“It is like a rack of firecracker sounds,” said Muskelly, who works at Unique Cutz on Benning Road. “You go to work and you see someone get killed. How would it impact you?”
The shop is tucked into a corner of the Benco Shopping Center, a mainstay in the Marshall Heights neighborhood for six decades. Its plate-glass window has long offered a view of one of the most dangerous streets in the District.
A rising number of shootings in cities nationwide has led to more deaths, left communities including the District struggling to quell gun violence and put residents on edge. Late on July 16, a 6-year-old D.C. girl was fatally shot and her mother and four others were wounded in a burst of gunfire in the city. The next night, fans at Nationals Park rushed for cover and ducked under seats when they heard rapid pops of gunfire from just outside the ballpark that wounded three people and brought the game to a halt.
And on Thursday night, two people were wounded by bullets fired along 14th Street NW, scattering outdoor diners and causing new panic along a stretch of restaurants and bars in the Logan Circle area.
In some places, the violence is nothing new. Each blast of gunfire strips away a sense of security, instilling fear even if no casualties are claimed. In the neighborhood where Muskelly works, gun violence has affected generations, bringing a sad realization that, for some, that the danger may never end.
District authorities say just over 40 percent of the gunfire is concentrated on 151 blocks — or 2 percent.
Two of them are on a one-mile stretch of Benning Road in Marshall Heights, with Benco between them.
A Washington Post analysis shows that in a recent period of a little more than three years, crime scene technicians found 2,759 bullet casings — byproducts of shootings involving rifles, pistols and shotguns — in about a one-square-mile area that includes those blocks. It is among the highest concentrations of bullet casings collected in the city in that period, a stark demonstration of how many times triggers were pulled.
More than 260 of those casings were found on or near that mile-long strip of Benning, extending from the landmark Shrimp Boat Plaza soul food restaurant to the Maryland line. Bullets have struck people, pockmarked parked cars, embedded in walls of homes and shattered windows of businesses filled with patrons. Patrol officers carry “quick clot gauze” used by troops in war; a patrolman used it this spring to stop a man’s bleeding after he was shot outside Benco by someone in a speeding car.
For the barber at Unique Cutz, and others who live, work and shop in Marshall Heights, gunfire shapes everyday life. Demeitri Anderson, 23, the man killed outside Muskelly’s barber shop, had been headed to a job interview at a fast-food restaurant when he was shot. It was lunchtime on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Hearing the pops, Muskelly spun his client’s chair to face away from the window, a well-practiced maneuver to shield his customers.
He saw Anderson, who lived a few blocks away, fall to the rutted pavement. Then a gunman stood over the young man’s body and fired again. And again.
Muskelly has been on both sides of a gun: shot twice as a younger man and locked up for carrying an illegal firearm. He has three daughters and one son, 31, who has been imprisoned since he was 19 for armed robbery and attempted murder. He lost his brother to a drug-related shooting.
Cutting hair became Muskelly’s way out. He opens the shop every morning confident that the “hood respect” from his past means he won’t be a target. “You got to be strong,” he said. “I got to eat. I got to come to work. I got to cut hair.”
Bullet casings left behind
Several years ago, a bullet flew across Benning Road and tore into the house where George Hood lives with his wife. He had been planning to take a shower, but decided that first he’d run across the street to play his lottery numbers at a convenience store.
“A guy started shooting in the middle of the block, like Clint Eastwood,” Hood recalled, “and when I got back and went into the bathroom, there was a bullet on the floor.”
His three-bedroom bungalow-style house, and nine others just like it, went up in 1992 as a symbol of hope in Marshall Heights. Hood had joined former president Jimmy Carter and hundreds of other volunteers in a blitz build-out — foundations to rooftop in days — a week after three people were killed nearby.
At the time, Carter told The Washington Post that the houses, built through the Habitat for Humanity program, were “islands of stability where once stood a crime-ridden neighborhood.”
People in Marshall Heights have always struggled, fighting for land, resources and their lives. The community, settled by Black families looking to buy property after World War I, grew in the 1930s and became known as a shantytown. The hilly area was rural, with residents living off chicken and hogs and without sewers and water lines until the 1950s. At one point, residents beat back government efforts to clear the houses, worried that they would lose their properties.
In the late 1980s, the crack epidemic hit the neighborhood hard. Benning Road became the divide between two street crews — Simple City and Eastgate — that came to symbolize the deadly drug wars of that era.
There also were moments of promise. In 1991, streets were tidied to prepare for a visit by Queen Elizabeth II, who came to learn about a homeownership program and meet students from Fletcher-Johnson junior high school who had written essays about being youth ambassadors.
