They were moments of crisis, and after the recent outbursts of violence on D.C. streets, Mayor Anthony A. Williams was doing what good politicians do: Honor the victims and assure concerned residents that his office was doing everything possible to keep their neighborhoods safe.
Great images of a leader in charge, except Williams's reception in troubled communities in Southeast and Northwest Washington last week wasn't always warm. At the funeral of Helen Foster-El--the 55-year-old grandmother slain as she tried to protect children from a hail of bullets--the pastor chided the mayor for not showing up in the neighborhood until a tragedy had occurred.
And before a well-publicized walk through Adams-Morgan last weekend--near where four bystanders had been shot during a gun battle outside the Latin American Youth Center--Williams upset some Latino leaders and the area's D.C. council member, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), by not inviting them to come along.
So as residents' initial shock from the recent flare-up of violence fades into questions about what officials are doing in response, Williams (D) is facing a more personal set of questions from some community leaders in low-income areas: Where have you been? Why haven't you called us? Do you know the frustration we feel?
It's a familiar refrain for a mayor who has been criticized for his lack of neighborhood outreach and who generally is more comfortable managing the government from One Judiciary Square than schmoozing in the community. But the recent violence--and the Foster-El slaying in particular--has rattled the city like only a few other incidents in recent years.
And as Williams's six-month-old administration reaches a defining moment for how it will deal with the entrenched complexities of urban violence, part of the spotlight is on the discontent of some residents who feel they have been ignored by the new mayor.
"I want to hear from him; I want to see some action," said Mary Jackson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7 who lives near Open Door Baptist Church, where Foster-El's funeral was held Monday. "It is very important for members of the community to see their mayor in their neighborhood. I want to see him, and not just for one day of media hype."
Williams, who was elected mayor after having lived in the city only four years, says he and his staff have increased their focus beyond budget and service matters to include more meetings with community leaders this summer and throughout the year. But he acknowledges that his administration has a way to go.
His response to the latest shootings--blanket patrols of troubled neighborhoods, a federal-city initiative to improve crime-fighting efforts--was relatively aggressive compared with how D.C. officials have dealt with neighborhood violence in recent years.
But Williams's perceived distance from people in low-income communities--particularly compared with his engaging predecessor, Marion Barry--has shrouded the new mayor's efforts in skepticism. As Jackson indicated, some communities want a mayor who shows compassion for them before violence, not just after.
Williams said that through increased appearances across town by himself and key aides, he hopes critics begin to see such compassion from his office.
"I can't honestly say there will not be crime in the community," Williams said. "But I can say that I'm going to work mightily and do everything in my power to protect them. I can say I'm going to do everything in my power to harness the resources in government and the community and use my leadership to see that mothers are not going to get shot on porches or behind buildings [while] protecting kids."
But unlike many of the budget issues the city's chief financial officer-turned-mayor tackles with relish, crime is a problem for the ages, borne of a range of factors--unstable families, drugs, gangs and a lack of education and job opportunities.
It's the underside of urban life that neighborhood leaders such as Jackson and Leroy Thorpe Jr., an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2, think Williams needs to get more in touch with.
"You can't legislate crime away; meetings are not going make a difference," Thorpe said. "You have to roll up your sleeves and get out on the street . . . [and] provide an economic development plan to offer people hope.
"The mayor has to stop blowing smoke," Thorpe added. "The mayor has not made any attempt to contact any of the citizen groups who are volunteering their time to patrol their neighborhoods. The mayor's staff is not . . . getting out into the neighborhoods to see what is going on."
During a tour last week of the area along East Capitol Street where Foster-El was slain, Williams did just that.
A 7-year-old boy approached Williams and asked the mayor for simple things: a playground with swings, and grass.
"It breaks your heart," Williams said later. "When you're out on East Capitol, you see these little kids at 11:30 at night out on the streets. Where are the mothers? . . . I'm agitated by [Foster-El's slaying]. I'm a human being. I can't say that this has not had an effect on me."
Rancorous Random Acts
There have been about 5,700 slayings in the District during the past dozen or so years. Most involved people who knew one another, and despite recent declines in homicide rates, many D.C. residents hardly bat an eye when someone is slain in neighborhoods known for violence.
But a few slayings--like that of Foster-El--have drawn outrage from across the city, largely because they were random acts, had victims who were innocent bystanders, or raised the ante in the District's ongoing battle against gang violence.
Among others, there was the 1997 slaying of 12-year-old Darryl Dayan Hall, who was abducted while walking home from school and killed as part of a gang dispute in Benning Heights.
In 1991, there was the shooting death of 36-year-old Alexandria resident Patricia B. Lexie, who was killed while riding on the Anacostia Freeway by a gang member who later said he had "felt like killing someone."
