Class Conflict Takes Its Toll in Southeast

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When an off-duty D.C. police officer shot and killed a 14-year-old boy suspected of stealing a minibike last week, red flags of suspicion went up all over town. The kid was from a tough neighborhood in Southeast, a block or two from where the black cop lived in a gated community called Walter E. Washington Estates.

Class warfare among African Americans had taken a deadly turn. Or so it seemed.

Just the label -- gated community -- conjures images of elitists who turn up their noses at the common folk. Low-income blacks are especially vulnerable to such slights and exclusion. The income gap between rich and poor blacks now exceeds the gap between blacks and whites. And those blacks who have made it increasingly blame the less-fortunate ones for their failure to keep up.

Surely an estate of fine townhouses surrounded by a wrought-iron fence with spike-tipped bars would be home to such snobs.

Not really.

In fact, many residents of Washington Estates are first-time home buyers and first-generation college graduates. They tend to be active in the civic life of the neighborhood and volunteer as mentors and tutors. Nevertheless, the gated community, named for the District's first modern mayor, has been under siege since the day it opened in 1999.

"In the past three to four weeks, there have been approximately 10 to 15 unsolved acts of vehicular vandalism and theft against members of our community," Gregory Kendall, president of the 400-plus-member homeowners association, wrote in a recent letter to D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. "Our members have been car-jacked and robbed at gunpoint as they exit or enter their homes. Trespassing, alcohol and drug use and sexual activity occur on our property with increasing regularity."

Vandals and thieves easily slip over the fence; some are so scrawny they just squeeze through the bars. "The bottom line is, we're under attack," Kendall said.

Quite literally, it often seems.

"During one episode, I see these kids standing outside the fence throwing rocks through my windows and the windows of my neighbors' homes," Joe Madison, a radio talk show host on WOL-AM, told me. "When I yelled at them, they ran into a church on the corner. I found them in a room with their football coach, getting ready for practice. So I confronted them and the coach, and a lot of it stopped after that."

But not all of it.

Homeowners James Haskel and Anthony Clay -- both off-duty D.C. police officers, both armed with department-issued 9mm Glocks -- went looking for the stolen minibike about 7 p.m. Sept. 17, police have said. They said they spotted DeOnte Rawlings on the bike, and Haskel confronted him. Shots were fired. Haskel said he was fired on first. When the smoke cleared, DeOnte lay dead. Clay had not drawn his weapon.

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