Ben Forrest and his girlfriend were dancing one moment, he said. The next, they were running for their lives.
He wondered if a mass shooting was underway and it was clear others did, too. Four people would later be shot at the event, including a 15-year-old boy who was killed and a D.C. police officer who was wounded.
The mayhem came at a time when the threat of gun violence feels increasingly close to home for people in the D.C. area and across the country.
Reeling from high-profile mass shootings at a Buffalo supermarket and Uvalde, Tex., elementary school, some have expressed heightened concern that they could be the next victim of random gunfire. In the D.C. area in recent days, two instances of gunshots in crowded public spaces — at the festival on U Street and at a Fairfax County mall — reinforced that no one is immune from violence.
As a result, some area residents have begun to pull back. People have started to think twice before going to concerts and the mall. A restaurant manager reports diners have been scared off by fears of gunfire. An activist canceled his anti-violence event over worries about violence.
And when a loud noise goes off, many often think the worst.
Over the weekend, panicked crowds fled from Moechella and the Tysons Corner Center, where an altercation led to shots being fired. No one was hurt in the mall gunfire, but the incident left people hiding in dressing rooms in fear of being shot. A few weeks earlier, three people were injured in a shooting at a Prince George’s County mall.
“It’s hard to feel safe after something like that,” Forrest said, ticking off a list of gatherings where gunfire had erupted. “I don’t understand when change is going to come. It’s seriously affecting the community.”
The incidents on U Street and in the Virginia mall came on top of a rise in homicides and some violent crime that has attracted less attention, but nonetheless has made the streets feel less safe. Last weekend alone, five men in the region were killed and a 16-year-old girl was fatally shot in what police think was an accident. D.C. police seized 41 guns across the city from Saturday through Monday, which is as many guns as they typically recover in a week.
No arrests have been made in connection with the shooting on U Street; on Wednesday night, Fairfax Police announced a suspect in the mall incident had turned himself in.
Forrest said he won’t go to another outdoor concert anytime soon for fear of gunfire. He is not the only one altering his routine.
Danielle Kastner, 26, of Vienna, Va., had just popped into the Tysons Corner Center on Saturday, when she, like Forrest, saw a throng of people running toward her.
Kastner did not know a shooting had just occurred, but she instinctively retreated into an H&M clothing store.
“With everything unfolding in the news, pretty much every day you kind of get this sick feeling that something’s wrong and I should not go any farther,” Kastner said.
She said H&M employees waved her and other mall-goers into the dressing rooms to hide. People were crying and screaming as they crammed in. Kastner said the scariest part was not knowing what was going on outside — whether a gunman might be roaming the mall.
H&M employees eventually sent the group out an emergency exit, and Kastner said they fled to safety in a parking garage.
Kastner, who patronized the mall about every other weekend, said she won’t be going back for the time being. She plans to shop at stand-alone stores, which she said feel safer than bigger gathering places like Tysons.
Ahmed Mohamed, 49, who is the director of operations for Lupo Verde and other restaurants near the scene of the U Street shooting, said a recent spate of violence has hurt his bottom line. Over the last few months, there have been at least three shooting incidents nearby, according to D.C. police.
Mohamed said the gunfire has scared people away from outdoor dining. Revenue at each of the three locations, he said, has fallen by at least 25 percent over the last few months.
“It’s a mess. It’s a big mess,” Mohamed said. “No one wants to work in this environment, no one wants to eat in this environment.”
Mohamed was inside Lupo Verde on Sunday when 15-year-old Chase Poole was killed steps away from the restaurant. He heard the pop of the gunshot and watched as his outdoor diners sprinted down the street — leaving their meals half-eaten and their checks unpaid. His hostess started crying, he said, and other employees asked if they could go home for the night.
A few steps away, Crescinda Pinskey was watching the concert from her apartment window when she heard the gunshots and saw people running. But the 29-year-old said she has not changed any behavior as a result of the occasional gunfire on her block. Pinskey sees it as a part of life in a major city.
“If anything, it affects my mom more than me,” she said. “For me, this is home.”
Even some of those accustomed to violence in D.C. through their work say the climate is notably tense.
Over the last two years, longtime anti-violence advocate Ronald Moten curated a Juneteenth celebration in Washington, but decided to suspend it this year because he feared the streets were too dangerous for a large-scale gathering.
Last year, people marched from the Howard Theater to Black Lives Matter Plaza. Moten walked alongside children holding handwritten signs, a go-go band performing atop a flatbed truck and throngs of other Washingtonians danced and sang to the music. But this year, Moten took his family to a quieter celebration at the National Harbor.
“We just didn’t think it was safe with the stuff going on in the community right now,” said Moten, who co-founded a movement around the power of music called Don’t Mute D.C. “It would have had to be in a location I can control.”
Moten said the violence at Moechella was predictable. He was worried about the mood leading up to the event, and he urged the organizers to involve the police early in their planning.
“You can’t prevent someone from shooting in the mall these days, but you can go to sleep at night knowing you did everything you could have to keep people safe,” he said. “We have come too far to let one incident move our culture backward.”
Organizers posted on Instagram they were “deeply saddened by the tragedies that occurred” and offered their condolences to the victims.
Executive Director of DC Jobs with Justice Elizabeth Falcon, whose nonprofit was a sponsor of the event, said it was “inappropriate” to blame the event organizers for violence.
“I’ve never seen them do anything that would promote anything but positive energy, people dancing and celebrating and having a good time together,” said Falcon, who brought her 9-month-old to the event but left before the shooting. “They are very committed to a positive, celebratory event centering on music and the longtime Black culture in D.C.”
D.C.’s homicide rate is up about 17 percent this year compared with 2021, when the District grabbed headlines for surpassing 200 homicides for the first time in nearly two decades. Robberies and carjackings are also up. But the homicide numbers and rate are far below the height of violence in the city in the early 1990s after years of decline.
In Fairfax County, where the mall gunfire incident occurred, homicides are slightly ahead of last year’s pace, which was the largest total in four years. In 2021, homicide numbers jumped in counties across the region, reviving concerns about street crime and gun violence.
The reasons for the increase are difficult to pin down, but some blame pandemic-related stress, an increase in guns on the streets and other factors. D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III warned D.C. lawmakers of juvenile crime in testimony in February.
“Some of our young people are on a dangerous trajectory of being involved in violent crimes,” Contee said at the time. On Monday, Contee reiterated the point: “We are seeing our juveniles showing up in spaces we haven’t seen before, with them introduced to the criminal justice system starting with gun crimes. It’s not just petty stuff.”
Fellissimo Gannon, 22, a Virginia Tech student, was at Nordstrom at Tysons Corner Center shopping for a suit when the gunfire occurred there.
He said he was floored to see people running into the store. Gannon said he had been caught in a similar stampede a week earlier, when an unruly man sparked fear of a mass shooting at the March for Our Lives Rally in D.C.
“It was almost surreal,” Gannon said. “Is this really happening again?”
Gannon, his brother and mother feared they might be trampled as the crowd crushed into a Nordstrom exit, so they headed for a side entrance and managed to scramble to safety among a group of other shoppers.
Mass violence has touched Gannon’s life in other ways. He spent the spring semester walking by the building where much of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre took place and classmates were caught in a lockdown following a shooting off campus in February.
Gannon headed back to Tysons on Monday to finish purchasing his suit. He said he didn’t want the fear of gun violence to change what he does, but he has become hypervigilant when he goes out in public.
“You almost have an expectation at this point that something like this is going to happen eventually,” Gannon said of a shooting. “I try to always be a little cognizant — where are the emergency exits, where would I go if I got separated from my loved ones.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.