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.
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.
is the author of which will be published this month.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors - 00.03 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 3; page 72-86.
SUCH stories of violent death might seem more natural in a theater of war -- and so they are. There has been a war in my neighborhood, and it's still going on. Maybe too many people think that this plague of violence has solely to do with crime, as thousands of acts of copycat lawbreaking involving TEC-9s, Glocks, and Uzis have spread across our cities. Maybe it would be wiser to conclude that this is a war like other wars. Often we find wars -- especially other people's wars -- hard to fathom; from a distance they can seem pointless, which fits the situation here. And wars are hard to stop once they get going and passions get loose.
Maybe my neighborhood is like the Balkans or some other corner of the world where war, once started, creates ever more reasons for continuing to fight. Definitely, one critical aspect of this warfare in our streets has been ignored: the powerful appeal that war has for young men whose recklessness is in flower. War draws young men into its orbit; it always has.
My neighborhood didn't raise a generation of cold-blooded killers or, as politicians say, criminals who put no value on human life. Our young men cannot be so different from young men elsewhere. It is true that neighborhoods like mine have lately produced an inordinate number of young people who don't have a clue about what they want to do with their lives. Blame the schools, the parents, TV, or the movies; the result is highly visible -- sweeping aimlessness on our streets. We have men all over the place who are doing nothing productive. Some are angry and hopeless about the future. Some are at war with the way things are; their enemy is the system, order, the police, or people who've made something of their lives.
This area of Washington has also raised a few genuine sociopaths -- scary youngsters like Henry "Little Man" James, a nineteen-year-old who shot a woman dead in a passing car on the nearby Anacostia Freeway because he "felt like killing someone." But most of the combatants are young men suckered into violence by the seductive appeal of warfare. And we've got far too many boys and men available for active duty.
Look down our streets day or night. One mile from the Capitol, at the moment of highest employment in decades, you'll find block after block of idle men. They've been marginalized, ostracized, abandoned. They are drained of hope and initiative. Perhaps with reason, America fears them -- doesn't want them around. So they operate in the alleys and the shadows.
Urban warfare readily wins their hearts, because it is easy employment and seems exciting. Alternatives such as jobs are way off in Maryland or Virginia. The war zone is close by. The recruiting office is on the nearest corner. So are promises of camaraderie and adventure, surely a more thrilling option than stocking shelves at Kmart. Warring -- shooting and being shot at -- is also rich in irony: it makes you feel alive, especially if you are young and foolhardy enough to think you are immortal. And this war has romance: you can listen to veterans talk about the battles they've seen, about heroic deeds, about warriors who saved their buddies from certain death. It's a wonder they haven't started giving each other medals.
Meanwhile, girls who are similarly caught up in a search for engaging activities discover the romance of having babies with guys going off to war. Sometimes it is said that none of this living for the moment makes any sense. The problem is that it makes too much sense. Our children are doing what comes naturally; it makes at least as much sense as World War I.
Yet listening to some younger friends, including some who are no longer alive, I've been struck by a startling lack of ideas about what else they could do. Earlier warriors, like Coy and Derek, studied Scarface, the Godfather trilogy, and similar movies and learned about the applications of ruthlessness. Their lives became more like movies, and the movies became more like their lives. What was the difference between Menace II Society and our neighborhood? Not much.
Our warriors loved that movie, saw themselves in it, and recognized its message of doom as theirs, too. We had Hollywood-style car chases, gun battles, and crashes in our real lives. In one instance a potential murder victim in a car chase escaped on foot by running through the plate-glass window of the Safeway. What a movie scene that would have made.
The war on our streets had everything -- from comradeship to adrenaline rushes -- except nobility of purpose. Mainstream America moved closer to granting that last element, too, in its acceptance of gangsta rap, gangsta talk, and gangsta movies. America granted the warriors in my neighborhood their heroic pose, even if the values were upside down. Good was bad, bad was good.
