So many places to die in dc
in a car
on the bus
on the corner
with a mother
only a whisper away…
Those are words from a poem titled “Dying” that I wrote in the 1980s. I pulled it out this week after learning of the murder of 11-year-old Karon Brown, following what appears to have been a brawl at a McDonald’s in Ward 8. His death caused me to reflect on the distance the city has traveled over the past three decades.
Sadly, in some communities far too little has changed; things may have gotten worse. It’s hard to understand the mindset of a 29-year-old man who would, as is alleged, chase down the car that Karon had jumped into hoping to escape the violence. It’s even more difficult to fathom that a grown man also would deliberately fire multiple shots into that vehicle with the intent of harming that child. Instead of quelling an argument that began among children, he and other adults exacerbated the conflict, eventually becoming directly involved.
Who are these people? Have they no decency, no morals or values? Does not a life, particularly a young life, mean anything?
DC Police Chief Peter Newsham and his officers subsequently found the shooting suspect, Tony Antoine McClam, standing on the platform of the Columbia Heights Metro station; reportedly when he was arrested, he was carrying a 9mm cartridge in his pocket. Presumably any other adults who were involved will be held accountable, too.
The chief and Mayor Muriel Bowser have asserted that there are too many guns on DC’s streets. They have implemented an aggressive campaign to reduce the number of illegal weapons, including pleading with residents to identify those who possess them. This week the mayor encouraged residents to install security cameras on their homes, serving as an additional surveillance network for law enforcement.
Bowser can point to those actions as an indication that her administration is serious and that the government is doing something. In fairness, the mayor and DC Council have sought to tackle the problem of random crime and unexplained violence in the city.
They launched the highly touted Cure the Streets. Run out of the Office of the Attorney General, that program dispatches so-called violence interrupters to target neighborhood hotspots to prevent potential conflicts. The DC Council also appropriated millions of dollars to establish the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE), which is supposed to help “address violence in the District while assisting families dealing with the grief and trauma caused by these occurrences.” Additionally, at Bowser’s request, legislators set aside money in the 2020 budget for three trauma centers based in communities east of the Anacostia River.
Attorney General Karl Racine has announced that starting today and continuing through Monday, there will be a series of community meetings to explain the inner workings of Cure the Streets.
“Any gun-related death in the District is unacceptable, but it is particularly heartbreaking when the victim is a child. The number of shootings and homicides this year have ravaged our community with trauma and grief and will have a profound and long-term impact on their well-being,” Racine told me via email. He said Cure the Streets violence interrupters currently are working in two defined sites in wards 5 and 8; he is looking “forward to expanding to other areas in our city with high level of shootings and homicides in order to save lives.”
That sounds good. However, the problem of violence confronting this city and other urban centers is far more complex than just removing guns or adding new territory for the interrupters. “Until adults assume our rightful position in our community and within our families, we will continue to experience chaos,” David Miller, founder and director of the organization Dare to Be King Project, recently asserted on Facebook. A nonprofit organization, Dare to Be King has been focused on the development and empowerment of young boys of color in the United States and parts of Africa.
It’s worth noting that Karon, with his 12-year-old brother, had been sent to buy food for an older sister. Why didn’t she accompany them? Where were their parents? Could their presence have saved Karon’s life?
“We are witnessing generations of youth who don’t feel loved, appreciated and valued. The solutions must be grounded in community and family,” Miller continued. (I have known Miller for more than a decade.)
What he calls for requires hard work, especially since so many parents lack the skills needed to properly rear and guide their children. Equally important, if the violence is not in their backyard, the average District resident shrugs it off, declining to get involved. It’s so much easier to point the finger at what the government hasn’t done.
While people are casting around to assign blame, children and childhood in America are fast becoming endangered species. In 2018, 54 District children were injured in gun violence. By July 18, as many as 31 children already had been shot in DC — 15 of them in Ward 8, according to published reports.
Add 17-year old Ahkii Washington-Scruggs and Karon Brown to the list. Karon’s funeral was held earlier this week.
“Time and time again, unfortunately, we have seen people who are willing, who demonstrate, who have histories of callous disregard for human life — people who have a willingness to snatch the innocence of childhood from our kids and our community,” Bowser said at the time of McClam’s arrest.
Not unlike national leaders, local officials have declared their hearts and prayers go out to the victims of violence. They lament the sudden end of a life of promise or potential. And then, they move on to the next thing.
That presents an opportunity for new lines to my old poem: So many places to die in DC: at a McDonald’s, trying to buy a Big Mac and fries// at the ice cream truck trying to get a dreamsicle// on the playground in the swing low sweet chariot…
We have seen the teddy bears and flowers on corners and in front of buildings — makeshift altars to the dead. We have read scribbled RIP signs. Some of us have attended community vigils, replete with lighted candles and various sundry accusations about the inadequacy of the policing.
There are other children who have survived the violence. Some have been left paralyzed, however; others are psychologically wounded, living in fear of the next time — when they may not be lucky enough to dodge a bullet.
The homicide totals do not include the children who have determined their future is hopeless and killed themselves. It does not include those who have resorted to drugs to self-medicate as they try to cope with the challenges or ravages of their daily lives. It does not include those who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been forced to trade sex for some of the basic necessities.
The children who are not murdered and who manage to stay alive are unable to unabashedly experience and embrace the joys of being children. They are in fear’s grip. “In D.C., it’s nothing but people trying to take your life away,” Ahkii wrote before he and his father were shot in their home.
In his book Race Matters, scholar Cornel West tackled the issue of nihilism among African Americans. Comparing it to alcoholism and drug addiction, he called it a “disease of the soul. … Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by love and care.”
A love ethic, he continued, is the “last attempt at generating a sense of agency among a downtrodden people.” West further argued that the nihilistic threat can only be subdued at the ground level, by those who have the “audacity” to take it “by the neck and turn back its deadly assaults.”
When I was a young girl, our family owned a lovely Siamese cat named Annie. Whenever she gave birth, she would invariably eat one of the kittens from the litter. We couldn’t understand why. But my siblings and I helped our grandmother take turns guarding those kittens and protecting Annie from her reckless actions.
Who will protect DC’s children?
“We are conditioned to believe that police, probation and social services will address these challenges,” Dare to Be King’s Miller wrote. “Most of [those] entities while well intended are not equipped to address what we are dealing with.”
The job, therefore, is ours collectively. What role are you prepared to assume?
This article was first published at DCLine.org