'Trying to Hold On' Amid The Despair of D.C.'s Streets

Monica Watts reads the obituary of her brother John. With her are Peaceoholics friends Gary Boykins, in back, and Marcus Alston.
Monica Watts reads the obituary of her brother John. With her are Peaceoholics friends Gary Boykins, in back, and Marcus Alston. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Robert E. Pierre and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 9, 2008

Monica Watts, two months out of high school, buried another brother this week.

She barely remembers her older brother Donald, who was killed during a robbery more than a decade ago. Her baby brother, John, 18, was shot to death July 25 in Forestville as he tried to rob an off-duty officer, Prince George's County police said. He was a year her junior but felt like her twin. She called him "Streets," and he belonged to the cohort most likely to be killed: young, black, male, involved with the criminal justice system.

Since 1989, the year Watts was born, 6,000 homicides have been recorded in the District. By her count, Watts, at 19, has lost more than a dozen relatives and friends to violence since 2003. One was stabbed; the others were shot. Two brothers. Two boyfriends. A host of other young men and women in their teens and 20s.

These were her people. They ran through the same alleys, attended the same schools and playfully fought with one another as kids. Her adolescence, like many of theirs, has been spent scrounging for enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, something to belong to. That's why they used their fists -- and sometimes more -- to fight for their small slice of the world in Woodland Terrace, a public housing complex east of the Anacostia River, in Southeast Washington.

Now, Watts is striving toward the life she dreams about for herself: the one with a college education, money in her pockets and a home to call her own. All around her there is despair, but Watts has a cadre of supporters betting she can overcome tall odds.

Thinking about life without John makes her sad. But at a vigil in his honor, the pragmatist in her told mourners that she had warned her brother that death or jail is what comes from chasing fast money. She misses her brother, searches for the right words to sum up the pain and settles on this.

"I'm just trying to hold on," Watts said, her voice as low as her spirits. "I'm tired."

Tired of deciding which photographs, fonts and colors to use on obituaries. Tired of planning funerals. Tired of carrying too much weight.

After killings in places such as Woodland Terrace, Trinidad and Anacostia, people such as Watts must piece together their lives. But finding safe harbor can be elusive when shootings and teddy bear memorials on light poles, trees and fences are a constant reminder of the carnage.

On a recent Saturday night, along Kenilworth Avenue in Northeast, children rode bicycles and motorized scooters under the streetlights. One 12-year-old boy said he'd already seen more than a dozen dead bodies. "It's hard to find peace," he said.

Living with death takes a toll, said David Bowers of No Murders D.C., an advocacy group that wants the city, and each of its agencies, to mount an all-out assault on murders.

"You got a lot of people walking around, traumatized or scared or angry or sad," Bowers said. "It's kind of an urban battleground. We never know how people's visions are limited when they live in an environment where bodies on the street are the norm."

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