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D.C. youth fatally shot days before his 14th birthday

Malachi Lukes, 13, shown taking part in a play about go-go-music in Shaw, was fatally shot Sunday in the 600 block of S Street NW. (Sudi West)
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Malachi Lukes had just returned from a trip to New York City, a surprise getaway with his family to celebrate his birthday, and he marveled at the vast bridges spanning the waterways around Manhattan.

He was to turn 14 on Thursday, and more gifts awaited the D.C. youth — a new pair of Air Jordans, jeans and the hoodies he liked. He had scored high on an eighth-grade test at Cardozo, and he had a summer job lined up, helping film a segment for Real News Camp, a social justice program produced at the Shaw Community Center.

On Monday, the gifts remained in his apartment unworn, his surprise trip now a memory only to his mother and a few others who had gone along.

Malachi was fatally shot just after 2 p.m. Sunday as he walked with friends to play basketball a few short blocks from his home in Shaw, in Northwest Washington. Police said a person opened fire on a group in an alley off the 600 block of S Street NW, hitting two teenagers. Malachi was struck in the neck.

Police have not commented on a possible motive but said it appeared the group had been targeted. No arrest has been made.

Tracking D.C.-area homicides

Malachi is one of 28 people killed this year in the District, on pace with a homicide count that made 2019 the deadliest in a decade. Just over two months into 2020, five teenagers have died in violence.

“I have no words,” said Malachi’s mother, Melissa Laws. “I’m broken, really.” Through tears, and in almost a whisper, Laws said she wanted her son’s death “to be a wake-up call.”

She paused, adding, “I wanted him to make a difference in this world.”

The shooting of Malachi and his friend, who was wounded, was one of six shootings across the District in a few hours. One claimed the life of Miguel Romero, 75, in Deanwood in Northeast Washington. Malik Brown, 24, of Northwest, was fatally shot Monday afternoon near Petworth in Northwest.

The loss of the young teen stood out.

“We think about a 13-year-old, it’s the type of violence that is gut-wrenching, it’s unacceptable, and I know all of our hearts go out to the boy’s family,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s public safety committee.

Laws, 40, is the program director at the Shaw Community Center, where she helps many at-risk children. She talked about the challenges her son was trying to overcome, with both the violence that seems to permeate their neighborhood and his interactions with police.

“I think he had the normal neighborhood encounters, like all these children do,” Laws said, noting challenges raising a young black male in the city. “There are just so many barriers that they are up against.”

One encounter stands out.

It was June, and Malachi was with other youths in the U Street Metro station. Police said they responded to a call for youths making threats with sticks. Laws said she believes her son was not among those making trouble. A Metro transit officer handcuffed Malachi and another boy.

Tapiwa Musonza, a 28-year-old graduate student at Howard University, questioned the officers about their tactics, and a Metro officer shot him with a stun gun. The incident was captured on video and spread on social media, prompting complaints and a lawsuit over police conduct.

Musonza became the focus of the story.

But Laws said it had a lasting impact on Malachi, something she testified about at a D.C. Council hearing last year on Metro’s “policing practices and their impact on people of color.”

Metro Transit Police investigate conduct after youths handcuffed on Metro

Malachi had been handcuffed by police before and after the Metro incident, his mother said. But she said his dealings with police at the Metro caused him to become withdrawn and lose sleep. He had behavioral issues at his charter school, and he recently transferred to the Cardozo Education Campus.

“His perception changed about who he wanted to be,” Laws said Monday. She noted her son had cried while standing cuffed on the Metro platform and then became embarrassed. “He was a very proud boy,” she said. “It was hard to get him to open up. He didn’t want anyone to see him as weak. The incident kind of broke him. . . . It made him really closed. He lost all respect for authority, to the point where you really couldn’t touch him.”

But even through his personal struggles, Malachi channeled his anger to try to make change. He gave an interview to WUSA-TV news about his run-in with police and talked to lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union. This past summer, he appeared as a lion in a production called the “Wizard of Shaw,” a play discussing go-go music after a new resident complained of loud music, prompting angry protests from longtime residents about threats to heritage in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Sudi West, the executive director of the Shaw Community Center, based at the historic Lincoln Congressional Temple United Church of Christ, had known Malachi since he was a toddler. He said the lion part symbolized the boy’s “courage to speak out and address injustice.”

West said that while Malachi may have withdrawn at school and in some social circles, he did not shirk from defending his friends or from speaking out on behalf of young teenagers. He described Malachi as “joyous and bright” and a “voice for his peers” born out of the realization that as a child he could be “publicly humiliated” without any recourse.

Laws said what she would remember most was her son’s intelligence. She said he scored near the top of his class on a recent test.

Laws said she does what she can do “to provide opportunity for young people.” But she said her son was no different from many of the children she counsels.

“He was just a normal teenage boy,” his mother said. “He lived, and he had the same struggles, the same issues, as all the other children growing up around here.”

“A lot of children look to me for answers,” Laws said of her job.

But at this moment, she did not know what she would tell the other children about Malachi’s death.

“I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

Correction: This story was changed to correct the last name of Melissa Laws.

Fenit Nirappil, Perry Stein and Alice Crites contributed to this report

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