WASHINGTON -- Officer Noberto Torres Jr. spoke Spanish and was willing to listen, making him a lightning rod for the frustrations of Hispanic youths.
Dozens of Spanish-speaking youths and some adults surrounded Torres yesterday afternoon outside a fast-food restaurant that had been burned the night before by rioters.
On Torres they rained complaints about police and city government, saying that local officials ignore their needs for jobs, social programs and bilingual education.
Washington police discriminate against Hispanics, the youths charged, harassing them with unjustified traffic tickets and treating Hispanics differently from other groups.
"If the police want us to respect them, they have to respect us," declared Jose Domingues, 33, a carpenter and native of El Salvador.
Torres was one of many officers placed in two Hispanic neighborhoods in the nation's capital to prevent a recurrence of the street violence that began Sunday when a police officer shot a man who allegedly drew a knife while being arrested for drinking in public.
The U.S. attorney's office is examining the shooting, Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon said today.
"Independently (of the city police), the U.S. attorney's office is looking into it and independently of that, I think the civil rights division of the Department of Justice is looking into it," said Dixon.
A spokeswoman at the Justice Department said she had no information about an investigation and spokesmen for the federal prosecutor and the FBI were not immediately available for comment.
Riot-equipped police imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew last night, keeping crowds away while arresting 66 people who hurled rocks, bottles and insults at them as they patrolled the busy district last night.
Streets normally filled with people were virtually empty last night and the windows of fashionable nightspots were boarded. Only police, reporters and residents who wore police-issued arm bands allowing them to patrol the area as citizen observers walked Mount Pleasant Street.
Police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. sent some 1,000 officers into the area yesterday, including all of the department's 108 Spanish-speaking officers.
Dixon, who imposed a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew after the greatest disturbances Monday night, said the massive show of police force was needed "to allow us to restore order. . . to not give way to our own worst fears."
"We can't surrender. . . we can't let a few people who wish to take advantage of other problems in our community set the tone and tenor of Washington, D.C.," she told reporters at a news conference yesterday.
Dixon said she would decide "day-by-day" whether the 7 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew would be repeated. "What the city needed was a cooling-off period," she said.
She ordered the streets cleared after businesses were ransacked, police were pelted with rocks and bottles and rampaging youths left a trail of debris and fire Monday night through Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan neighborhoods Sunday and Monday nights.
As he talked with the Hispanics, Torres generally defended the police but gave residents what they appeared to want most -- a chance to vent anger and frustration. He told reporters he believed the violence reflected misinformation about the shooting and a desire by some youths to have "fun."
Hispanic residents disagreed, emphasizing that the causes of the violence went beyond the shooting that triggered it. While not condoning the arson, looting and attacks on police, they said the trouble had at last focused attention on their problems.
"We've demonstrated that the community exists, but in a manner many don't like," said Silvia Rosales, a community leader, at a community meeting in a Mount Pleasant youth center.
A young man from El Salvador said, "We came from a country where there was a war. Now we're treated unjustly here."
"This has its roots in the past," another man said of the violence. "All we needed was one small problem to set us off into the streets."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared at the meeting and, with a translator's assistance, implored residents to avoid danger by honoring last night's curfew.
"The people are afraid and the police are afraid and somehow wemust break the cycle of fear and move to hope," Jackson said before summoning the audience to stand, hold hands and pray.
The heavily Hispanic neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant and Adams-Morgan, roughly between 15th Street and Connecticut Avenue about two miles north of the White House, are neighborhoods of striking ethnic and economic contrast. Besides Hispanics, most of whom are from Central America and are poor, there are many non-Spanish speaking whites and blacks.
Adams-Morgan, anchored along Columbia Road and 18th Street, a potpourri of inexpensive ethnic restaurants, Spanish and non-Spanish, that have made the area a dining mecca for Washingtonians. Visitors will hear more Spanish than English on many streets there and in adjoining Mount Pleasant, north of Columbia Road.
"Tenemos libros en espanol," says a sign at the Mount Pleasant public library, advertising books in Spanish.
Many stores display signs in both languages, reflecting the mix of residents.
When Francesca Marrero, 58, opened the first Mount Pleasant bodega, or Spanish grocery, nearly 30 years ago, there were not many Hispanics. She was from Puerto Rico and many of the Spanish-speaking people in the neighborhood then had fled Castro's Cuba or were from the Dominican Republic.
The Hispanic population grew in the 1970s and 1980s when civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua drove thousands of mostly poor people into the United States, many as illegal immigrants. Some estimate the Hispanic population in Washington at 60,000.
"Mount Pleasant was one of the best places to live," said Marrero. "It's getting worse."
There's a lot of crime, alcoholism and drug use, she says. Many residents lack immigration documents or language skills, making it difficult to find work.
Adding to their problems, say residents, is the rising cost of living in the area. "Gentrification" of the neighborhoods, an influx of prosperous whites eager to fix up the attractive brick rowhouses, has driven up rents, forcing families to cram into small apartments.
"Everything escalated to the point where people find themselves choked," said Marrero's daughter, Carmen Marrero Doren.
This week, she said, the area's problems "exploded."
Doren attributed the first night of violence to frustration, the second to outsiders and opportunists eager to take advantage of the situation.
To assure future peace, hair salon owner Mireya Rodriguez Pena suggested that police be better trained and communicate more with residents.
Pena complained that police arbitrarily ticket her customers. Recently police handed a $50 summons to someone who had stopped outside her shop on Mount Pleasant Street to drop off a customer, she said.
Like Pena, many residents seemed eager to share their stories with the horde of reporters who descended on their neighborhoods. Journalists from England and other countries joined in, reflecting worldwide interest in the disturbances.
Lilo Gonzales, a slender musician who said he plans to write a song about the events of the week, said the violence served to "tell the people that we are here."
"We are from Nicaragua; we are from Salvador, but now we are Washingtonians," he said. "We need so many programs; we need jobs, but there are no jobs."