The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

11-year-old fatally shot in Southeast D.C. after anti-violence July 4 cookout

Davon McNeal with his mother, Crystal McNeal, who works for the D.C. government as a violence interrupter. The 11-year-old was fatally shot Saturday night after an anti-violence cookout. (Family photo)

In a city convulsed by Black Lives Matter protests and experiencing a surge of deadly violence, the Fourth of July cookout was supposed to be a small step forward.

The family-focused event was organized by Crystal McNeal, whose job as a city “violence interrupter” means she spends her days with some of the District’s most hardened criminals, mediating disputes and trying to persuade them to put down their firearms.

McNeal’s son Davon, 11, joined her near the end of the event, which was aimed at building trust and peace.

While the cookout in the Cedar Gardens section of Anacostia was winding down, five men began shooting in the street nearby, police said.

At least one bullet struck Davon in the head, killing him.

The sixth-grader, a youth football star who dreamed of going pro, had just completed his first year at Kramer Middle School. His family had moved from the neighborhood a year earlier, said his paternal grandfather, John Ayala. When the shooting started, Davon was headed to a relative’s house near the cookout site to pick up ear buds and a cellphone charger while his mother waited in a car, Ayala said.

“We just had a real genuine kid who wanted to get out of the neighborhood. That’s all he said is, ‘I’m gonna make it,’ ” said Kevin McGill, who coaches Davon’s team, the Metro Bengals. “These kids’ lives are being robbed over nothing.”

The circumstances surrounding the shooting were unclear, but police said Davon was shot around 9:20 p.m. in the 1400 block of Cedar Street SE in Anacostia, just as the annual fireworks display burst over the Mall four miles away.

Davon’s death, and another fatal shooting outside a McDonald’s Saturday night in Southeast Washington, pushed to seven the number of people killed in the District in the first four days of July.

Eighty-nine people have been killed in the city this year — a 17 percent increase from this time last year, which ended with a decade-high number of killings. The 2019 homicide victims included 11-year-old Karon Brown, who would have been in Davon’s middle school class at Kramer.

“This class of students, the same class of students who had to deal with Karon last summer, have now lost Davon,” Kramer Principal Katreena Shelby said on Sunday. “It is astonishing and sad to witness the resiliency of the students I serve.”

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) tweeted that the shooting of Davon was “horrendous.” She said police were looking for a black sedan seen speeding down an alley near the Frederick Douglass Garden apartments, a complex named for the famed abolitionist and former slave who lived the last 17 years of his life in Anacostia.

McNeal last year negotiated a truce among feuding combatants in Anacostia’s Cedar Gardens area, after taking more than a dozen young men from the neighborhood on a retreat to the Eastern Shore. Five of those individuals later left the neighborhood and two entered a jobs program, those who work with McNeal said.

But the cease-fire didn’t last. A week ago, surveillance cameras captured gunmen emerging from a vehicle and opening fire on the same block in which Davon was shot. No one was hit in the earlier shooting, but video released by police shows one man was armed with an assault-style rifle.

“She was the person who helped that community,” Ayala said of McNeal. “She was putting on a community cookout to stop the violence, and her own son got killed.”

Ayala, 50, said his grandson should have been in Florida instead of on Cedar Street over the holiday weekend. He had planned to take Davon and his other grandchildren to a resort outside Orlando for two weeks but canceled the trip because of the spikes in coronavirus cases there.

Noting the demonstrations against racism and police brutality that have raged in the District and elsewhere since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ayala said he agrees with some protesters who say cities should turn to social workers and other civilians — rather than police — to deal with poverty, homelessness and other social problems.

But he also said: “We need more police, to put a dent in this crime.”

In the District, violence interruption workers like McNeal are dedicated to preventing crime before it happens.

“Every time I would go up around Cedar Street, she would be out engaging a young man,” said Delbert McFadden, the director of the District’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which oversees the Violence Interrupter program. He visited with McNeal at the cookout about two hours before the shooting.

Karon Brown, 11, fatally shot weeks before starting sixth grade

At Kramer Middle School, staff said everyone knew Davon. His friends called him DayDay or the Dark Knight for his skills on the football field. Since preschool, he was always with his two best friends, all three of whom had nicknames that began with the letter D.

Assistant Principal Michael Redmond, who had known Davon since elementary school, said the three boys held each other accountable, pushing each other to do better in school and in sports.

“I can’t think of a better example of friendship and brotherhood, commitment and a fierce protectiveness of each other and a deep bond,” Redmond said. “It’s the three Ds.” 

Davon’s first-period classroom was next to the principal’s office. Shelby said Davon hugged her each time he saw her.

When schools closed in March and distance learning began, Redmond noticed that Davon was always logging on and completing his work. So he messaged Davon — who was popular among his peers — and asked if he would call his classmates and encourage them to participate more.

Dvorak: Coronavirus has not stopped our other pandemic: gun violence

Davon, a star running back and linebacker, watched videos of himself playing to improve his game and never missed a practice or fundraiser for his team. He would call his coach each day and ask: “What time are you picking me up?”

After the coronavirus pandemic forced his team off the field, Davon started spending more time playing video games. Fortnite was his favorite. Then, one day last month, McGill called to say the city was easing restrictions and the Bengals could resume light practices.

At first, Davon said he was quarantining and continued playing his Xbox. But when he realized he could really leave home and start conditioning with some of his teammates, he called his coach back.

“What time are you picking me up?” he asked.

In December, Davon’s team made it to the national 10-year-old division championship game in Florida. Davon’s mother and other relatives went to support him. Every time he scored a touchdown, the entire crowd could hear the proud McNeal family erupt in cheers, his coaches said.

McGill recalled that Davon once sprained his ankle during a game, and his coaches couldn’t convince him to leave the field. He played the whole game, scoring touchdowns on his injured foot.

“A great child. Great attitude. Focused, always positive. Everything you could want in a kid, he was,” said Harold “Shootah” Redd, president of the Metro Bengals, an organization that provides youth cheer and football programs in the District.

In English class this winter, Davon was assigned to write a speech about a courageous historical figure who inspired him. The sixth-grader chose Douglass, whose name is on the community center next to where Davon was shot.

Redmond recalled Davon’s father coming to school and watching with pride as his son delivered the speech.

Davon told his classmates that he was inspired by Douglass, Redmond said, “because he wanted to make sure everyone who is from his community is successful.”

‘Here, life is cheap’: One D.C. store, 16 surveillance cameras, and two murders in seven months

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news