The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘When it’s a shooting on a city street, nothing happens’

As high-profile massacres capture the nation’s attention, those affected by routine gun violence say they feel left out of the conversation

Artist Martin Swift cleans up before an unveiling ceremony for the Limestone of Lost Legacies Mural in Washington in 2019. The mural, painted by Swift, memorializes teens who died from gun violence. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Fifteen-year-old Malachi Jackson was fatally shot on a Monday night in April, blocks from his home in the heart of the bustling Columbia Heights neighborhood in Northwest Washington. Malachi’s mother saw the police lights and ran toward the area. By then, her son, a freshman in high school, was already lying dead on the ground.

The family sketched a plan for a vigil 12 days later: purple, gold and white balloons. An opening prayer. Two songs. A reading from scripture. A young man talking about gun violence.

At the end, the family added “Words from the (Mayor),” hoping the city’s highest-ranking official would offer remarks.

The police chief came. The mayor did not. There was no street memorial — the family feared that Malachi’s assailants would destroy it. Classes at Theodore Roosevelt High School, where the teen was enrolled, resumed after spring break with mental health specialists on campus.

After a shooting at a Buffalo supermarket left 10 dead, and a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., left 21 dead, including 19 students, the nation once again found itself in the throes of a debate over guns and gun violence. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into accounts meant for the victims and their families; the president and members of Congress vowed action.

But in the nation’s capital and other major cities, the response to everyday gun violence, like that which killed Malachi, rarely sparks the outrage needed to sear the daily tragedies into the national consciousness, those affected by it say.

“The two mass shootings that just happened gained attention around the world,” said Alvoncia Jackson Sr., a minister who eulogized her grandson at his funeral. “They’re rallying. They’re marching for harder gun laws. But when it’s a shooting on a city street, nothing happens. … Nobody is standing to speak for us.”

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On Friday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) appeared at a gun violence awareness event in Anacostia and noted that she has sat alongside the president to press for more anti-gun-violence measures.

“I think that all of us need to be challenged to do more,” the mayor said.

Her office said Bowser typically does not attend vigils but that she does often talk privately with grieving families, declining to detail the private conversations.

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Each week the death toll rises. Malachi was the 46th person killed in the city this year; police arrested and charged a 16-year-old in the slaying. The next month, another child was killed by gunfire. By June 1, more than 315 people had been shot, 70 fatally, each violent death quickly fading from public view. Many victims’ families say that their loved ones’ deaths are caused by the same thing as high-profile mass shootings — a proliferation of easily obtained firearms, often in the hands of the young — and that they want the nation’s sustained attention.

“Children are dying on our streets. Teenagers and guns. Children and guns. Where are they getting the guns? How are they getting the guns?” Jackson said.

D.C. is hardly alone. Over Memorial Day weekend: More than 50 shot in Chicago, nine dead. Seven shot in Baltimore, four dead, including a 17-year-old killed at the city’s Inner Harbor tourist hub. Ten shot in the District, two dead.

‘A mass shooting is a mass shooting’

Everyday gun violence most affects communities of color. The same is true of mass shootings, defined as those that have at least four victims killed or wounded. In the District this year, there were three mass shootings that left 14 people wounded through May 26, according to D.C. police. Last year, police said there were 13 mass shootings in the District that left 63 people injured. Nationwide, more than 30 mass shootings have occurred since the massacre in Uvalde; among the latest were deadly shootings in Philadelphia and Chattanooga, Tenn., and at a medical center in Tulsa, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group.

Residents and activists accuse lawmakers of failing to act because these everyday killings mostly occur in low-income communities of color. Ryane Nickens — a D.C. resident who lost two siblings to gun violence in the ’90s and now runs the TraRon Center, an after-school program for children affected by gun violence — said the violence that permeates cities like D.C. is linked to systemic racism and poverty.

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“They have been traumatized by gun violence since birth. It is different [than Buffalo and Texas], but it’s the same pain, the same anger,” Nickens said. “It is hard for America to talk about its history with violence and race and how that has caused the trauma and pain we are seeing in Black and Brown communities.”

And local residents yearn to be part of the country’s wrenching discussion.

“A mass shooting is a mass shooting, even when it’s in what we call the ‘hood,’ ” said John Ayala, who lost his 11-year-old grandson, Davon McNeal, to a stray bullet three years ago at a Fourth of July stop-the-violence cookout in Southeast Washington.

Ayala joined Bowser at the Friday event in Anacostia, which was branded by city officials as a “peace campaign for a safer, stronger summer.” Bowser called on Congress to move on stricter gun-control measures, asserting that the only use for an AR-15-style firearm is “to hunt people.”

All shootings, she said, are “tragic, whether it was 19 kids or little Davon.”

