The year ended in the District of Columbia the way it began 12 months earlier: with fireworks. But they were nothing like the big bangs heard on the Mall during the new millennium celebrations. The sounds that rang out 11 hours into January 1999 were the pops of gunfire as two women were shot dead -- with bullets in the head -- during a robbery in their rooming house in Northwest Washington. Last Monday, on the eve of the millennium changeover, another kind of fireworks occurred. In a macabre January-December symmetry, two other females -- this time teenage girls -- fell victim to neighborhood pyrotechnics as they were gunned down outside their Southeast D.C. apartment.
As of midday New Year's Eve, 228 people in the District had lost their lives to violence. That's down from 1998's 260.
Happy New Year, D.C.
Celebrate? Maybe I'll rejoice if this city gets through this first month of the new millennium without setting another record for homicides. Last January, 25 people were murdered to start the new year -- seven in the first week alone. Most of the victims were in the 6th and 7th police districts, the eastern and southeastern neighborhoods of the city.
The year before, 22 were slain to kick off January 1998. The District's all-time high was reached in 1996, when 43 people had given up the ghost by the end of January.
Bringing up such a ghastly topic on New Year's Day may be considered bad form in some city households. After all, with Y2K rollover worries behind us, it's now time to settle in for the fun and excitement of college bowl games and the NFL playoffs. And that's not even taking into account the coming events that cause Washington's political junkies to quiver with delight: the presidential primaries and caucuses. With so many sweet distractions on tap, why get all worked up over this death stuff -- on the first day of the 21st century?
Pardon me, I should know better.
After all, this is Washington, D.C., the capital city that can lay on one great New Year's Eve soiree, up to and including the deployment of thousands of cops and National Guard troops working 'round the clock to keep city streets safe for throngs of revelers and limousine-driven big shots. So what if the city can't find the police power to close down open-air drug markets or to break up gang activity or to make it possible for girls and boys unfortunate enough to live in urban war zones to reach the age of majority?
So what if a half-dozen teenagers, including three young women, have been murdered in the past two months in the 6th District in Northeast Washington? I wrote about the killings of youths in 6D, as it's called, a month ago ["Sticks and Stones -- and Guns," Nov. 20]. The column might as well have appeared in a Laotian weekly for all the good it did.
It took 17-year-old Natosha Adams and her best friend, Melissa Payne, 16, getting blown away in a hail of gunfire on 37th Street SE Monday night before the D.C. police recognized that something awful indeed was going on in that part of town. Police Chief Charles Ramsey has formed a task force to investigate the possible targeting of those young girls.
Even that special police effort has gotten off to a crummy start, however, with the chief having to pull the investigative team off the case because of slipshod work. We're not talking about rookies either. He had to relieve a lieutenant and three detectives.
The two young girls' deaths also exposed just how putrid is the crime scene work of some police investigators. That kind of incompetence and carelessness is only the tip of the iceberg. If Chief Ramsey really wants to know how his officers perform when he and Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer aren't looking, he should post a personal e-mail address or give out a direct hot-line number. He'll catch an earful from the public, or at least those residents living in quadrants of the city where perpetrators of violence do their dirty deeds with impunity. As for the District of Columbia's well-heeled, well-connected and well-protected, they can, and they will, party on. For the first time in decades, this city works for them.
But (and shame on me for doing this) I bring up the bloodshed and violence that takes place nightly only blocks away from the nation's precious shrines because there is no prompt, predictable response from downtown to parents whose children go to sleep with the sound of gunshots outside their windows, who live in apartment buildings with security doors that don't work, who consider each day's survival something of a victory.
I bring up their plight on the morning after the city's entertainment gala and the evening when the sky was bright with light for miles around, because fireworks didn't dazzle and delight the neighborhoods of the 6th and 7th police districts last night.
After the climax of Washington's "Midnight Monument," the happy revelers can return to their nice, safe, comfortable homes. But when the crime scene tapes finally come down in Southeast, the caskets are lowered into the ground and the reporters and cameras go away, the bad guys who operate not too far away from the National Mall will come out to play again. Crime tells us so much about our city. About who counts, and who has been thrust to the bottom.
Teenagers Natosha and Melissa, with life's riches still ahead of them, didn't make it to New Year's Day.
What's there to celebrate?