Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors

Killing sprees in suburban schools are rare and shocking events. Imagine, then, living in a neighborhood where a sign in a laundromat asks patrons to be sure, before putting their clothes in the wash, to empty all pockets of bullets

IDO not see a dead body in a pool of blood every week, or even every month. I saw a shooting victim quite recently, but his head had been only grazed by the bullet. The week before, I saw a car full of inch-wide bullet holes which had crashed into a tree. But everybody inside was okay, the police said. Neither event even made the local news.

I live about a mile from the U.S. Capitol, on the eastern edge of the Capitol Hill community that claims to be "Our Nation's Neighborhood." The Victorian row houses on my street are charming; our trees are gloriously verdant. Military bands play on the Capitol steps on summer nights. But the pop-pop-pop of automatic-weapons fire is the tattoo we more often hear. Near my house in the 1990s we had drive-by killings, run-by killings, sneak-up killings, gunfights and battles, car chases. We had drug killings, vengeance killings, the killing of witnesses to other crimes, accidental killings, and killings that enforce values we can only vaguely fathom. We have had so many killings that our own values have been blasted askew.

I saw two dead bodies on February 13 of last year. I was driving down Fifteenth Street, near my house, when I saw two young men who appeared to be in shock -- caught up in a moment of helplessness. I quickly recognized the expression on their faces. It said, "Somebody's just been shot." Suddenly police cars were swooping down Fifteenth Street, sirens going. Two bodies lay in the back of a convenience store at the corner of Fifteenth and D.

Through the side windows we could see them on the floor near a rack of two-liter sodas. Neighbors rushed up breathless to press into the crowd at the window. Everybody was panting -- after a shooting there's a panicky rush to find out who has been shot, because people we know get killed in our neighborhood more often than strangers do. Who among us will go to a convenience store to get a candy bar, The Washington Post wrote about these killings, and end up dead?

"It's David," one neighbor said. Word spread -- it was David and Paul. And they looked dead. Indeed, David Smith looked very dead; his nineteen-year-old body was as limp as Jell-O when the medics rolled him over. Next to him lay Paul Watkins, eighteen; though the medics pumped frantically at his chest, he was declared dead at D.C. General.

David and Paul were part of a group that wore black hoods and silver shoes and took over the corner of Fifteenth and D as if they were staking a claim, setting up a franchise. Only those in black hoods and silver shoes were welcome. Neighbors claimed that the gang was selling drugs. The police confronted the young men repeatedly for weeks, but the group took to mocking the officers who showed up. Then the police started telling those who complained that young men in black hoods have constitutional rights too. Situations like this often end in shootings: first the corner gets wild, and then the familiar pop-pop-pop "resolves" the problem, the finale in our symphony of death.

After February 13 the boys in black hoods stopped gathering at Fifteenth and D -- in part because the killer or killers had not been caught. Would there be more shooting? Who knew? In the uncertainty of the moment the convenience store closed for good. The group's survivors switched their gathering spot to the playground of Payne Elementary School, which has long been surrounded by this obscene violence.


AT times I've tried to keep track of how many killings there have been here, but I lost count around 1995. Could I have been to twenty of these murder scenes -- or more? After February 13, I asked my neighbors how many deaths they recalled, and they had no idea either; some guessed wildly at fifty, which I understand, because it feels like fifty. Violence can addle the mind. There have been many nonfatal shootings, too, and sometimes the victims don't die until much later -- and we don't hear about it. Was it a death, or merely a flesh wound? We don't always know.

So it is surprisingly hard to remember a simple number: How many people have been killed in my neighborhood? According to the police, Service Area 109, which includes my house, has had thirty murders since 1992 -- an average of 3.8 homicides a year, or about one every three months. Additionally, police officers have shot and killed three alleged assailants in this area. These numbers can seem modest or horrifying, depending on what one considers "normal" or expects from a neighborhood like mine.

I also remember many killings before 1992 and others a block or two away that were not in Police Service Area 109. There could indeed be fifty murders weighing on my thoughts, and maybe a few more.

PSA 109, which is like a police precinct, extends eleven blocks from the Eastern Market, where vendors sell farm-fresh vegetables, homemade sausages, and great salty Virginia hams, to the D.C. jail, where many young men of my neighborhood have passed time. It also covers the sociological distance between Washington's main demographic poles, the Eastern Market end being primarily white and the D.C. jail end being primarily black. Most of our thirty murders have occurred on the jail end of this territory, and by my count only four of the victims, one of them a police officer named Jason White, were white.

There is a disturbing detail, a signal marker on our descent into chaos: eighteen of those thirty murders are still unsolved. This is one important way in which my neighborhood is unlike Littleton, Colorado. Around the time of Littleton people kept talking about "closure" -- the ubiquitous word in the aftermath of bombings, air crashes, and massacres. Rational people are supposed to seek closure. But the ghosts of eighteen unsolved murders here in our neighborhood make it impossible to put our sorrow to rest.

Of the thirty murders in PSA 109 that the police list, five are "closed," because the prime suspects were themselves murdered, though the police won't officially say who those prime suspects were. So our murders sometimes in effect "solve" other murders, which some people might find encouraging, but we may not hear about it. And it is still likely that if you are gunned down, stabbed, or garroted in PSA 109, your killer will get away with it. We live with an open invitation to kill, and it governs much more of our behavior than we like to admit.

Witnesses to crimes rarely admit to having seen anything, because they fear retaliation. They are afraid to dial 911 because they don't want a police cruiser pulling up in front of the house, identifying the caller. According to the lore of the streets, that can be a fatal mistake. Some say they trust in the Lord to exact justice, not the police and the courts. Some believe that the violence is a signal that the Second Coming is at hand.

Teenagers and young adults frequently cite the unsolved homicides as a sort of official measure of their own worth or lack thereof. They reason that if they get murdered, nothing will happen to their murderers -- therefore they must not count for much. "Nobody cares about us," the young people say, which is not good. When young people believe that nobody cares, they may become more reckless. A few act out their rage on the corner. But after the pop-pop-popping somebody does care -- it's obvious, if too late.

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