In all my days as a youth worker in Southeast Washington, I had never seen anything like it: Three teenagers were gunned down in a horrific drive-by shooting, a tragedy now called the South Capitol Street Massacre.
A domino effect of senseless violence had led to a vicious blood bath and dozens of questions about who and what was to blame. One week after the March 2010 shootings, my co-worker and I hung a school picture of Brishell Jones, 17, the youngest and only female fatality, on the wall of our office. We needed a constant reminder of her smile when we questioned our desire to serve youths who were so coldhearted and ruthless.
At the time, I worked as a juvenile justice program manager, just down the street from South Capitol and Brandywine Street SE, where the teens were killed.
This week, as a jury contemplates the fate of the young men allegedly responsible, I still remember how haunting it was to think that young people like the ones whom I had committed myself to serving could spray a street full of pedestrians with bullets.
The shootings made me doubt the value of grass-roots community efforts like ours. I couldn’t help but feel betrayed by my own idealism. What power did mentoring and arts programs have in the context of such immense evil and systemic failure? How would community trust be restored, especially after we learned that Brishell, DaVaughn Boyd, 18, William Jones III, 19 — and Tavon Nelson, 17 , who was killed minutes earlier, allegedly by the same men — had all died because of a dispute over a missing bracelet?
Many of us realized in the aftermath of the shootings that something systematic had to be done to save our children. We knew the gunmen’s complete disregard for human life reflected a larger societal problem, the glamourization of homicide and a fixation with revenge.
The tragedy also showed how little regard the gunmen had for their own lives and futures.
Perhaps what was most eye-opening about the tragedy was the realization that many of us, as social activists, didn’t understand the psychology of the young people we were servicing in the ways that we thought we did.
The South Capitol shootings gave me the reality check of a lifetime. I knew I could no longer put Band-Aids on deeply embedded societal wounds. I came to believe that my work was reaching young people too late.
But there was inspiration to be found in those who refused to give up. In those days after the shootings, when the community was still raw with pain, Brishell’s mother, Nardyne Jefferies, made copies of her daughter’s school photo. She passed the copies out to those of us who had gathered at a town hall meeting three days after the tragedy.
In the following weeks, Ms. Jefferies remained intent on forcing the District to grapple with the harsh reality of a youth culture of violence, holding up a picture of Brishell’s bullet-filled corpse at city council hearings. She wanted everyone in the District to have before and after images of her slain daughter.
As a result of her tireless efforts in conjunction with others’, the D.C. Council passed the South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012. Approved just 10 days before the two-year anniversary of the shootings, it expands mental-health services to young people and strengthens truancy regulations, among other important improvements to the systems charged with helping children.
Like all of us, Jefferies knows that nothing will bring her child or any of the other victims back. Nothing will completely restore that community’s sense of invasion and brokenness. But solace should be found in the lives of young people that we are better equipped to save.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.
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