Hood, now 61 and a retired home improvement contractor, moved into the “Jimmy Carter houses,” as they are called, soon after they were finished. He and his wife raised three children there, all of them now in law enforcement fields. They have enjoyed the sense of community built with neighbors in the nearly identical houses, which are connected by paths and have space to socialize. A chain-link fence separates them from Benning Road.
Still, Hood’s wife refuses to cross Benning Road to visit a corner store, fearing gunfire and wanting to avoid people she treated at her job in the D.C. jail infirmary. Hood avoids it, too, if there’s a crowd outside that appears to be up to no good. The couple shops for groceries at a box store far away from the neighborhood.
Hood shrugs off gunfire as a part of everyday life, noting that a shooting could “happen anytime, anywhere.” Nevertheless, he keeps watch for warning signs, such as a speeding car, and says that if shooting starts, you “get down on your knees and stay out of harm’s way.”
Across the District, homicides reached a 16-year high in 2020, and are staying apace this year. The number of people who are shot and survive has increased more than 60 percent from 2018 to 2020. Each summer, D.C. focuses extra police and other resources on high-crime areas, and this year Marshall Heights is among them. While police concentrate on getting guns out of the hands of shooters, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) also has focused on a more intensive public health approach called Building Blocks DC that addresses underlying causes of violence, combating drug addiction, joblessness and poverty.
Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia are among the places nationwide that also are experiencing a rise in shootings and homicides. Officials are portending a deadly summer.
Nearly every shooting leaves behind a bullet casing, and each casing collected by D.C. authorities is logged into a growing list, which totaled 40,302 casings recovered from across the nation’s capital from January 2018 through February: “FC 9mm Luger cartridge case recovered from side alley of 5026 Benning Rd SE”; “One cartridge case, ‘RP 9mm LUGER +P’ recovered from the grass area adjacent to the sidewalk in the 4600 B/O Benning Road SE.”; “FC 9mm Luger” cartridge case recovered from side alley of 5026 Benning Rd SE.” And so on.
Casings pile up quickly from crime scene to crime scene: 83 on one street in Marshall Heights, 76 on another, 59 on a third. At a news conference this month about efforts to contain violence, D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said that more than half the bullet casings collected at crime scenes are linked to guns used in previous crimes.
Many have been collected on Benning Road, where a man was shot in 2018 from three guns.
Forty-two bullets fired.
Where a 17-year-old was shot dead in 2019 in what police said was retaliation by members of a crew for a robbery they believed was committed by the victim’s friend.
Seven bullets fired.
Where police allege that a gunman wounded one man outside a gas station in 2020, and then returned the next week to shoot another.
Nineteen bullets fired.
Where, early on Feb. 6, a 22-year-old man named Deshawn Watkins was shot and killed in a case that is unsolved.
Fifteen bullets fired.
Where, on March 8, someone fired from vehicle, hitting a man who was in nearly the same spot where Demeitri Anderson was killed in November, and steps from a makeshift memorial erected in his memory. In the commotion, one of the teddy bears and posters put up for Anderson fell to the ground.
Treated by an officer carrying the quick-clot gauze, the man survived a wound to the abdomen. One bullet pierced a window at Ken’s Beauty & More, dropping into a box of hair extensions. Broken glass littered the walkway out front.
Where, on an evening in April, there was more shooting outside the gas station, which is 350 feet from George Hood’s front door. Police said two groups were firing at each other when they found a common enemy and trained their gunfire on an unoccupied police cruiser and responding officers, who escaped injury. A gas pump and a police car’s windshield were struck.
Twenty bullets fired.
‘I’m tired of praying over a person in a casket’
Ebbon Allen has fond memories of his two-bedroom childhood home on Hanna Place, just a few steps from Benning Road, where his mother grew up with nine siblings. It was the go-to place for birthdays, cookouts and holidays, filled with the aroma of mac-and-cheese, cornbread and sweet potato pie.
But the back window also offered Allen a view of the more dangerous world outside his door — the sprawling Eastgate projects just down a hill.
He remembers how his young eyes fixated on the flashing lights of police cars that seemed ever-present, his ears drawn to the whir of police helicopters and sirens.
Allen, now 43, walked Benning Road to Fletcher-Johnson junior high during the height of the drug feud that helped define the District as the nation’s murder capital.
His story is a familiar one here: His brother was shot and killed in 1998 at age 26; his father died in 1989 at age 35. Allen is one of the people who made it out, and he’s now back in, determined to help make Marshall Heights better than the place where he grew up.
He recently retired after serving four years as an advisory neighborhood commissioner; his mother started a ministry to help relatives of people killed.
Allen is an academic coordinator of a high school enrichment program. He and his wife, a principal, are raising their children, ages 1 and 3, in a three-story townhouse within walking distance of his childhood home. In February, gunshots rousted the couple from a sound sleep.
