At a candlelight vigil for a homicide victim, held last week in the courtyard of a housing complex in Southeast Washington, Peaceoholics co-founder Ron Moten delivered the kind of eulogy few speakers could get away with.
“If we don’t start fighting for what’s right instead of fighting each other, then we need to have our butts kicked,” Moten told residents gathered around him in Woodland Terrace.
A few days earlier, inside a nearby apartment, 20-year-old Alphonzo Epps had been stabbed to death during a confrontation with a girlfriend.
You’d think Moten’s stern words at a memorial service would have displeased the mourners. But the longer he spoke, the larger the gathering became, swelling to more than 200 and pressing closer to hear him.
Moten’s unvarnished style has proved less effective in his bid to restore city funding, which was recently cut off amid allegations that millions of dollars allocated to his conflict resolution group had been misspent or was unaccounted for.
To express his indignation at losing the funding, Moten has turned up at community meetings and shouted at city officials. He has not helped himself by making statements that some have interpreted as veiled threats, such as his prediction that the city will experience a “long, hot summer” if Peaceoholics did not get more money.
On the other hand, a D.C. audit of Peaceoholics has dragged on and, so far, no report has been issued substantiating the allegations. Moten, for his part, has apologized for his intemperate behavior.
“I spoke with great passion because of what I saw being ignored before my very eyes,” Moten said last week while testifying at a budget hearing before the D.C. Council. “I now recognize that my passion steered council members away from my serious message and placed more attention on me as the messenger.”
No doubt Moten has something of a hustlers’ streak and rubs many people the wrong way. But if he sometimes has difficulty transitioning from a streetwise persona to a more suite-wise sophisticate, at least part of the problem could be a result of the vast distance between the worlds he’s seeking to bridge.
Earlier this year, Moten persuaded singer Stevie Wonder to attend an event at Ballou High in Southeast and pledge $100,000 to the peacemaking cause.
Last week, Moten donned a suit and tie and chaired a meeting about gang activity at Judiciary Square for the D.C. Commission on Black Men and Boys. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who founded the commission in 2001, introduced Moten as “a man with unusual experience, well-known for his effective works.”
Not long afterward, he was wearing street clothes and attending the vigil in Woodland Terrace.
“I invited him to speak because so many kids out here know him,” Jimmie Epps, Alphonzo Epps’s mother, told me. “He worked hard trying to help my son.”
As the vigil got underway, some young men moved out of the shadowy cuts between apartment buildings to pay their respects while others sank deeper into the darkness. In some areas around the housing complex, the air was so thick with the acrid smell of PCP and marijuana that infants would catch a whiff of the smoke and begin to whimper and cry.
Some teenage girls came to the vigil dressed as if going to a party, with six-inch spiked heels and skirts with hems just as high above the knees.
“How many of you are tired of seeing mothers and siblings in mourning?” Moten asked. Hands went up; heads hung down.
“Then how many of you have changed your ways?” he added sternly. “It’s time for the brothers to step up and start doing the right thing. The sisters have been carrying the weight of raising these babies by themselves for too long.”
The majority of young men present were high school age or in their early 20s; only a handful of the mourners looked old enough to be a father.
But they still nodded when Moten spoke. And whether they agreed with him or not, they obviously respected him enough to keep listening.