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

Few Arrests, No Trials

I cannot attest to the nobility and innocence of the fallen I knew -- or thought I knew. In the neighborhood it's considered wise to leave some questions unasked. Don't ask about the killings and you won't get answers you don't want to hear.

The police in D.C. frequently close cases in ways that are called "administrative" or "by other means" -- that is, by means other than an arrest, such as when the prime suspect dies. But there is rarely a public accounting; we might never know or hear about it. A Freedom of Information Act request on such cases draws a polite response: the case is "closed" but "release of such information [the name of the alleged perpetrator] is prohibited because it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy."

The November 19, 1992, murder of Theodore Fulwood, the brother of the former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood, was "solved" administratively. Because it was a high-profile case, the Post provided details gleaned from court transcripts: Teddy Fulwood died in front of 308 Sixteenth Street, and the case is closed because according to the police, the prime suspects were later murdered. They say that one was Rowmann Dildy, who was killed in April of 1993, and the other was Rowmann's cousin, Thaddeus Latta, the last name on our T-shirt. Both were raised at that cursed address, 1722 Bay Street.

According to the Post, court transcripts say that Rowmann, eighteen, and Teddy Fulwood, forty-three, were involved in an "altercation ... over a drug transaction." Subsequently Rowmann and Thaddeus spotted Fulwood leaving a convenience store at the corner of Pennsylvania and Potomac Avenues at 3:00 a.m.; they jumped out of an alley with two handguns and shot him eleven times in the upper body and head. Thaddeus's friends at Kentucky Courts were quick to say that the police probably made up this story. Almost three years later, on June 23, 1995, Thaddeus, twenty-two, was killed at Fifteenth and C. His murder is unsolved.

I've heard about other information hidden in the police files; some of it scrambles my understanding of people I once saw every day. I had totally forgotten the July 3, 1996, murder of Antonio "Boo" Alexander, twenty-three, at Fifteenth and C. Or maybe I was away at the time. I had to ask people about this incident; Antonio's name didn't ring a bell. It appears in the Washington Post archives in connection with two incidents. A brief item on January 21, 1995, said that a warrant had been issued for Antonio's arrest as a "material fact witness" in the case of Jason White's murder. The Post said that Antonio appeared before a federal judge to swear that he had no information about the White case.

His name next appeared in the Post eighteen months later, three days after he was killed. Some in the neighborhood assume that he died because he was a witness in the White case. But those police files also say that his death is a closed case -- closed administratively, and for the usual reason.

When I heard the name of the alleged killer, it was a shock, even though I've come to expect surprises in the plague of violence. The police believe that the killer was someone I thought I knew well. He had told me that he had found God, and had talked about the harm that the street war was doing to the community. And then he himself was killed on these streets. I remember the sadness at his funeral. The place was packed. I guess some of us just didn't know the whole story.

Kill Over Anything

ACCORDING to the folklore of murder, most homicides occur between people who know each other. This is true on our streets. Who killed Joyce Ramonas? Word was that she must have known the person and let him in, because there was no sign of forced entry. He shot her in her bed on January 2, 1997. The police files say that there was a sexual angle, but that aspect of the case was never publicized.

And why so many dead from Bay Street? We need a better explanation for such mysteries, but I suspect that the problem is in the family, so to speak. We imagine that today's urban violence involves battles over territory -- turf. So it would seem that Bay Street people were warring against someone else -- and Bay Street kept losing. But the story is not so simple.

Gun battles I've heard about could have arisen from almost anything, or almost nothing, such as incidents at nightclubs or jealousy over girls. Our neighborhood often got shot up because bad guys were stealing money, dope, or guns from other bad guys. During one stretch back around 1993 all the big shootouts started at crap games. But that doesn't explain everything either.

Many of our warriors were deeply suspicious people. Their families were broken and dysfunctional. Their mothers were addicts; their fathers were nowhere to be found. Kids were shuffled around, raised by grandparents or aunts. This jumble helped to produce a deeply suspicious world, which might be expected when families crumble. We need mothers and fathers; without these archetypal relationships to guide us, our expectations for all relationships are damaged. So it was that those who sensed themselves abandoned by their mothers and fathers soon expected others to abandon them as well. That is how the theme that nobody cares could reverberate so.

I've seen kids who seem to be raising themselves -- among them a set of twins on C Street who were two years old at the time; I have never seen such independence so young. I cannot say it was good for toddlers to wander around so far from real nurturing. Eventually place becomes one's family. The fraternity of the young men who gathered in the courtyard at Kentucky Courts became the closest relationship some of them had.

The crews that gathered elsewhere were similar -- tight and not so tight at the same time. They were a potentially volatile combination of contradictions. The camaraderie of war could bond these young men at one moment, but their underlying suspicions about the treachery of others worked in the opposite direction. To them, women were "bitches" and "hos" -- and this lowdown talk bothered people who heard it leaping out from rap records. But it involved an unfortunate truth for many urban warriors; some of those I knew picked up the idea from watching their mothers.

