For 18 years, John Aravosis was one of those people who live in Washington but don't really live here.
Not that Aravosis stuck to himself. It's just that when he got involved in something, his community was the whole country. He was a staffer for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), then became a lobbyist for the Children's Defense Fund. And Aravosis was a pioneer in cyber-activism, creating stopdrlaura.com, the online campaign against talk-show host Laura Schlessinger.
It's just that "home" was back where he grew up, in Chicago.
Then, a month ago, while walking from his Adams Morgan apartment to his gym at 8 p.m. on a weeknight, Aravosis passed the 7-Eleven on Columbia Road NW and, seconds later, was jumped by two teenagers. "Someone's arm was over my eyes and the other arm was across my throat, completely cutting off my air," he wrote the next day on e-mail bulletin boards in Kalorama, Dupont and Adams Morgan.
Aravosis fell, jammed his knee and bit through his lip. Finally, he got enough air to shout for help. A few seconds later, his assailants let go and trotted off, laughing.
Aravosis called D.C. police, who responded immediately. Witnesses corroborated Aravosis's account. And one of the teens who had been hanging out in front of the 7-Eleven was still there. An officer talked to the boy, who turned out to know the muggers.
But Aravosis says police wouldn't go to the boy's house. One officer said the boy lived in a "[expletive] war zone." One officer harshly asked Aravosis how he knew the attack "wasn't a joke." As it became clear that the police had no intention of following up on the assault, Aravosis, 39, turned into someone who cares about the place where he lives.
Over the next few days, he heard from dozens of neighbors with tales about officers who refused to take reports, or drove away when asked for help, or threatened citizens who insisted that police do their jobs. "It's sad to say, but it took a mugging to find out that D.C. is home," Aravosis says.
Now he walks the neighborhood, collecting stories for his new Web site, safestreetsdc.com, which documents "Police Horror Stories" and, Aravosis says, "will keep pressing until there's a specific plan to get rid of cops who don't want to do their jobs."
"I'm more than happy to believe that the majority are good cops who risk their lives for all of us," Aravosis says. "But the sooner the department realizes there are this many bad cops, the better for them and us."
Aravosis has support from D.C. Council members Jim Graham and David Catania. "John is off on a tear here, and quite frankly, I want to encourage him," Graham says. "I say, 'Godspeed, don't let up,' because the solutions I have as an elected official haven't worked. I am so frustrated."
Graham, who had his own run-in with D.C. police last weekend, tells of pushing hard for more officers on the street and a change in the attitudes of "mediocre officers who give everybody a black eye." The Web site might help, he says, as long as it doesn't devolve into a collection of unchecked allegations.
Aravosis is already feeling push-back. A three-hour session with top cops was "adversarial" from start to finish, he says. One high-ranking police official asked him to "call off the dogs," while a detective called to warn him against public criticism.
As word spread about Aravosis's campaign, police said that two juveniles they arrested last week in connection with an attack on 18th Street are now suspects in 22 muggings in Adams Morgan, including Aravosis's. "I'm, of course, overjoyed and thankful," Aravosis says. But while he commends the officers who made the catch, he says this alters his plans "not at all"; the department still must crack down on officers who dismiss citizen complaints about "little crimes."
Aravosis won't back down: "I'm not your typical anti-cop guy. I'm a defense hawk, I worked for a Republican senator, I'm Mr. Death Penalty. If people like me are becoming irate, they've got a real problem." He aims to replicate his "Dr. Laura" campaign, which, after one year and 50 million Web hits, ended when Schlessinger's TV show was killed.
"There's this acceptance that the city's a den of thieves and nothing can be done," he says. "But this is our city." It took 18 years and a mugging, but John Aravosis now says it with pride: "This is our home."
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