Four years earlier near Ballou High School, Kendall Merriweather, 17, was fatally shot by two teenagers who wanted his boombox. In a separate incident, Sean Smith, 15, was shot to death near his Northwest home by a youth who took Smith's ski jacket.
Such incidents led to increased patrols, youth initiatives, job programs and crackdowns on gun-running. Today, most of the ideas that law enforcers are discussing in response to the latest shootings are similar.
"We're working very aggressively to try to get a handle on it," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said. "But we must deal with some of the more systemic problems that are fueling crime in our society. . . . We have to adjust our strategies . . . [and] it's going to take collective efforts of a lot of people."
Lamont B. Mitchell, an assistant to the mayor who was appointed to help Williams in redevelopment and outreach efforts east of the Anacostia River, agreed.
"We all have a responsibility, and the community has to pull together," he said. "It's a challenge for us all." If D.C. government and the community don't work well together to fight crime, Mitchell added, "It's only going to get worse over the summer and over time."
Activists in areas hit hardest by recent violence say they hope the incidents spur Williams to meet them halfway in such efforts.
"What we were alarmed about was the lack of police presence," said Mai Fernandez, deputy director for programs at the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights. "We plan to ask the mayor for a meeting to listen to what our needs are. We need a permanent response [to gang violence], not just a Band-Aid."
Fernandez added that Williams responded to the center's request for a patrol officer at the youth center, but she worries that the extra security is only temporary.
Howard Croft, a former urban studies professor at the University of the District of Columbia, said the recent shootings should have emphasized to Williams the importance of forging community relations.
"The mayor . . . has to sink some roots into the community with block clubs, church groups, civic organizations--something other than technical forums," Croft said. "The mayor has to think of this city as an organic, living community, not a corporation. He has to understand people's everyday lives."
Shootings that Rattled D.C.
Drug- and gang-related violence has fueled record homicide rates in the District in the past 12 years. The slayings -- more than 5,700 since 1987 -- have numbed residents in some low-income areas, even though the homicide rate has declined recently. But some incidents -- because of their random nature or the age of their victims -- outraged residents across the city, putting particular pressure on officials to stop the violence. Among them:
Helen Foster-El, a 55-year-old grandmother, is slain while trying to usher children to safety as bullets flew near her Southeast Washington home. It is part of a rash of shootings in the city over several days, some of which were gang-related.
D.C. police begin blanket patrols in large swaths of the city. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), under fire from some neighborhood leaders for not previously reaching out to their communities, tells residents that city and federal agencies are holding emergency sessions to devise more effective crime-fighting plans.
Darryl Dayan Hall, 12, is abducted while walking home from school and later shot to death in the Benning Heights area of Southeast. It is the result of a rivalry within a gang known as the Simple City Crew, which had been linked to several other slayings. Four gang members eventually receive long prison sentences in the slaying, which attracts national attention.
A gang truce and a D.C. housing jobs program backed by federal and city officials help quell the violence, and crime in Benning Heights drops in the next year.
Six children are wounded in a shooting at a crowded city pool in Southeast. The attack by members of the Simple City Crew is aimed at a member of the rival Eastgate gang.
Patrols are increased in the area.
Alexandria resident Patricia B. Lexie, 36, is fatally shot while riding in a car with her husband on the Anacostia Freeway. Witnesses report that the assailant, Henry "Little Man" James, a Simple City Crew member, said he shot randomly at Lexie's car because he "felt like killing someone."
James gets 20 years to life in prison, one of three long prison sentences he is serving for shootings. The case later leads D.C. officials to increase their attention on the Simple City Crew and other gangs.
Marcia Williams, 29, is shot in the back of the head and killed while driving her three children on North Capitol Street. Four men eventually were convicted in the slaying, which occurred during a gun battle involving members of a gang called the First and Kennedy Crew. Three years later, an armed member of the gang would walk into D.C. police headquarters and fatally shoot two FBI agents, a police sergeant and himself.
Several D.C. officials call for hiring more police officers to crack down on gang violence, efforts that have had mixed success through the years. The shooting at police headquarters leads federal and city officials to improve their tracking of weapons in interstate gun-running operations such as that of the First and Kennedy Crew.
Walking to Ballou High School, Kendall Merriweather, 17, is fatally shot by two teens who wanted his boombox. In a separate incident, 15-year-old Sean Smith is shot to death near his Northwest home by a youth who steals Smith's new red ski jacket. For many residents, the slayings bring home the idea of how crack cocaine, fast money and diminishing hope among youths is leading to more random violence.
D.C. officials initially discuss using National Guard troops to assist law enforcement in some areas. The violence prompts a range of self-esteem programs for children and young teenagers, based on the notion that older teenagers represent a "lost generation" but that younger people can be saved from violent lives.
CAPTION: Mayor Anthony A. Williams, center, greets others in attendence at the funeral of slaying victim Helen Foster-El.