But what can be noble about killing a woman who uses a wheelchair to get around? Where does that fit into the strategic plan? That's what happened on C Street, on May 30, 1992, when Kim Jones, age fifty-four, was shot to death in her car.
The police said that the shooting was drug-related, and there was never an arrest, but the case is closed, because the prime suspect was later murdered.
I PRESS this idea of a war to make another point. War has social costs that linger after the band stops playing. Post-traumatic-stress disorder and other maladies of the psyche are with us now. It's only logical that people will be jumpy, edgy, depressed, angry, or pursued by demons. Maybe that explains what happened to Cory Lyles, who had seen more than his share of warfare. How many other children's lives are misshapen?
In 1993 The Washington Post ran an article headlined "GETTING READY TO DIE YOUNG; CHILDREN IN VIOLENT D.C. NEIGHBORHOODS PLAN THEIR OWN FUNERALS."
Children as young as 10 have told friends how they want to be buried, what they want to wear and what songs they want played at their funerals. Some young people dictate what they want their mourners to wear and say they want their funeral floral arrangements to spell out the names of their favorite brands of clothing.
Some of these youngsters lived on my street. A psychologist told the Post that the behavior of my young neighbors was "extremely fatalistic." "Once they start planning their own funerals, they have given up," he said. "They are not trying to conquer death anymore." But here is good news to report: So far, to my knowledge, all the children in the article are still living. Their funeral plans are on hold.
Yet it is easily forgotten how many children have been left fatherless by all the killing. Derek Williams had a son. Coy Mason had two children; Coy II was born the day before his father's funeral and was held up before the gathering. One neighbor said the scene reminded her of the moment in Roots when the baby Kunta Kinte, the future patriarch, is held aloft.
I wonder what destiny will call to Coy II if he grows up knowing that his father was gunned down by the police almost at the moment of his birth. What kind of legacy is that? I wonder what will happen to a five-year-old I know of who recently pointed to the courtyard at Kentucky Courts and said, "That's where my daddy got shot in the head."
One of my neighbors claims that more black men died in the D.C. area in the past decade than died in Vietnam. The statement isn't quite accurate, but it's close enough to make one realize how devastating the war in our streets has been. The list of black soldiers who died in Vietnam numbers around 7,000; the list of murder victims in the Washington area in the past decade or so numbers around 5,000, most of them black men. And there's a stigma attached to being one of D.C.'s fallen: people assume that you must have been doing something to invite your death. Your moral standing would be higher if you had been hit by a truck.
In 1995, before the Million Man March, Derek Williams and I and a few others made a T-shirt about the dead from around Kentucky Courts. LET THERE BE PEACE, it said. TOO MANY ARE MISSING. On the back were nine names: Ronald Jackson, 1962-1989; George "ET" Mimms, 1973-1990; Louis J. "Skip" Gilbert, 1972-1991; Tyrone Moore, 1970-1991; Jamal McCauley, 1973-1992; Coy Dontae Mason, 1972-1992; Reggie Plumber, 1969-1993; James "Nu-Nu" Roland, 1969-1993; Thaddeus Latta, 1972-1995.
The shirts became a memorial to those among the fallen who had no memorial. Many of the victims' friends wore them proudly; the shirts were a common sight in the neighborhood that year. Mothers and grandmothers also wanted shirts as keepsakes. As long as people were wearing the shirts, no one got killed, but this was probably coincidence. Eventually the killing picked up again, and for a while it was said after each death that we needed to make a new T-shirt. And then, recognizing that we weren't keeping up, people stopped saying that.
New killings came, but still there were few arrests, no trials. Nearby, at the Capitol, lawmakers railed on about law and order and how nobody is above the law. But our neighborhood slipped below the law, and the lawmakers didn't hear our gunshots.
is the author of which will be published this month.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors - 00.03 (Part Four); Volume 285, No. 3; page 72-86.