The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He used to sell drugs on D.C. streets. Now he’s paid to make them safer.

Duane Cunningham, shown in August, is a member of the District's Violence Interrupters, a group that works in troubled neighborhoods to try to stop violence before it happens. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The boys, barely in their teens, were angry. A young man they knew had been shot dead.

Robbie Merritt was not the first man from around their Southeast Washington neighborhood who had recently been killed. Just the latest.

There was J Rock. Popcorn. Reagle. Butter Rock. Black. Carno.

The nicknames were rattled off by Duane Cunningham, a 46-year-old city worker. With a promise of pizza, he had gathered the group of teens at a neighborhood recreation center on a rainy fall evening to talk about life in this sliver of neighborhoods in the far southern tip of the District and about what would come next.

His looming — yet unstated — question to the group: Were there threats to avenge Robbie’s death?

“Have any of you ever felt like you need to have a gun in your life?” he asked.

A smattering of hands went up.

“Get him before he gets me,” said a ninth-grader, his voice barely audible, the studs in his ears gleaming under a hoodie pulled up over his head.

Whether youthful swagger or simple fact, the ease and proficiency in which the 14-year-old and his friends talked about guns shows how much a part of life they are in some city neighborhoods. Cunningham pressed the teen for more.

The former drug dealer has reinvented himself as one of more than a dozen “Violence Interrupters” in the District, trying to stop shootings before they happen. It is a tough job with homicides mounting and approaching the number reached in 2015, when a summer surge of shootings ended nearly a decade of declines in killings.

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Inside the safe confines of the Ferebee Hope Recreation Center, the youth shrugged in the direction of the front door, where a security guard clad in body armor and distracted by his smartphone stood sentry.

Outside, drab low-slung public housing cubes stretched on in Washington Highlands, known here by the name of one notorious street — Condon Terrace.

Out there, the boys said, they needed to protect themselves.

Out there, the 14-year-old said, “It’s real.”

'Dying over the smallest stuff'

Cunningham grew up in Anacostia and sold drugs along Good Hope Road during the 1980s crack epidemic.

He was 18 the first time he was locked up, the same year he dropped out of high school. He went to prison in 1990, the year then-Mayor Marion Barry was arrested smoking crack, the year 474 people were slain in the District during its most murderous era. Cunningham served 10 years in prison, most of them in the long-closed Lorton prison.

The father of five said he did what he had to do to get by, but he also “regrets that I helped destroy my community.”

With a stocky build, black or multicolored Kufi and a flash of the heavy silver chain he wears to mark his prison conversion to Islam, Cunningham exudes the cred of a man who has intimated both city blocks and cell blocks. While he was selling drugs and in prison, people called him “Cousin Wayne.” The nickname stuck.

These days, he starts work after commuters have gone home, drawing up to $45,000 a year as one of 18 Violence Interrupters, the District’s new front line in combating violence. The program is part of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, launched in 2017 as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s $5.4 million yearly investment to combat crime in ways traditional police cannot.

Cunningham interacts very little with police. A school resource officer may tip him off to a fight that could escalate outside the classroom, but he does not investigate crime or help those who do.

He is not looking for who pulled the trigger.

“My job is to make sure it don’t go no further,” he said.

In Sacramento, trying to stop a killing before it happens

Similar initiatives have been started in Baltimore, Chicago and some other cities. The hope is that fellow residents, those who understand what it is like to live in a violent neighborhood, can convince others to join a jobs program, stay in school, stop selling drugs. Lower a gun.

The impact is hard to measure — a dispute quieted, anger channeled elsewhere, retaliation that is never carried out. But city leaders hope small success stories eventually will show up in the broader violent crime numbers, which for now are trending the wrong way.

So Cunningham and the other interrupters spend time in neighborhoods, talking and listening.

One of Cunningham’s regulars, a man with long dreadlocks, said he recently got out of prison for robbing a drug dealer. The two occupy a murky world — Cunningham does not know the man’s real name, but he trusts his intel on neighborhood beefs and tensions. They met one summer night on the steps of a shuttered school.

The man said people used to fight over street corners and drug turf, but the drug trade has changed, in many cases disappearing into the dark corners of the Internet. The fistfuls of cash are gone, too, but with less cash around, it takes less for tempers to flare, he said.

Said Cunningham: “People are dying over the smallest stuff.”

And getting a gun, the man with the dreadlocks added, “is like getting candy out of a store. People got more guns out there than money.”

