Violence in SE Twice Shatters a Grandmother's Peace

Former D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), with her younger son, Gilbert. His son Russell Mitchell, 18, is charged with second-degree murder.
Former D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), with her younger son, Gilbert. His son Russell Mitchell, 18, is charged with second-degree murder. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

By the time a stray bullet killed Jon Allen Jr., a lot of people in Southeast Washington knew just who he was.

"I'm Sandy Allen's grandson," the 15-year-old liked to say.

Almost everyone in Southeast knows or has heard of Sandy Allen. She was born in the District, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, a one-time welfare mom of two sons who became a community activist and then a member of the D.C. Council until last year. A woman of stature and influence, from the neighborhood.

"Little Jon" was close to his grandmother, working on her political campaigns, tailing her at community meetings, doing vacuuming, dusting and other chores at her home. Until he was shot and killed on New Year's Eve. An innocent target, police say, of a neighborhood beef in which he played no part.

He died less than six months after another of Allen's beloved 11 grandchildren was arrested and charged with murder. Ever since he was jailed this summer -- accused of firing a stray bullet that killed a woman who was in her home watching television -- Russell Mitchell, 18, has called Allen twice a week as he waits for his trial.

One grandson dead, another locked up. Even in the neighborhoods where Allen is a household name, political connections and a tight family network offer little protection against the realities of street life. Right after Jon was killed, Allen had a heart attack. She says the grief and stress broke her heart.

"Bad things happen to anybody, anywhere," says Allen, 62. "It doesn't matter who you are. . . . There is no explanation. There is no way I can explain that Jon got killed because of this reason, and Russell is incarcerated for this reason. It's very hard."

She was barely out of the hospital when the funeral was held Jan. 10 at one of the city's most prominent churches, Allen Chapel AME Church on Alabama Avenue SE. The family, not related to the church's namesake, has worshiped for years at the place that calls itself "the Cathedral of Southeast." Frail-looking and emotionally spent, Allen sat in the front row watching a stream of people file slowly past her grandson's coffin.

The facts were familiar to many at the funeral: Some young men got into a fight. The trouble broke up, but not for long. Someone returned with a gun and brazenly sprayed the street with nearly 20 bullets -- in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon. Only one person was hit: "Little Jon," a bystander, shot in the stomach, who became the city's last homicide victim of 2005. Police have made two arrests but still are seeking the gunman.

Nearly 4,000 people came to the church to pay their respects.

Many were teenagers and children from Allen's grandson's neighborhood and her own, Washington Highlands. Dozens wore the all-too-familiar R.I.P. T-shirts commemorating Jon's life and death. Some cried, others clutched one another's arms.

A few rows from Allen sat a half-dozen D.C. Council members and political leaders, including council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Filling the other pews were neighborhood residents, many of them mothers and grandmothers who knew only too well how empty and lost Allen was feeling.


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