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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

by Jim Myers

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)

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.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

See a collection of Atlantic articles on crime.

From the archives:

"A Grief Like No Other," by Eric Schlosser (September, 1997)
Americans are fascinated by murders and murderers but not by the families of the people who are killed -- an amazingly numerous group, whose members can turn only to one another for sympathy and understanding.

"The Code of the Streets," by Elijah Anderson (May, 1994)
In this essay in urban anthropology a social scientist takes us inside a world most of us only glimpse in grisly headlines -- "Teen Killed in Drive By Shooting" -- to show us how a desperate search for respect governs social relations among many African-American young men.

"Growing Up Scared," by Karl Zinsmeister (June, 1990)
Spurred on by family instability, violent crime now touches millions of young lives. The control of crime in the streets, in the schools, and in the home ought to be the pre-eminent "children's issue."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Street Life" (August 18, 1999)
Elijah Anderson talks about his new book, Code of the Street, and his effort to tell the real story of life in the inner city.

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.

"Drug-Related"

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.

Scenes of titanic anguish unfold around many killings; they can be almost too painful to watch, as terrified neighbors rush to see if a relative has been shot. Friends and families shriek and wail; I've seen looks and gestures of cosmic grief. What if it was your child?

I remember the tortured face of Metropolitan Police Officer Earline Harris on the evening of December 30, 1993, when she had just seen her partner, Jason White, killed on the steps of a house in the 200 block of Fourteenth Street. Harris was standing in the middle of the street around the corner from my house; she had fired at the suspect, who then fled, and she was waiting for help to arrive. Looking wildly upward, she appeared to be appealing to the gods, pleading with the sky, because there was no help down here.

That's what people do at shooting scenes -- they appeal to the gods. Or they stomp on the ground. Friends and relatives, caught in the hellish recognition that nothing can be done, stomp on the ground. Maybe it's worth knowing that when awful things happen and we are truly powerless, the urge to stomp on the ground is waiting in human nature. Sometimes I sense that those who enter into a discussion of violence don't really think that they might be killed, or that they might end up stomping over the death of someone close to them. Do Hollywood moguls ever consider this possibility? Most people never discover that they have that reaction within them. They can thank God.

But Jason White was already dead; the whole city soon learned that he'd been killed with four quick shots to the head, point-blank. The shooting was labeled a uniquely cold-blooded act; President Bill Clinton spoke of White's death in his 1994 State of the Union address. But it wasn't unique at all. Hey, that's how people kill one another in my neighborhood -- with point-blank shots to the head.

The world lamented the death of Officer White, but other homicides don't make the news at all, and our young people notice that, too. Again, they say that their lives are not considered important, because when they die, it's not on TV. Meanwhile, closer to the Capitol, some would like to see murders get less attention -- or not always be linked to Capitol Hill. The residents of quieter, more upscale streets near the Eastern Market say of the streets where thirty of my neighbors have been murdered, "That's not the Capitol Hill we know."

They also say that the violence near my house is "drug-related," a phrase with almost magical properties: it raises a bulletproof barrier between the world of law and order and the world of chaos. Or so some seem to believe. If all our murders are "drug-related," then those who are not involved with drugs can feel safe. Human nature operates this way: our brains seek out whatever means necessary to distance us from frightening prospects. After all, we must carry on even as the bodies pile up.

But the fact remains that our killings may also be robbery-related, vengeance-related, love- or hate-related. If murders aren't solved, we don't learn what they were about. Instead they become the subjects of rumor and conjecture. Eighteen unsolved murders make one realize why trials are important in a civilized society. Trials tell the community what happened; they establish what the community's values are and how those values apply to each situation. Right now my neighborhood has lost touch with its values: they don't function; they're missing in action.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)


Jim Myers is the author of Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know About Each Other, which will be published this month.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors - 00.03; Volume 285, No. 3; page 72-86.