Having followed in his dad’s footsteps to prison, Eric Jr., 30, was now following his dad’s path to productive citizenship. He had been making all the right moves: He had a job, reliable transportation and a safe place to live.
He had another essential ingredient for successful reentry into society — a support network, thanks largely to his dad.
Eric Weaver Sr., 49, founded an ex-offender advocacy organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens. He had job contacts, access to counseling resources and knew lots of men and women who had beaten the odds by not becoming repeat offenders.
Weaver Sr. also had good fatherly advice to give, based on experience gleaned from spending 22 years in prison for his involvement in the District’s crack cocaine wars of the 1980s — and more than 20 as a free man devoted to public service.
If anybody was supposed to have made it on the outside after a stint it prison, it should have been his son.
So far, no one seems to know. But with thousands of incarcerated men and women due for early release thanks to the passage of federal sentencing reform laws, finding out ought to be a priority.
Violence in low-income black neighborhoods in the District and Prince George’s County has long been the highest in the region. As of Monday, there have been 52 homicides in the District, a 37 percent increase over the same time last year. In Prince George’s, there have been 23 homicides as of Monday, compared with 19 at the same point last year.
Those communities are where ex-offenders are most likely to go upon their release. After all, that is where most of them grew up. But funneling them back into areas already caught in cycles of violence and revenge can sometimes be like pouring fuel on a fire.
On March 27, Weaver said, he received a telephone call saying that his son was at Prince George’s Hospital Center, suffering from a gunshot wound. Eric Jr. lived in Northeast Washington. Weaver said he does not know where his son was shot.
“When I got there, I was told he didn’t make it,” Weaver said. “I was told that somebody brought him to the hospital and drove off. I don’t know who brought him. I still don’t know what happened.”
Weaver had publicly bemoaned a rise in homicides in January, while participating in the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Walk and Parade through Southeast Washington.
Were King still alive, Weaver said, “He’d be disappointed. . . . We don’t come together as we should.”
In March, with homicides continuing the upward trend, he used social media to express dismay.
“I’m tired of seeing all of these R.I.P. posts,” he wrote on his Facebook page, referring to the Rest in Peace memorials that spring up moments after the bodies have been taken away. “I wanted to replace R.I.P. with L.I.P.,” Weaver told me. “Live in Peace and Love in Peace, not Rest in Peace.”
Less than a week later, Eric Jr. was killed. “And all of a sudden, I was among those posting R.I.P.,” he recalled.
Ronald Moten, a friend of Weaver’s and a fellow anti-violence activist, cited several possible causes for the recent upturn in violence.
“Some of the armed robberies are about economics — there are some desperate people out here,” he said. “But you also have people who are, for whatever reason, very angry and will kill over petty stuff. Then there are some killings that you just can’t explain, except to say that a lot of people are smoking K-2 [synthetic marijuana] and weed so potent that it makes them hallucinate and go crazy.”
For the returning citizen, avoiding troublesome people, places and things — guns and drugs, in particular — can be even more critical than finding a job. It’s not just a matter of losing one’s freedom; it’s a matter of life and death.
Eric Jr., who was 30, had been off to such a promising start.
He was insightful and hard-working, with a big smile and a charming personality. He was also remorseful.
“I look back at what I did, robbing somebody at an ATM, and I remember feeling stupid seconds after I did it,” Eric Jr. told me during our talk last year. “When I got caught a few hours later, I thought to myself, ‘That’s why you were feeling stupid.’ ”
He was also grateful, not just for getting a second chance at freedom but also for the time spent behind bars. In prison, he had learned to read, not just pronounce words. It was a new kind of freedom, the unshackling of his mind.
“Being able to comprehend what I read changed everything — my vocabulary, my writing, even my thought process changed,” he told me. “That’s when I realized the role of ignorance in making people act stupid.”
Said his father, “He was doing good. We’d been to a party. He was making everybody dance, making us all laugh.”
Three days later, he was gone.
“You work with people who have lost loved ones to violence and you think you know how they feel,” he said. “But you don’t. It’s a million times worse than I could have imagined.”
And the losses continue to mount, day after day.