A hard sell

Cunningham drives around in his used 2001 black Chevrolet Tahoe, now burdened with 322,000 miles, hitting the hot spots — back alleys and streets — finding ways to connect with people.

“It’s tough out here, but at the end of the day, they don’t have to live this life,” Cunningham said. “They just don’t know it. Their dad is in jail. Their moms ­are spending their checks on the street. These kids are trying to feed their families. It’s not like they woke up one morning ­and said, ‘I’m going to kill ­somebody.’ ”

Cunningham says his generation let down the one that followed. “A lot of us went to jail, so we weren’t here to take care of our kids,” he said. “The kids thought this was the best way to live because they saw us making all this money back in the day.”

One evening this summer, he unpacked a grill in an alley next to a closed laundromat on 16th Street in Southeast and threw on some burgers and hot dogs. A man was killed a block up on U Street earlier this year. A female bystander was fatally shot at the same place last year.

A few women took over the grill. The steady beat of hip-hop blared from an open car window. Several men started playing dice. A few appeared animated on K2. Another told how she served 15 years in prison for driving drugs from New York to the District back in ’78 and beat her addiction. “I’m grateful where God has me be at,” she said as she heaped burgers onto paper plates.

A craving for snacks brought three D.C. boys out on a frigid night. Then gunfire changed everything.

The crowd was mostly older men and women.

“It’s the younger ones I’m really trying to chase,” Cunningham said. “They are at the top of the hill. They’ll come down here.”

His sell is hard.

When the young people listen, he said, he tells them about various programs the District offers, even to felons, to get their lives on track.

Two men who knew Cunningham from his old days looked on.

Bryan Williams, who grew up in Anacostia, summed up the challenge:

“He got to get in the hotheads’ heads.”

Marching against violence

The Benning Terrace field is more than a place to play football. It is a safe haven between rival neighborhoods.

So one night in early November, kids ages 5 to 14, who make up the three football teams, picked up signs instead of gear.

Cunningham organized a march through the hidden pathways and cuts of Simple City, the name of a ruthless gang from the ’90s that has long defined this place.

“Let me live in Peace,” one placard read.

“What has violence solved? Nothing,” read another.

Days earlier, a man had been fatally shot on a street that runs by the field. Police said 79 bullets were fired.

Tracking Washington area homicides

As the kids marched, neighbors emerged from behind shut doors and applauded. Cars stopped. A beat officer got out of his cruiser and handed out cards with info on a tip line.

“The killings, the shootings are outside their houses,” said Nakeda Gilbert, an administrative assistant at Fannie Mae who grew up in Southeast with the team’s coach and drives in from Maryland to help out. “They have no choice but to know what’s going on.”

'It happens here'

Five miles away, at the Ferebee Hope Recreation Center, the group of teens confronted the divisions and alliances that often sparked violence.

“What happens when you go to their store?” Cunningham asked the group.

“You get shot,” a young man answered.

“What happens when they come to your store?” Cunningham asked.

“They get shot,” the same boy answered.

Cunningham has met with these young men before, one-on-one, pressing each to take advantage of programs offered through the city, the schools and the recreation center.

This day, he challenged their tough talk.

“What do loafing mean?” Cunningham asked.

“Like you’re beefing. All tens,” the 14-year-old answered.

“Tell me what all tens means?”

“Be prepared.”

“Where your gun gonna be at?”

The youth formed his right hand into a gun and held it next to his waistband.

But Cunningham had brought in a ringer. Tameka Merritt, Robert “Robbie” Merritt’s mother, was listening. Robbie had been shot in October at age 26. He hung out at the rec center too, and all the teens knew him.

She jumped in.

“You all really need to get it together,” the 47-year-old told them, her voice rising. “You know who’s carrying guns around here. You know who they want to beat up. Get away from them.”

“This s--- is not a joke,” said the mother, who lost another son years ago. He was suspected in four killings when he was fatally shot at age 16. “This s--- is the norm now. Every time a body drops, before it gets on the ground, they posting it on IG and Facebook, like it’s regular.”

Cunningham told them to be smart and stay away from trouble. That means staying away from the store. The corners. Older boys with guns. Weed. The dark.

He asked them about Robbie and the others. “When they woke up that morning, did they think they was gonna die that day? How do you know you’re not going to die tomorrow?”

The teen in the hoodie answered.

“I don’t think they knew they were gonna die, but it happens here.”