Warring Gangs in District's Shaw Neighborhood Declare Truce
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Sixth Street NW was the dividing line for two warring gangs in the city's Shaw neighborhood -- the place where bullets flew in a rivalry that's been going on for years.
The gangs, the 7th and O and the 5th and O crews, shot at one another, sometimes injuring bystanders, and terrifying neighborhood residents who heard the gunfire at night and, increasingly, during the day.
"It was like entering a war zone," declared Rufus Youngblood, 30, who said he belonged to the 5th and O crew. "Crossing 6th Street was asking for it."
But on Thursday night members of the 5th and O crew crossed Sixth Street and walked onto the Kennedy Playground at Seventh and O. No shots were fired. Instead the gang members held hands in a unity circle and celebrated a truce: no more shootings, no more deaths.
"We've tried the streets," Youngblood said. "We're going to try something different this time."
City officials and neighborhood leaders expressed hope the agreement leads to a much quieter summer. Yesterday, as D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier launched a summer crime-fighting plan, she hailed the agreement brokered by the Alliance of Concerned Men, a nonprofit community group.
"We are there to support them with this," Lanier said.
Current and former crew members and other people from the neighborhood met in the playground's gym Thursday night with community leaders, including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), to talk about building job skills and finding ways to defuse conflicts.
"As much as people want to blame the youth, it really is us taking the lead and steering them in the right direction," Fenty said.
While crews have existed for years, gang fighting exploded last summer and has not slowed since, said Alexander Padro, 43, who has lived in Shaw for 10 years.
Last summer "was the first time I've heard daytime fire," he said. "To me, that was the first time it really became a concern."
Since then, Padro said, police cruisers became fixtures on most corners, neighbors limited their outdoor time, bloggers monitored the shootings and homeowners didn't repair bullet holes in their houses for fear of having to fix them again anyhow. So, the truce was good news for many Shaw residents, but he said they are waiting to see if it sticks.
"The longer we go without hearing six shots fired in the dark, the safer we will feel," Padro said.
The peace process began about a month ago and was led by a small group of Shaw men in their 30s, most of whom were once a part of these gangs. Many were already affiliated with the Alliance of Concerned Men, which has settled disputes in other neighborhoods -- most notably in a stretch of Southeast Washington where a 12-year-old boy was killed a decade ago.
Their mission became more imperative as violence escalated in the Shaw area this spring. Police statistics show the department responded to 128 violent crimes in the past year in Police Service Area 308, which includes the area most affected by crew violence. Those crimes included three homicides, four sexual assaults, 59 robberies and 62 assaults.
"This is as bad as it's ever been," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). From the gym, he pointed to nearby buildings that were the sites of two mid-afternoon drive-by shootings. "It had to stop."
Crews were once just groups of neighbors and friends, said Eric Perry, who described himself as part of the 5th and O crew in the 1990s. But then jealousy and hatred morphed into fighting. Guns followed closely behind.
"As a result of that, we went to jail," said Perry, a 33-year-old who served seven years for gun and drug possession, and now works for the Alliance of Concerned Men.
"We've got to stop this thing because we helped start it."
The first step was to contact crew members from both sides and persuade them to meet face to face. In that first meeting, the crew members realized they didn't know why they were fighting in the first place, said Tyrone Parker, co-founder and executive director of the alliance.
In addition to expressing anger verbally instead of physically, the crews outlined a plan to replace gang violence with something more substantial. Their Safe Streets crime initiative calls for mentoring from older community members, job training and employment programs, more education and programs to prevent gang violence.
"Once they sit down, the process has already begun," Parker said. "The challenge is, how do you really quit this?"
Staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this report.