With memoir, D.C.’s Ron Moten is laughing all the way to the bookstore

Courtland Milloy
Columnist August 20, 2013

In a city known for its dogged and daring streetwise personalities — from Roger W. “Whitetop” Simpkins to Marion Barry — the irascible Ronald Moten is in a class by himself.

Moten was co-founder of a violence prevention nonprofit group that received more than $5 million in federal grants and city funds. No small feat for an ex-con who earned a high school diploma in prison. It was also a red flag for his political enemies — including Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). Add to that various government audits and newspaper investigations into how the group spent the money and you’d have to figure that if Moten had engaged in serious wrongdoing, his goose would be cooked by now.

He’s not even singed.

In fact, he stands to profit from the attempted takedowns, having pulled off what neither Simpkins, as czar of black gamblers in pre-home rule Washington, nor Barry, the city’s inimitable “mayor for life,” could do.

Moten wrote a book.


Ronald Moten is seen at a candidates’ forum March 13, 2012, in Southeast Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

“Drinking Muddy Water: The Streets, the Scandals, the Party of Lincoln” is a counterpunch of a memoir that, among other things, seeks to exonerate the group he founded with Jauhar Abraham — called the Peaceoholics — while indicting those who would besmirch his name.

The effort alone has to count for something. What kind of street dude fights back with a book?

“I hope the politicians who read this book understand their tricks must stop because most of them have forsaken everything they promised the people,” Moten wrote. “Once they take their hand off the Bible, they immediately abuse their power and become self-serving pigs at the public trough.”

The anger stems, in part, from the 2010 mayoral race. Moten supported the incumbent, Adrian Fenty, who was a fount of funding for the Peaceoholics. And he didn’t hold back in attacking Gray, Fenty’s rival. When Gray became mayor, Moten’s money dried up fast.

A city audit in 2011 found the Peaceoholics guilty of sloppy bookkeeping but not theft. Moten went on a tear, tweeting accusations that Gray had orchestrated the audit as payback.

This year, in response to a Washington Post investigation, Gray asked the Office of the Inspector General to find out why the city gave the Peaceoholics millions of dollars for renovation work that never got done. So far, however, neither Moten nor Abraham has been accused of wrongdoing. If anything, city officials have ended up looking incompetent for failing to provide oversight.

Moten, 43, is a fifth-generation Washingtonian with a remarkable personal story.

As a student at West Elementary School, he showed tremendous promise and received an honorable mention at a national science fair. But at Alice Deal Middle School, he became a “class clown and trouble maker.” And at Roosevelt High School, his behavior took a nose dive and he was expelled from the school.

Not long afterwards, he became involved in the District’s violent drug trade. A conviction on a drug charge earned him a cell at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn. He received the equivalent of a high school diploma there.

“I confess that I was part of the problem,” Moten wrote. “There was a time when I contributed to the destruction of my community. Now I am deeply committed to reducing incarceration and homicide rates, to ensuring that our forgotten youth finish school and go to college.”

The book includes many testimonials to good works done by the Peaceoholics, including Gray before the relationship soured. But it’s the living testimonials that really make the point.

On Monday, Moten played host to a showing of a historical documentary about the role of children in the civil rights movement. The event was held in Anacostia. Among the guests were two success-story sisters who had come to know Moten in their earlier years as girl gang members growing up in the neighborhood.

Davina Callahan, 22, had just graduated from Smith College with a master’s in clinical social work, having started college at 16. Madina Callahan, 24, had just graduated from Shaw University with a bachelor’s in communications. Both were graduates of Anacostia High in Southeast Washington.

“I would say Mr. Moten was like a mentor, a father figure, who showed us that there was more to life than fighting in the streets,” Davina Callahan said.

Peaceoholics has fallen on hard times, unable to get funding because of ongoing legal disputes. In June, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan sued Moten and Abraham for more than $700,000, accusing the two of understating how much they received in compensation from the nonprofit group on federal tax forms. According to Nathan, the alleged lie enabled them to receive more money from the city.

Moten denies the accusations and says he plans to file a $900,000 defamation suit against the city — not to mention use the slugfest to sell his memoir.

“If the city auditors want to go through my books again, they can start with the one I wrote,” Moten said. “Go line by line about the politicians. That’s where they’ll find the malfeasance and corruption.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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