Shootings outside National Zoo came amid rising tensions in Southeast Washington

The trouble had been building.

It began with a fight among girls at an April 12 party in Northeast Washington. The next day, a group retaliated by jumping a man from Benning Terrace, a housing project nearby. Then came a tip about an afternoon showdown between the rivals planned for the National Zoo.

“They Going To The Zoo TO Fight,” read one message posted on Twitter on April 14.

That evening, according to police, a youth fired shots into the air down the street from the zoo’s entrance in Woodley Park. A week later, on busy Easter Monday, a gunman fired into a crowd in front of the zoo, injuring two teenagers.

Authorities have not determined a direct link between the simmering violence east of the Anacostia River and the subsequent disturbances near the zoo. But the shootings have sparked a debate about Easter Monday at the zoo, a tradition for African American families and now an event that attracts families from across the city.

The day often draws teenagers who come to spend time with their friends. At times, violence has erupted. Now, some are calling for an end to the celebration altogether.

On Easter Monday in 2000, a young gunman wounded seven people outside the zoo after a petty dispute over a song and a slight that started inside the attraction. The wounded included youths ages 11 to 17, with the youngest suffering permanent brain injuries. In 2011, also on Easter Monday, one youth stabbed another at the zoo.

This month’s shootings have also prompted two community meetings at opposite ends of the District, with people from affluent Northwest Washington concerned that east-of-the-river violence has spilled over the Anacostia. Those in Southeast Washington are worried about youths without jobs and structured activities destroying their own neighborhoods over turf battles and petty beefs. The two meetings illustrated the complicated balance that police, community leaders and public officials face in trying to manage the expectations and desires of city residents — regarding the incidents at the zoo and much more.

Law-enforcement officials said they tried to monitor the escalating violence as it was happening. Capt. Lance B. Ware, with the Metro Transit Police, told residents at the meeting in Woodley Park that D.C. police shared intelligence that groups wanted to fight at the zoo on April 14 and last Monday. On both dates, zoo police ejected several groups for disruptive behavior. Metro Transit Police later tracked the groups as they continued a path of rowdiness along Metro lines in Northwest and Northeast. Groups of kids traveled to Gallery Place, Union Station and then H Street — and were disruptive along the way, Ware said. A group of 30 to 50 young people jumped the gates at the U Street/Cardozo Metro station more than two miles away.

“Basically, they went from one end of the city to the other carrying on,” Ware said. “It was a tough day.”

On Monday, Terrell Wilson, chief of the zoo police, said his officers “embedded” D.C. officers on horses and bikes and again ejected large groups of unruly people who were pushing, shoving and cursing. After the shootings outside the gates, Ware said groups walked to Dupont Circle and to Foggy Bottom, but police kept them off Metro trains because of their rowdy behavior. Ware said the people boarded eastbound buses and left.

The gunman who shot the two teenagers Monday escaped amid the chaos. Police say the victims were targeted. But authorities have been unable to determine a motive or whether they or the shooter are members of rival groups.

At least two people attended both meetings — Ronald Moten, a longtime outreach activist and co-founder of the defunct Peaceoholics, and Woodley Park resident Sonya Hochevar. Moten said he was surprised by how many in Woodley Park supported continuing family day at the zoo, but he warned residents in Southeast that mayhem will not be tolerated.

“They don’t want that in their neighborhood, and I don’t blame them,” Moten said at Thursday’s meeting at the Anacostia Library sponsored by the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative. “But there were a lot of people there advocating for us, to make sure we don’t shut down African American day at the zoo.”

Moten said it’s not about Southeast vs. Northwest, or Ward 3 vs. Ward 8, or even about the zoo.

“We have to start engaging the entire community,” he told the group, adding later in an interview that people need to learn why violence ended up at their doorsteps — issues of neglect, lack of engagement and mediation with young people to offer alternative paths and outlets for fun. “If people have conflicts with each other, see each other, it doesn’t matter what the place is. It’s going to happen.”

Hochevar said she was disappointed that the meeting in Woodley Park on Wednesday was heavily attended by news media and police officials but that the Anacostia meeting did not generate as much interest.

“The question is whether people are concerned and willing to work on it on a city-wide level or if everything is okay as long as it’s ‘not in my backyard,’ ” she wrote in an e-mail after the meeting. She said she couldn’t help but notice the differences in attitudes from different neighborhood residents: In Woodley Park, many participants said “violence didn’t happen” or that they were not used to these “kinds of incidents.” In Anacostia, she said, residents expressed heartache and exasperation about having these conversations all year long.

“We ALL need a mindset and culture change,” she wrote.

The challenges of ending long-simmering feuds was evident at Thursday’s meeting in Anacostia.

As leaders jotted down ideas, about 20 youths abruptly left the room, in pairs and trios, silently but deliberately. Asst. D.C. police Chief Diane Groomes and 7th District Cmdr. Robin Hoey darted out behind them.

A neighborhood crew had arrived and was taunting a rival group through the window, according to activists and police officials. Authorities quickly defused the tension, and mediators loaded the youths into vans and drove them away.

“We lost our young people, I’m afraid,” said Dionne Reeder, who led the meeting.

“But they came, and that means they’re reaching out for help,” responded Moten, the activist who had attended the session in Woodley Park the day before.

Leaders of the collaborative said they have used grant money to respond to at least 25 critical incidents — including shootings and fights in schools — since November, paying for grief counseling and funding for funerals in neighborhoods such as Barry Farm and Woodland.

On the table was a three-page wish list, some of the ideas lofty: access to recreation, jobs programs and teaching parents to be better. Others were more concrete: studio time for budding rappers, musicians, models and artists, providing food for hungry people at events and mentoring programs.

A Department of Parks and Recreation official said studio time will be provided at a Deanwood facility for Ward 8 residents and that the department has 138 job openings awaiting applicants. The Alliance of Concerned Men offered mentors, and Reeder promised that an e-mail chain would be created within a week.

But, unlike what some Woodley Park residents have said, nowhere was there a suggestion to cancel the Easter Monday family day.

“Shutting down programs like the Easter Monday event is not the answer,” Hochevar wrote. “This same week, the Boston Marathon went on after last year’s tragedy. The history of shutting down programs, particularly for communities of color, instead of working towards strengths- and community-based solutions, is part of the problem.”

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Clarence Williams is the night police reporter for The Washington Post and has spent the better part of 13 years standing next to crime scene tape, riding in police cars or waking officials in the middle of night to gather information about breaking news in and around Washington.
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