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In a neighborhood of despair, Obama stays silent

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By Courtland Milloy
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; 10:27 PM

So President Obama made another surprise visit to a war zone -- this time to Southeast Washington for Easter services at Allen Chapel AME. But instead of addressing the battle-weary congregation, as he did with the troops in Afghanistan last month, Obama fell curiously silent.

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The president neither spoke nor shook hands, didn't wave or even turn around in his pew to smile at the 700 or so churchgoers who began arriving as early as 3 a.m. to see him.

Allen Chapel is less than a 10-minute drive from one of the city's worst shootings in recent memory. Five young black men were wounded and four killed in a drive-by shooting. You would think Obama could have taken to the pulpit and shouted: Enough already!

He had made a campaign promise to revitalize urban America, and what better way to make good on his word than declaring war on Depression-era jobless rates, Jim Crow-era incarceration rates and post-Reconstruction hopelessness and despair in his own back yard?

All we got instead was grainy video of him in muted communion while a fawning congregation acted as if he were the risen Christ and not a politician who owed them a debt.

Later that night, I canvassed the neighborhoods of Southeast looking for signs of any uplift and inspiration that the presidential visit might have spawned. What I found instead was another shooting -- in the 200 block of Atlantic Street SW, just around the corner from last week's deadly drive-by attack in the 4000 block of South Capitol Street.

"Winter is over, the streets are heating up," said Stephen Barnard, a member of the D.C. Air National Guard who lives in the neighborhood.

The victim was another young black man who D.C. police said had been hit in the abdomen. After he was taken to a hospital and the crime scene tape came down, I joined several people who had gathered near the spot where he had collapsed.

"We were having a backyard barbecue," one man said, still holding a sandwich for which he no longer had an appetite. It had been a traditional family gathering on a pleasant Easter afternoon -- ruined by gunfire.

Another man circled his van that was parked near the shooting. "Just checking for bullet holes," he said, sounding relived at having found none. A stray bullet could have taken an innocent life -- or disabled his vehicle, keeping him from getting to work and possibly costing him his job.

A third man looked down at the bloody sidewalk and said: "I don't want my children to see this. Aren't they supposed to put some kind of solvent down so people don't step in it?"

Obama speaks powerfully about his fatherly concerns, but it's unlikely that he has to worry about his girls stepping in a puddle of blood outside their front door.


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