In District classrooms, teachers say their students are consumed by the issue of gun violence. At Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast Washington, a predominantly Black school that has lost multiple students to gun violence in recent years, history teacher Karen Lee asked her students to write an end-of-the-year essay about a change they want to see in the city.

More than half of her 17 students wrote about gun violence, calling on the government to enact laws that make guns harder to access. Lee said her students regularly come into class casually discussing shootings they heard the night before in their neighborhoods, or stray bullets that punctured their homes.

“Until our kids are safe in the city, there’s not enough attention being paid to gun violence,” Lee said.

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After two Thurgood Marshall students were killed in 2018, Lee and her students started an advocacy group called Pathways 2 Power. At the time, the group commissioned a mural in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, honoring five D.C. teens who had been killed.

Now, current students go to other city high schools to talk about the mural and teach their peers how to become anti-gun-violence activists and how to brainstorm solutions to curb the violence.

“Similar to the shooting in Texas, what happens in D.C. should motivate Congress to do something,” said Ra’mya Davis, a senior at Thurgood Marshall and Pathways 2 Power leader, whose 23-year-old godbrother was fatally shot in the District last year. “They live in D.C.”

After 17 people were killed in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students visited Thurgood Marshall ahead of the anti-gun-violence March for Our Lives rally.

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Zaire Kelly, a 16-year-old senior at Thurgood Marshall, had been killed in a robbery on the way home from an SAT prep class the year prior; the Parkland teens were hoping to learn more about the violence that afflicts Southeast Washington.

“The students went in pretty skeptical about what these White kids were saying,” Lee said. “But they instantly found ways to relate to each other beyond just this trauma. They created powerful moments and connections where both really understood the impact of gun violence in a much fuller way.”

‘No more crime, no more tears’

Bowser has pushed a series of initiatives to reduce crime, using traditional policing, outreach workers tasked with calming tensions in neighborhoods, and programs to help people deemed most at risk of committing violence. Her administration recently circulated a “Roadmap to Reducing Violent Crime in the District” and called on officials to “disrupt the cycle of violence, poverty and incarceration” by offering expedited services to those most in need.

Four of the 84 homicide victims in D.C. as of Monday afternoon were younger than 18, and all of them were shot. DeShaun Francis, a 16-year-old from Alexandria, was killed in Southeast while with a relative. Khalil Rich, 16, was killed in March after his grandmother in Maryland reluctantly allowed him to move back to the District.

Justin Johnson, a 16-year-old rapper with a record deal, was trying to move to Atlanta because he feared for his safety on Savannah Terrace in Southeast, according to his manager.

He was fatally shot in an apartment hallway on May 26.

The teenager was a smart student who excelled in math but was often restless because he finished his work early, according to Daniellea Valdez-Catlett, an assistant dean at the D.C. middle school he attended.

His music consumed him, she said, and “the streets were a little more enticing.” She described a dual life between the classroom and the neighborhood outside. In his rap videos, Justin — whose stage name was “23 Rackz” — flashes wads of cash and guns.

“The scholar persona of him never went away,” Valdez-Catlett said. “He didn’t lose any of his intelligence. He didn’t lose any of his wit.”

His recording manager, Collin “Squirl” Anderson, said Justin sang about the life he lived outside of school. Embedded in his lyrics, he said, were desperate pleas to escape. Anderson said Justin called him in Atlanta the night before he was killed, worried he had become a target.

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“I think he knew,” Anderson said.

The day after his killing, fellow sophomores at Ballou High streamed into classes upset, shaken and talking about his death, said teacher Nina Graham.

Johnson was new to the school, so many students didn’t know him well, but they listened to his music and knew he died near their homes.

“This is happening every day in my community and not enough is being done to stop it,” Graham said. “Our students at Ballou deserve a lot better — they are incredibly smart, resourceful and funny kids. They deserve the best, and we’re not giving it to them.”

Octavia Snead, who allowed her grandson Khalil to return to the District before he was killed in March, said people in cities “are living with shootings every day.”

She said she wants leaders to create more jobs and get guns off the street. Most of all, she wants to be heard at the Wilson Building, in the halls of Congress and at the White House.

“I feel ignored,” Snead said, noting complaints about dirt bikes “get more attention than the murder of our children.”

Snead said she, too, was heartbroken over the little lives lost in Texas, “seeing those baby faces flash across the TV screen, and knowing what happened to them.”

“Why is it so easy for children to get their hands on guns but they’re not able to receive a proper education?” Snead said, referring to the 18-year-old shooter. “That’s frustrating.”

Jackson, Malachi’s grandmother, said she plans to push for action, and attention. Later this month, she is planning an event in Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington. She will again call on elected leaders to do something.

The event is called “No More Crime, No More Tears.”