On these streets we heard a common explanation for the killing and the turning on one another. My neighbors, who are not doctors or scientists, would cite laboratory studies of rats that turned hostile when crammed into too little space with too little food. These studies are part of urban folklore; even high school dropouts cite them. Thus our neighborhood is understood as a huge experiment in which we've all been crammed together in too little space with too few resources to go around.

Who is the enemy in a war like this? The warring laboratory rats are their own enemies. And my neighbors are largely killing one another, a generation tearing itself apart. Such is the prevailing level of mistrust that quick flashes of envy or suspicion can fuel homicide. We are always ready for puzzling events: recently, at the end of a car chase and shooting in which no one was killed, the victims crashed into a tree. Thereafter they insisted that they had no idea why anyone would shoot at them -- which is entirely possible. Didn't Henry "Little Man" James shoot at someone in a car simply because he felt like it?

So it may seem that people are being killed for no reason, but we look for order and logic or any thread of sense we can find. On June 30, 1989, Angela "Daughter" Jones, a fifty-five-year-old woman, died after being gunned down in her home on the 1700 block of Massachusetts Avenue because, the story goes, she had quite accidentally witnessed another slaying nearby. In the strange way of our neighborhood, her death made sense: a witness was silenced.

I did not know Angela Jones, but I feel connected to her in ways that are possible only in a violent place. She is part of a chain of events I now know about because of the claims hidden in those police files: I now realize that in 1993 I saw the dead body of the person who the police believe killed her. And the chain did not stop there. In 1997 I saw the body of the person the police files say was responsible for the killer's death -- and both these people were raised on the 1700 block of Bay Street. They were supposed to be on the same side. But so it goes in our great experiment.

WHY am I not surprised to find that studies on urban violence say witnessing violence begets more violence? Of course it does. Does it require a Ph.D. to discover this? Bring us peace and it will surely beget more peace. Some people I know wonder why I follow these deaths so closely. It seems unnatural. Why don't I just move -- the sensible thing? But I am a journalist, and after more than twenty-five years this has shaped my habits. Journalists follow fire engines and go to shooting scenes.

Watching closely, I sense my community becoming ever more numbed, trying to push the reality of these deaths away. But the strategy doesn't work. This past June 4, Dennis Dolinger, a community activist and another friend, was murdered in his home, three blocks from mine. The police said it was an awful scene; they couldn't tell if Dennis had been shot or beaten to death. Initially they insisted that the murder was not drug-related, and they found no signs of forced entry. Mayor Anthony Williams, the former mayor Marion Barry, and other local dignitaries spoke at the memorial service for Dennis. In January blood evidence led to a murder charge against Raymond Jenkins, who, court papers say, was seen with items reportedly taken from Dolinger's house.

On November 27 of last year the bloodshed returned to Fifteenth and D, where Paul Watkins and David Smith had been killed in February. At 3:15 on a post-Thanksgiving Saturday afternoon persons unknown in a burgundy vehicle opened fire -- one shooter with an AK-47 -- on Deandre Ray and Jumar Adarr, two teenagers who were sitting in a 300ZX sports car. Ray was dead on arrival at the hospital.

Ray's mother, who lived a block away, rushed to the scene. Her screams stood out in the cacophony of sirens. That's a detail I expect to remember.

But now I am battling against the inevitable: many of these cases will soon cross over into the netherworld of the forgotten. What little significance they once had will evaporate. And though it's in human nature to forget, to move on, it just doesn't seem right to do so easily. On several occasions I have put up posters about the killings. In 1998 I put up one that listed six unsolved murders and asked, "Why no arrests?" Nothing happened; my reward was that neighbors said they had wondered about that too. Some credited me for caring. After the February 13 double homicide last year, I made another poster: it featured Frederick Douglass saying "Stop the killing!" What would Douglass think of a generation that is killing itself off in the prime of life?

I also called the Fox TV show America's Most Wanted. I thought it might help to put the issue of violence in perspective if one Saturday night John Walsh, the program's host, said, "We need your help tonight in solving eighteen murders in a neighborhood a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol." That's all I wanted.

America's Most Wanted sent a TV crew and a reporter named Lena Nozizwe from Los Angeles. She walked our streets and talked to neighbors about the killings. Some neighbors stared incredulously at her. She looked like a movie star to them. The surviving members of the gang in black hoods chose to slink away, which seemed a strange response. When I teased Lena Nozizwe that Fox TV had sent Hollywood to interview us, she protested. She said that she had been born in a hut in a village in Malawi, and that her family had come to America when she was a child.

I've been asking myself what Frederick Douglass would think. One might also wonder what Lena Nozizwe thinks about the warfare in my neighborhood. She comes from Africa and has done eminently well; she looks at herself as living proof that you can achieve what you want to in life. Yet many of my neighbors can't see any possibilities beyond the corners where they live and die. How crazy is that? For the moment I am embarrassed.

What good thing can I say about my country?

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

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 (Part Four); Volume 285, No. 3; page 72-86.