Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. suggested the other day that the violence that has earned Washington its doleful distinction as the murder capital of the nation is partly our fault.
"The community is still not angry enough about the death and violence on the streets of Washington," he charged. "We have to get a lot more angry about young people being killed."
Well I'm plenty angry. A friend of mine, a former judge, has just left the hospital after being shot in another of what the media refer to as "senseless" attacks.
Dennis Schatzman, 40, was making a phone call at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night when three youngsters in a 4x4 pulled up to the phone booth, demanded that my friend "get the (blank) off the telephone" and, when he didn't move quickly enough, fired a 9mm slug into his back.
"I'm rolling around on the sidewalk, and people across the street are watching the whole thing," Schatzman told me. "You know what happened next? One of the kids went over, just as calm as you please, and picked up the telephone!"
A slightly different placement of the bullet, and my friend wouldn't have been around to tell the tale. As it was, all he lost was money, his sense of safety and a third of a lung.
"I guess until something like this happens you don't really think about all that's involved in the statistics you read," he told me. "I'm an independent entrepreneur, which means that I have no income now. I've had to apply for Medicaid assistance, victim's assistance, Social Security and welfare -- whatever help I can find. My life's been totally disrupted, and of course, I could have been killed. Thank God for the people on the street who saw what happened. They came to my assistance as soon as the youngsters drove away. Somebody called an ambulance, or I might not have made it."
If Fulwood thinks I'm not angry, he's badly mistaken. Here is this young man, mild-mannered and decent, minding his own business on a well-lit street in a reasonably substantial part of town (Georgia Avenue and Webster Street NW), and he gets shot down like a dog by some trigger-happy kid of 16 or 17 who wasn't even particularly angry at him.
But maybe the chief has a point. A part of the reason I'm angry about what happened to Schatzman is that he's a friend. I met him when he was a district court judge in Pittsburgh, and I've known him as a fellow journalist (a former editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a Washington stringer for several black weeklies) and as a fellow member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
But what of the more than 400 murder victims killed here this year, most of them young black men? They are, for me, mere numbers: dismaying numbers, to be sure, because they represent the awful result of what is happening in drug-ravaged communities across America.
The numbers disgust me, outrage me, make me want to join a campaign to take back the streets from the dope dealers and thugs who now control them. But too frequently I have thought of these victims as people who likely contributed to their own demise: by selling drugs, or cheating drug dealers or hanging around places where they shouldn't have been.
I haven't thought of them in personal terms -- as human beings with jobs and families and friends -- because I don't know them. In short, as much as I deplore the violence that ends their young lives, I haven't felt particularly less safe myself. But when Dennis Schatzman gets gunned down, I take it personally. Maybe that's what Fulwood was talking about. Maybe you don't get really angry until you start thinking it could happen to you.
But Fulwood didn't tell me what to do with my anger. Do I demand better police protection? Does the chief of police need demands from me to do his job? Maybe he means that we should (like the bystanders who called the police for my friend) stop protecting our young criminals and take the personal risk of turning them in.
But I hear every week from local residents who tell me they call the police whenever they see drug deals going down, only to have the authorities roar up with sirens screaming while the dealers fade into the shadows until the cops are gone. Even coming forward to tell what they know doesn't help, they tell me. "The police want to know what proof I have that anything illegal was going on or how I knew it was drugs," one woman told me. "Everybody seems to know who's dealing except the police. What am I supposed to do?"
It's a good question, for which Fulwood's recommended anger seems no answer at all.
Schatzman, a former field director for the NAACP, has no answer either, except that we ought to do what we can to rescue as many youngsters as possible from the deadly streets. But what of those who are beyond rescue, who have resigned themselves to killing or being killed in the pursuit of the proceeds of drug sales?
Schatzman says he'll give it some thought, but right now he has something else to think about. The Washington Hospital Center has just sent him a bill for $38,817.12 -- a steep price for a lousy phone call.