The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. sued anti-violence activist Ron Moten over city funds. But with homicides rising, leaders want his help.

Community activist Ronald L. Moten meets with a group of young people in April to discuss how to reduce violence in Southeast Washington. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

It was October 2013, and Ronald L. Moten was rushing around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center as professional boxing fans spilled into the halls between matches.

Moten, the tireless, fast-talking man who established a rapport with D.C. youths through his anti-violence, anti-gang work over nearly 20 years, was there to peddle his autobiography, “Drinking Muddy Water.” Halfway though the event, a man walked up and asked him whether he was Ron Moten. Moten flashed his large grin, thinking he was about to make another book sale.

“You’ve been served,” the man said, handing Moten a court summons and then scurrying away.

The District of Columbia and then-Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan had filed a lawsuit against Moten and his anti-violence youth mentoring group, Peaceoholics. The city claimed Moten — who served as chief operating officer of the group — and the group’s other founding partner, Jauhar Abraham, had submitted false tax returns to secure millions of dollars in city grants. The city also claimed Moten, Abraham and the nonprofit Peaceoholics misappropriated some of those funds for personal use.

“It hurts to this day because I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Moten, 49. “It was never about money with me. Never. If that’s the case, I would have went to work in for-profit, instead of nonprofit. I’m an innovator. I hustle hard, and I earned everything I got.”

After court hearings that stretched over three years, Moten in 2016 settled with the city for $10,000, promising to pay $200 a month. As part of the agreement, he did not admit any wrongdoing but was prohibited from serving in any financial management role of any nonprofit organization in the District.

District reaches settlement with Peaceoholics co-founder in misappropriations case

Then, last month, there was a striking about-face from the District. Citing a rise in homicides, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine filed a motion releasing Moten — who said he has paid the city about $1,500 — from further payments. The reason: The city needs him.

“At a time when rising murders and violence are occurring, we need all hands on deck. And I don’t want his hands limited in any way,” Racine said. “I know Ron Moten well and all that he has been doing for the community. I’ve always wanted to revisit exactly what we required Mr. Moten to do, given his extraordinary contributions to the District of Columbia in reducing violence and trying to get young people back in the right direction.”

'An all-out war'

Moten grew up in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington. In 1991, when he was 21, he was arrested for selling crack cocaine in Northwest and spent four years in prison. While incarcerated, he earned his GED and took college classes. When he was released, Moten said, he wanted to help young people in the city avoid the kinds of mistakes he made.

He and Abraham founded ­Peaceoholics in 2004 after working with D.C. teens on conflict resolution and gang intervention in schools and juvenile centers. At its height, Peaceoholics had 60 employees with a budget of $3.2 million. It disbanded in 2012.

For Moten, the city’s recent reprieve gave him a much-needed boost after years of public disputes with city officials. Two years before the 2013 lawsuit, a D.C. auditor determined former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s (D) administration improperly awarded more than $1 million to Peaceoholics, which Moten said began the group’s decline.

“It was an all-out war, and I lost everything,” said Moten, a father of six and grandfather of three.

“I lost my house. I lost my car. I had to sleep on my grandmother’s couch,” he added.

According to a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, in 2014, the District won a default judgment against Abraham in the amount of $638,989.50. In an interview, Abraham said he did nothing improper and disputes the finding.

As Peaceoholics unraveled, a national nonprofit, the Jack Kemp Foundation, hired Moten as a consultant to work with at-risk and troubled youths and prison entrepreneur classes across the country.

“Mo doesn’t try to be somebody he’s not. He’s very authentic. And so he doesn’t claim to be perfect,” said Kemp’s son, James, president of the organization, named after the late Republican congressman and Cabinet member. “Mo wants a stronger community, and because of his understanding of redemption, he recognizes everyone deserves a chance at redemption.”

D.C. group goes from street gang to clothing start-up

Moten also got to know a group of gay and lesbian teens from the Trinidad neighborhood who called themselves the Check It gang. The group’s members had terrorized people outside the downtown Gallery Place Metro station and had been arrested on charges of robbery, theft and fighting.

Moten helped them change that path and turn their passion for fashion into a legitimate business. With Moten as a consultant and partner and with seed money from the Kemp Foundation, the youths opened a clothing store in Southeast specializing in T-shirts. The gang’s journey from the streets to clothing retailer became the subject of a documentary.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) watched Moten work with the Check It teens and said the District would grant him a contract again should the right situation arise. “People deserve second chances,” she said.

“The Peaceoholics were effective. And I think that we are approaching crime prevention and violence interruption in every way possible in as many neighborhoods as possible.”

Moten has been consulting with local groups that emerged following Peaceoholics’ demise and are working with troubled teens. Some are headed by men and women who, as youths, were mentored by Moten.

Warees Majeed and Monica Watts both have nonprofit businesses that focus on finding opportunities for District teens. Watts, 29, a former gang leader during her teens, focuses on helping troubled teenage girls. Majeed, 40, concentrates on workforce development, after-school programs, career introduction and behavioral modification.

“When I first started this, Mo told me, ‘You can’t save everybody, and you can’t stop everything,’ ” Majeed said. Moten taught him how to write grant proposals and educated him on the procurement process for D.C. and federal contracts. Moten also told Majeed he had to leave the drug-dealing from his youth behind. “He said you have to understand you can’t have one foot in and one foot out.”

'Empower them to move forward'

At 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds, Moten buzzes with energy, often checking his phone for text messages and phone calls as he juggles a variety of advocacy projects.

A registered Republican who launched a failed bid for a D.C. Council seat in 2012, Moten said he has been a guest at the White House three times in the past two years. He worked with White House staffers through the Kemp Foundation on creating opportunities for people released from prison.

President Trump “has done more for returning citizens then the last two Democratic presidents, whether I like him or not,” Moten said.

Moten also was one of the leaders who recently rallied supporters behind the owner of an electronics shop in the Shaw neighborhood after a resident of a new luxury condominium nearby complained to city agencies that the store was playing go-go music loudly outside.

‘Where’s my go-go music?’ Residents say turn up the funk after a complaint silenced a D.C. intersection.

And he’s working with the Smithsonian Institution on creating an exhibit or space devoted to go-go music that would teach the history of the genre, have bands perform and also instruct enthusiasts how to play.

But he said he still struggles financially, renting a basement apartment from a friend and living on about $30,000 last year that he earned from consulting.

“People say all the time, ‘You don’t sleep,’ ” Moten said with a laugh. “I don’t know how broke people sleep. I’m 50 years old and don’t have a pot to piss in. I’m too broke to sleep.”

Moten said he is too old to start another full-time youth organization, which would include taking phone calls and rushing out to neighborhood streets day and night. But he still sees a way to help.

“At just about 50 years old, I can take all my wisdom that I gained from my mistakes and from things I did well and use it to train others,” he said. “I’m smart enough to realize I’m more powerful in magnifying me and making people come behind me greater than me.”

He said his goal is to create an institute or facility where he can teach people how to work with youths and conduct gang intervention and conflict resolution while also teaching entre­pre­neur­ship, as he did with the Check It gang. Moten said one of the biggest mistakes is not arming teens with strategies to help them in the long run.

“It’s not enough to just tell them not to fight or how to control their anger,” he said. “We have to empower them to move forward and to teach them to do for themselves.”

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