As bad as the Metro melee was, it could've been much worse

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fisticuffs? Dozens of people get into a fight in downtown D.C. and everybody turns out to be a pugilist or kickboxer? No guns, no knives, no deaths; a melee without mayhem on a Metro subway car? Looks like progress to me.

"We're seeing a decline in the use of guns in all crimes -- especially homicide, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon," D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier told me after the fight, which occurred about 11 Friday night near the Gallery Place entertainment area. "I think our focus on getting guns off the street is having an impact."

Ordinarily, it's not news when something doesn't happen that shouldn't happen anyway. But in a city with a long history of trivial disputes turning deadly, it's at least worth noting that a fight of this magnitude did not.

Metro Transit Police said that at least 70 people were involved in the fracas -- a moveable feast of fists and feet that began after authorities dispersed a group of teens near Gallery Place and that continued to the next stop at L'Enfant Plaza.

Remarkably, only four people were injured seriously enough to warrant medical treatment. And just three were arrested -- on relatively minor charges: two juveniles (disorderly conduct) and an adult (simple assault).

In a city long demoralized by epidemic gun violence, old-timers are fond of reminiscing about how, back in the day, we settled beefs with our fists, not firearms.

This latest specter of riders gone wild on Metro will probably make such romantic notions more difficult to sustain. And yet, no AK-47 assault rifle was involved, no 12-gauge shotgun, no 9mm or .45-caliber or .380 semiautomatic handgun. Those were just some of the weapons confiscated by D.C. police after a shooting in March that left three dead and six wounded along South Capitol Street SE in a revenge killing supposedly about a bracelet that was presumed to have been stolen.

Lanier is right about gun crimes falling sharply, but there are still a lot of guns in the hands of some very disturbed people. Be thankful that somebody did not shoot up that train.

In June, there was another fight on a Metro car involving large numbers of young riders. A group of teenagers badly beat another youth. But again -- no firearms, no knives, no deaths.

To prevent another melee, some lawmakers have been making proposals that sound more like threats than solutions. They want to "target" the Northwest Washington neighborhood near Gallery Place where youngsters hang out and "crack down" on those who use the Metro to get to the restaurants, nightclubs, movie theaters and bowling alleys there.

"At the end of the day, the only way to intimidate young people from doing this type of stuff is to have a uniformed officer there, and the only way you do that is to increase the number of transit police," Jeff C. McKay, a Metro board member and Fairfax County supervisor, told The Post.

Forget about the feasibility of putting a police officer on every train, let alone every car. Would it really help -- or hurt -- to put the squeeze on these teenagers without bothering to find out where all that pent-up rage is coming from?

Law enforcement sources said that most of those involved were black and that many were from the LeDroit Park and Trinidad neighborhoods.

H. Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made an observation about black youths some years ago that stuck with me: "From the age of 18 to 25, our kids go from being below the national average when it comes to crime and substance abuse to being above the national average," he said.

"There are certain things in our community that seem to be working until that kid reaches 16 or 17. Then, all of a sudden, their involvement in crime and substance abuse shoots up. So what happens? What in our community suddenly disappears?"

Neither an increase in police presence nor, as some have suggested, stricter curfews can substitute for the answers. Meanwhile, I'll take a slugfest over a shootout any day.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company