ATV riders, some people, like Sherice Muhammad, recognize them as part of a culture, similar to skateboarding and biking. 

Muhammad, a Ward 7 resident, activist and former ANC commissioner and DCPS parent leader, said that she’s not quite clear on Council member Gray’s stance on ATVs. She has recommended increasing lines of communication between his office and the Ward 7 ANCs to tackle this issue. 

When it comes to ATV riders, Muhammad said she wants to explore a compromise where areas in the District are carved out for them to enjoy their rides. While she’s unsure of how organized ATV riders are as a lobby, Muhammad said she has seen enough of them to know that they can demand greater cooperation from the D.C. government.  

“Let’s bring in the ATV riders to accommodate them,” Muhammad said. “It’s worth sitting down and having a meeting to figure out where we can have some sort of medium. To see where we can come to an understanding to provide a place to ride. You can’t lock them up. You can’t chase them and cause disruption that injures or kills anyone. So let’s be proactive and understand our options.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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  1. I really think that Mr.Gray needs to give up it’s clear he doesn’t care about the people of ward 7 I’ve sent several emails and never received any response I live directly across the street from DOES and it’s a fiasco parking for residents because the employees park there and now they have No parking signs that are clearly the wrong signs

  2. We don’t think we have a council member for Ward 7 right now. We’ve been dealing with Council member Gray’s staff and there hasn’t been any real strong coordination with the office on quality-of-life issues.”

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