D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) talk to the crowd about a recent homicide in front of the Busboys and Poets in Anacostia during a walk through Ward 8 on Thursday. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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When Mario Leonard was a boy, he was rescued from a house fire, but his mother perished. His grandparents stepped in to raise him. But they died before he got to grow up.

“He was pretty much on his own after that,” said Andy Shallal, owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants. The chain’s Southeast Washington location was where Leonard finally got a break. In December, a half brother who worked there as a manager helped Leonard get a job as a runner.

Two weeks later, on Dec. 29, Leonard, 24, ended his shift at 9:30 p.m. and left the restaurant with a carryout dinner. He was about to step into a ride-hail vehicle when another vehicle pulled alongside him and someone inside opened fire. Leonard died after being shot 13 to 15 times, according to D.C. police. The driver of the ride-hail vehicle was hit and wounded.

Prompted in part by that brazen killing, as well as the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration, a group of D.C. community activists gathered at the Busboys and Poets location on Tuesday to announce a new anti-violence campaign. It is called the Thou Shalt Not Kill movement. Thousands of bright red posters bearing the words of the biblical commandment will soon rise up throughout Southeast Washington like banners in a religious crusade.

Homicides soar in District and Maryland

The signage will also line a stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE where the MLK Day Peace March and parade will be held Monday.

“Our hope is that people will see the signs and have that visual message in their heads before they pull the trigger of a gun,” said William Lightfoot, an organizer who launched a similar poster campaign as a D.C. Council member in the 1990s. “I’m not saying this is going to stop the violence in its tracks, but we do know that those signs still resonate with people 30 years later.”

Philip Pannell is an organizer and executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, a coalition of volunteer organizations focused on the revitalization of Southeast Washington. “So many people have grown numb and desensitized to violence that, hopefully, we can at least visually prick the conscience of the community,” he said.

Or it could be that the community conscience is just exhausted, especially in those largely poor and predominantly Black parts of town that have borne the brunt of the thousands of homicides that have occurred in D.C. since the 1990s. Numbness is not to be confused with nonchalance. In the case of D.C., with its enormous riches and poverty to match, perhaps it’s just another word for shock and trauma.

As Tuesday’s anti-violence meeting unfolded, few paid much attention to a restaurant manager who deliberately tried to blend into the background as she made sure pitchers of water were filled and the muffin trays replenished.

“I just want to stay focused and stay strong for the staff,” she told me. She spoke on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.

She had worked late the night Leonard was killed. After seeing the emergency vehicle lights flashing through the restaurant windows, she walked outside. The ride-hail vehicle driver was seated on the curb, bleeding. A few feet away, Leonard was lying on his back, emergency medical technicians feverishly doing CPR.

“I can’t get that image out of my head,” she said. She did not know at the time that the man riddled with bullets was Leonard. It wasn’t until the next day that she found out, when someone asked her to view footage from a security camera.

“They said the man had been wearing a Busboys and Poets T-shirt and wanted to know if I knew who he was,” she recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I had just spoken to Mario before he left. It’s been haunting me ever since.”

Trauma reverberates through the case, just as it does with every homicide. Leonard’s childhood had been unimaginably traumatic, losing a mother in a fire and then both grandparents. Who knows how that had affected him. Police believe he was targeted but still don’t know of a motive for the killing.

Anybody who has been in D.C. for a few years won’t be surprised to know how the Leonard murder case has unfolded so far: Police are still looking for witnesses, a lead, a tip — anything that might help bring the killer to justice.

The standard reward for such information is $25,000 — almost as much as a social worker makes in a year. Still, no leads, no tips, no arrests. At 9:30 p.m. on one of the busiest commercial strips in Southeast Washington, nobody saw a thing. All police have is a description of the assailants’ vehicle that was caught on a security camera. “Look out for a gray Buick sedan,” D.C. police tweeted. “Do not take action call 911.”

Multiply that unsolved case by several in D.C. and you have a new criminal code that trumps the activists’ biblical commandment. Call it the 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Get Caught.

Having so many killers on the loose makes a city anxious. Add to that the haunting effect that Leonard’s death has had on the restaurant manager. Seeing a co-worker alive one minute and his dead body lying in the street the next.

“They were giving him CPR and then they just stopped, put him on a stretcher and put a sheet over him,” she recalled. She said she decided to come back to work without taking time off to be there with and for her co-workers. Leonard’s brother had to take a leave of absence and has not been able to return to work yet.

“I put on a good face at work,” the manager said, “but believe me when I get home, crying is my best friend.”

The Thou Shalt Not Kill signs will probably prick some consciences, as intended. Others might be moved to put away their guns, as is hoped. But some will remain numb. Not because they don’t care. They just can’t take anymore. No need for them to be reminded about another young Black man’s lost life.

The killings are all too real.