“Ninety-nine percent of police officers are good,” said a young White man as he loudly asserted that calls to defund the police had made the city less safe.
Kevin Wood, a 31-year-old caterer, snorted nearby in disbelief.
“Walk a mile in my shoes,” retorted Wood, who is Black. “See the difference.”
The debate under the flashing police lights took place minutes before D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Robert J. Contee III arrived on the scene July 22 to denounce the gun violence that would make headlines on cable news shows nationwide.
Since a series of high-profile shootings over the last few weeks, there have been waves of tense conversations across D.C. about the recent increase in violent crime and what to do about it. From the majority-Black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River that have long been afflicted by gun violence to wealthier, Whiter parts of the city that have only sporadically experienced it, there is a sense that the issue is receiving more attention now in part because the violence is touching gentrified areas like 14th Street NW.
Versions of these conversations have followed other crime upticks in the city, where even this summer, violence is only a fraction of what it was in the 1990s when D.C. was dubbed the murder capital of the country. But a year after D.C. became an epicenter for protests over the murder of George Floyd, the dialogue playing out on street corners and in neighborhood bars has taken on a special intensity, revealing deep political and racial divides within the nation’s capital.
With the city on track to match the 16-year high for homicides it reported last year, Bowser has said that she has heard from residents that they want a strong police presence and “do not feel safe while the threat of gun violence looms.” In February, she declared gun violence a public health crisis, creating a program that addresses underlying causes of crime such as drug addiction, joblessness and poverty.
Still, in July alone, 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney was killed while with her family in the Congress Heights neighborhood in Southeast Washington; gunshots outside Nationals Park sent fans in a stadium of 30,000 scrambling for cover; and on July 22, the 14th Street shooting left two men injured and many residents shaken just weeks after a man was killed by a stray bullet in the same area.
Outside the bar on 14th Street where Wood had come with a friend to grab a beer that night, he asked whether the other man had ever been to Southeast Washington, the quadrant of the city where by far the most fatal shootings this year have taken place. The other man, who identified as politically conservative and did not give his name because he said he would be judged at work, replied that he had only ever driven through.
“We could take a field trip,” Wood said. “A shooting is different in a White neighborhood than in a Black neighborhood.”
In Ward 8, where Nyiah was fatally shot, there have been 42 homicides reported so far this year — nearly 40 percent of all homicides across the District.
Meanwhile in Ward 2, which includes the block on 14th Street where the Logan Circle area shooting happened, there have been two.
The weekend after the 14th Street shooting, D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) was invited to speak on MSNBC. She said on the show that the shooting had disrupted an area that residents are used to feeling safe in — and acknowledged that such violence is a daily occurrence for people in other parts of the city.
“We should be outraged every time it happens,” she said.
Near the corner where Nyiah was shot, residents mused over iced tea and lemonade at the Players Lounge, a neighborhood restaurant and bar, about whether the shootings on 14th Street and Nationals Park would bring changes to policing.
“Now that stuff is happening west of the river, it’s going to be interesting to see if what happens on the east side will remain the same or if they employ new tactics,” Kristina Noell, the executive director of the Anacostia Business Improvement District, remembered saying.
“I don’t think what they do in Northwest will affect anything out here too much,” Steve Thompson, the owner of the bar, recalled replying.
Thompson, among the students who integrated what was then named Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, said he grew up understanding that there are different realities for neighborhoods based on who lives there, and, often, the color of their skin. So, he said he wasn’t surprised a shooting on 14th Street NW garnered as much, if not more attention in some circles, than the killing of a Black 6-year-old.
“It doesn’t frustrate me,” he said. “When you grow up in a certain environment, it’s what you expect.”
The widespread attention on D.C. crime — and the anxiety it has produced — has sparked concern among some that officials will respond with more policing, rolling back changes made in the wake of Floyd’s murder.
When D.C. Council members announced they would hold a roundtable in the last week of July on gun violence, Black Lives Matter D.C. responded with frustration, accusing them on Twitter of using “the community’s righteous anger” to “gain momentum for an arbitrary number of new police and a bigger budget.”
But Thompson and Noell, like many others who live in high-crime neighborhoods, say the answer is not defunding police. Thompson said that police are generally doing their best to keep the city safe. It’s just that their best isn’t quite enough.
Officers were nearby when Nyiah was fatally shot; they were five seconds away from the location on 14th Street NW when a man blasted bullets into the crowded dining area.
“I don’t know a whole lot more that you can do,” Thompson said.
But in a city where it seems like nearly everyone fancies themselves a political pundit, there have been no shortage of opinions about what needs to be done.
Residents in Columbia Heights debated whether the D.C. Council should allocate funding toward more police. In a Facebook group for Capitol Hill, Navy Yard and Barracks Row, members disagreed about whether Nationals Park officials were prepared enough to respond to the threat of a shooting. And on Twitter, debates raged — including about whether people are overreacting.
“I mean. When I grew up around there this was normal,” one user wrote. “Gentrification is weird.”
“The gun situation in DC is out of control,” another wrote. “We’re under siege!”
But the incidents outside the baseball stadium and on 14th Street NW changed little for Yvonne Peterson, an 83-year-old lifetime D.C. resident who lives in the Fort Stanton neighborhood in Southeast Washington. She said she hardly remembers mentioning the shootings to her husband.
“In Southeast,” she said, “you kind of get used to hearing about it.”
The shooting on 14th Street NW, however, rattled Jeffrey Willis, a White man who has lived a few blocks off the U Street corridor in Northwest Washington for 20 years.
“Jeez, are we safe anymore?” he remembers asking his friend at the gym shortly after.
The friend, who is Black, responded in a way that surprised Willis. His friend focused not on the threat posed by crime, but on the threat posed by police to Black residents, Willis said, including recounting the time a D.C. police officer referred to him as “boy.”
Willis, 62, acknowledges he was a force of gentrification when he bought a house in the neighborhood two decades ago, but the conversation with his friend was jarring. He had thought of the D.C. police department as one of the most “woke” and has often been frustrated its officers do not do more to stop low-level crime.
“Maybe,” he said he found himself realizing, “I am missing something.”
The conversation had followed a deluge of messages on Willis’s local email group and on Nextdoor about violence, rowdy behavior near bars, noise from ATVs, trash and illegal parking.
“We have lost control of the streets here & apparently elsewhere,” wrote Willis in one message.
Shortly after came a terse reply from a woman who said she grew up in Shaw and was angered by what she saw as a desire to over-police Black communities and a refusal to understand the Black culture long at the heart of Shaw.
“All,” she wrote. “Have you considered moving to the suburbs?”
In front of the caution tape blocking off the scene on 14th Street NW, Wood said he does not feel there are clear answers to curbing the violence.
He does not believe in defunding the police, who he said he knows have an important purpose. But listening to the young White man describe 99 percent of officers as good, he realized how different their realities were.
Wood said in a later interview that he wished he could have told that man about all the times he’d felt profiled by police — beginning when an officer warned him as a middle-schooler about loitering as he played basketball. Or when an officer pulled his mother over while she was driving and accused Wood, just 12 at the time, of “looking at him funny.” Or when, more recently, an officer cursed at him and his friends and knocked a box of chicken out of his friend’s hands, daring him to react.
“You walk a mile in my shoes,” he said that night, “and you’d be mad as s--- every year.”
Shortly after, as the city’s police chief and mayor spoke to concerned citizens on 14th Street NW, a 26-year-old man was shot and killed about six miles away — in Southeast Washington.
Peter Hermann, Julie Zauzmer and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.