In Deanwood,violent crime overshadowsGray matters

Courtland Milloy
Columnist March 11

At a crime prevention meeting in Northeast Washington on Monday, no one mentioned what was supposedly the big crime news of the day: a guilty plea in federal court by corrupt campaign financier Jeffrey E. Thompson and his allegation that D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray had been involved in an illegal “shadow campaign” to win election in 2010.

But the lack of outrage wasn’t because residents didn’t care about political corruption, as some D.C. bashers would probably say. It’s just that some residents of the city’s largely working-class black neighborhoods have bigger crimes to worry about — even if those crimes don’t always make the front pages.

“I want to report a situation that is still developing,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said at the community meeting in Deanwood. “There may have been a second attempted sexual assault on the footbridge on Minnesota Avenue.”

In parts of the city east of the Anacostia River — the District’s great socioeconomic divide — residents are experiencing a nerve-racking spike in violent crime. There has been an increase in shootings, stickups, stray bullets and stabbings.

In matters of life and death on the streets, it’s not Gray who counts. It’s Lanier.

The attempted sexual assaults had occurred following a sexual assault March 1 near the footbridge. That one occurred with the assailant threatening that he had a gun. There had also been a spate of homicides in the area, including the shooting deaths Feb. 28 of two men who were standing outside a church just a few blocks from where Monday’s meeting was being held.

“I know people are tired of this nonsense,” Lanier said to a standing-room-only crowd inside the Deanwood Recreation Center.

Residents living in more affluent neighborhoods, where personal safety is largely taken for granted, may find it hard to imagine just how tired. Or harder still, to imagine why it would make sense to keep Gray in office if dumping him would risk losing or even distracting the police chief at such a crucial time.

It would have nothing to do with keeping a black man as mayor, as the conspiracy theorists would likely say, but keeping Lanier, who happens to be white.

You’d have to walk the footbridge to better understand.

The path leads to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, which is regarded by Metro police as the most dangerous of Washington’s stations. Many women use the route to get to work; girls walk it to get to school. Forgive them for paying more attention to what dangers may be lurking in the shadows along the footpath than to some “shadow campaign” for mayor.

“I see groups of teenagers hanging out around a school,” a woman said at the meeting. “Don’t they have curfews?”

Another asked Lanier to put a police substation inside the recreation center. “We’ve had violence in the building,” the resident said. “The rec manager has been threatened.”

A minister stood and declared, “There is evil out here.”

Of course, residents also understood, as one put it, that “it’s not the police’s job to raise our kids.” Another called on the men of the community to form a crime-fighting coalition, take back the streets and restore order to their neighborhoods.

Deanwood is a historically black neighborhood, home to an extraordinary array of civic-minded residents. But among the upstanding residents live many a troubled child and young adult, most of them raised by impoverished, young single mothers.

“My biggest problem is getting parental involvement,” Lanier said to nods of understanding.

But she vowed to fight on, with or without it.

The meeting was attended by Lanier, commanders from the 6th Police District, which includes Deanwood, and Paul A. Quander Jr., deputy mayor for public safety and justice. Much of the two hours was spent discussing ways to expand the communications network between police and residents that Lanier had been working on for years.

The fruits of her efforts were duly noted.

“I want to thank you for getting rid of the prostitution at 63rd and Eastern Avenue,” one attendee told the chief.

Another drew hearty applause when he said, “The city has never looked better since you were in charge.”

Residents boasted about their roles as the “police on my block” and “eyes of the community,” knowing that they could count on D.C. police for backup.

On Tuesday night, Gray gave his State of the City address at a school about a mile from the Minnesota Avenue Metro. He boasted of adding more police officers and working hard to “make the city safer.”

Any applause for that was probably not meant for him.

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