It wasn’t that late, only 10:30 p.m. on Labor Day. The city neighborhood wasn’t one that’s considered dangerous: Mount Vernon Square in Northwest, by the famous Carnegie Library and the Convention Center. There was plenty of traffic around.
So Trell Thomas, on his 26th birthday, wasn’t nervous as he waited on the street for the No. 71 bus to take him home. Crime hadn’t touched him since he moved to the District last year. He frequently walks or rides buses and Metrorail around the city by himself, including at night.
This evening was different, and it illustrated why qualms about living downtown linger even in a city where crime has dropped.
About 10 youths surrounded Thomas as he stood in the bus shelter. One standing to his right, who appeared to be the leader, suddenly struck him in the cheek, breaking his jaw. Then the youths pounded him with their fists as he ran away, stumbling, up a busy street.
“At least six were hitting me. Every time I got away from one fist, there was another one,” said Thomas, speaking in an interview through clenched teeth because his jaw was still wired shut.
“I said, ‘Please, please stop,’ ” he recalled. “I was almost choking on blood.”
The assailants pursued him for about two blocks north on Seventh Street. Along the way, they began demanding that he hand over a leather suitcase he was carrying. Twice, he tried to flag down drivers to help, but they were too scared to get involved. One woman responded by checking to make sure her car doors were locked, he said.
Thomas finally escaped, still with his suitcase, by running into the Mount Vernon Square Metro station, where a transit police officer helped him. A friend came and drove him to George Washington University Hospital. His jaw now contains three titanium plates. He’ll have them for the rest of his life.
Thomas’s mugging didn’t make the news. Usually it takes a homicide, a sexual violation or some kind of juvenile involvement for a case to attract public attention.
Nevertheless, Thomas’s experience is much more common than any of those more publicized crimes. Such random, violent acts, often involving a robbery or attempted robbery, remain a major bane of urban living. In addition to causing physical injury and financial loss, they create an atmosphere of fear that just won’t go away.
Metro Transit Police, who are heading the investigation because the assault began at a bus stop, don’t have any leads. Thomas said that the youths appeared to be ages 16 to 18.
Metro said violent crimes are rare within its system, but the D.C. police Web site shows how frequently they occur elsewhere.
In the department’s 1st District, where Thomas was initially attacked, there have been 325 robberies this year in which a gun was not used and 180 assaults with a dangerous weapon other than a gun. That compares with six homicides.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans, whose Ward 2 includes the site of Thomas’s mugging, said such assaults are rare but that three gangs operate nearby: the crews known as 7th and O, 5th and O, and 10th and R. “That corridor is many times safer than it ever has been, but it’s still an inner-city neighborhood,” Evans said.
The assault on Thomas was especially poignant because he works at a nonprofit organization helping teenagers just about the age of his attackers. He runs internship and fellowship programs to encourage young people to get involved in issues such as immigrant rights, health care, and racial and social justice.
Thomas didn’t want his employer to be identified in the newspaper, for fear that the guilty parties might find it easier to track him down. But he did want to speak out — not to condemn his attackers but to call attention to whatever drove them to behave that way. “I don’t want to be angry with them,”Thomas said. “It just concerns me that their future is being taken away from them, by them, so early.”
He continued: “I’ve already got the bruises and stuff. I want to put a message out that we hear you. . . . We don’t want you to be out here robbing people and hurting people to displace your anger, or to feel that this is what you need to do to get food on the table, or to get the help and attention that you deserve, or to have a bond by attacking people together.”
That’s a remarkably charitable attitude. I regret to say that a more common one is probably that of the first driver whom Thomas stopped in the street to appeal for help.
“The first guy, you could see the fear in his eyes,” Thomas recalled. “He sped off. He just punched the gas.”
I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).