It was the fatal shooting of Deshawn Watkins on Benning Road.
The family takes steps to stay safe in their neighborhood. If Allen has to get gas at a station on Benning Road, he sets a strict deadline of early afternoon. The potential for shootings grows as the day turns into evening. Most of the time, he drives into Maryland to fill his tank. He would love to jog Benning Road, but that’s too dangerous at any time of day; he limits his early morning workouts to the fields at the now-abandoned Fletcher-Johnson school.
There are a lot of men who grew up in Marshall Heights and are now successful. Some participated in illicit trades of the day. Others avoided it. All count friends who are dead or imprisoned. Many have moved out of the neighborhood but are drawn back to Benning Road, hoping to bring change.
Harold “Shootah” Redd, who runs a commercial cleaning franchise and an indoor sports facility in Maryland and still uses a childhood nickname earned from his talent on the basketball court, said that his mother was addicted to heroin and cocaine and that a family member has been imprisoned for murder since 1994. Redd founded a youth football league — the Metro Bengals — that has helped offer purpose and structure for many kids in the neighborhood.
Sean Johnson, who once boxed in the U.S. championships, has lost so many friends to violence that he no longer attends funerals.
“I’m tired of praying over a person in a casket that I played pee-wee football with,” he said.
Johnson, who had long mentored kids in Marshall Heights, had been trying to start a boxing program at the long-planned Woody Ward Recreation Center, which had its grand opening at the end of May. But Johnson said his efforts were turned down; he now works at a youth center in Virginia.
Today, the Eastgate projects the queen visited have been replaced with suburban-style townhouses, and the old Fletcher-Johnson school site is slated for new condos and a grocery store. Old-timers view the changes as suspect, worried that the goal is to replace the neighborhood rather than improve it.
And still, the violence persists.
Allen said he is in therapy to help cope with the trauma he grew up with and the gunshots he still hears today.
But he can’t think of anywhere else he’d want to live. And he is optimistic. He fought for the new recreation center for years as a neighborhood commissioner and said it “brings hope to the people.” “We’ve endured,” Allen said. “If I leave, who is going to take up the mantle to keep this side of Ward 7?”
‘He was my best friend’
The barber Markeith Muskelly wasn’t the only person who saw the shooting of Demeitri Anderson.
A police officer in his patrol car on the other side of Benning Road heard the rapid pops as well, and reported seeing Anderson on the ground “with a shooter standing over him firing multiple gunshots.”
The officer chased the gunman, who police said threw his 9mm pistol — emptied of bullets — onto the street and escaped in a rented red Nissan Versa, the officer managing to jot down the first three characters of the Virginia license plate as it sped away. A suspect was later arrested.
Four miles away, Anderson’s grandmother Nedra Anderson sat in her apartment, where she had been texting her 23-year-old grandson. “I love you nana,” he wrote at 10:53 a.m. It would be his last words to his grandmother.
Demeitri Anderson didn’t have much luck during his short life. He didn’t finish high school and was working on his GED. He was between jobs. He was in and out of jail, mostly for stealing. He’d been wounded by gunfire before, and PCP took his mother’s life at age 37. But he had a girlfriend, whom he lived with near Benco, and two children, Malachi, 3, and Azari, 4.
“He was my best friend,” Nedra Anderson said. “He still is.”
The time Demeitri was wounded by gunfire and survived, Nedra Anderson called hospitals to find him. She encouraged him to find work, and she came to collect him when he got out of jail. After police arrested a suspect in his killing, she sat at the courthouse all day for a hearing.
Now, the grandmother helps raise Demeitri’s children, watching them on weekends. Her bedroom is a shrine to her grandson — photo collages on the walls, smaller pictures wedged into the frame of a mirror over the dresser, even smaller ones on her nightstand.
The memorial outside Benco also has photos of Demeitri smiling, above a bouquet of plastic red roses and handwritten messages on white paper. “R.I.P” from Heavy, reads one; “Rest in Peace grandson,” reads another.
The words are Nedra Anderson’s, but someone else put them up. She has avoided going to Benco since the shooting.
Elsewhere along the strip mall, which has inexpensive takeout restaurants, a grocer and a liquor store, shop windows are lined with police reward posters, some for killings that happened years ago and far away. On one, someone scribbled a “justice4man” hashtag. One shop has a sign warning that “weapons — including concealed firearms — are not welcome on these premises.”
Nedra Anderson had warned her grandson, “That will be the death of you, at Benco.”
About this story
Story editing by Maria Glod. Graphics by William Neff. Graphics editing by Lauren Tierney. Photos by Michael Williamson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Carrie Camillo. Design by J.C. Reed.