The laundromat near the Benning Road Metro station in Southeast Washington was called Mama’s long before Bernetta Cephas claimed the title when she came five years ago to work the 3-to-9 evening shift.
Signs inside warn against charging cellphones, wearing pants too low and asking for change. Last week, “Miss Mama,” as she is known, taped up two grim additions: D.C. police posters asking for help solving recent killings. Cephas knew both victims, shot in broad daylight in the neighborhood.
The laundromat has become a refuge for those who pass through — police officers on their lunch breaks; corner boys escaping the rain; a homeless 13-year-old. It sits at the vibrant crossroads of Benning Road and East Capitol Street, the heart of Ward 7, where gunfire is not uncommon and homicides this year have increased threefold.
As of Friday, 21 people have been killed this year in Ward 7, among the city’s poorest and most violent areas, compared with seven at this time last year. The ward, one of eight in the city, accounts for nearly half the District’s 47 killings this year. Seventeen of Ward 7’s homicides occurred during daylight or evening hours.
Concern about the killings reached a new level of urgency Monday, when a young man and a woman were fatally shot three hours and five blocks apart — cases that police think are linked. As of Saturday there were no arrests in the slayings of Tayvon Devonte Cummings, 22, and Tracey Louise Cooper, 45, but police have said they think the shootings were the result of disputes involving people who knew each other.
In the neighborhood, they have prompted discussion but not fear, the general feeling being that the shootings were targeted. But people are shaking their heads at an apparent split in an otherwise tight group of friends that apparently led to the killing of the woman. Still, anything but quiet whispering is discouraged. One of several older men who set up chairs under a shade tree just steps from where Cummings was shot summed up the mood:
“I don’t ask no questions. I don’t want to get shot.”
Cephas struggled to count the people who have passed through her laundromat over the years and became murder victims. “Four so far,” she said, pausing. “Five, six — they cut his throat right out here.” She reached eight, rattling off the dead by their nicknames on the street.
“Miss Mama,” a single mother, raised eight children, now between the ages 17 and 34. All are successful, she said, among them two who are in college, another a store clerk and a third working in Dallas. Outside the shop, she sees people who are less fortunate.
“It’s like a bubble out there,” Cephas said, gazing at a bustling interchange and men on folding chairs whiling away the last few hours of daylight. “Some of these people, they’ve never been off Benning Road.”
On Monday last week, Cephas heard the gunfire that at 1 in the afternoon claimed the life of a young man who had hung out at her store in the Benco Shopping Center. From her front door, she watched people scatter, not knowing that Cummings managed to fire his gun toward her strip mall even as he collapsed to his knees on a gravel road and later died. And Cephas counted Cooper, fatally shot three hours later, as a monthly regular before police said a gunman targeted her in the driveway of her duplex on 49th Street SE.
Law enforcement officials said detectives are investigating whether Cooper’s assailant may have thought someone close to her was involved in the Cummings slaying. There are many intertwined lives in this neighborhood. Both Cummings and Cooper’s son hung out at the strip mall, both calling Cephas “Miss Mama.”
The conversation about the killings in Ward 7 and whether they portend a violent summer reminiscent of last year — when homicides surged 54 percent — have spread into the contested race for the Ward 7 council seat.
Former D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), making a bid to reenter District government, has shown up at several crime scenes. He has used Twitter to prod his opponent, Yvette Alexander (D), in the June 14 primary, saying the city failed to recognize the urgency: “Yvette Alexander tweeted at Chief Lanier to request a plan for Ward 7. What took so long? Details?”
Alexander responded after Monday’s shootings: “We need to come up with a plan of action, because our residents want some assurance that they are safe in their community as they should be.”
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier called the political wrangling unfortunate and said it could scare people from cooperating. “Politicians spinning about how it’s getting out of control shuts that down for me,” she said of tips.
Lanier said that the number of homicides was unusually low in Ward 7 at this time in 2015 and that the level of deadly violence is similar to what it was during the same period in 2014. Robberies without guns in Ward 7 are down to 85 from 114 at this time in 2015, but gun robberies are up from 66 to 103. Assaults with dangerous weapons, which includes shootings, are down from 72 to 58.
Police said arrests have been made in at least nine Ward 7 homicides. Several of the killings were street shootouts, and two teens were slain at the same Metro station. In one case, a barber is accused of punching another barber during an argument in the shop. In another, police said a man hijacked a Metrobus and subsequently struck and killed a pedestrian in a gas station parking lot.
Lanier pulled extra police from three districts to augment the force in Ward 7 after Monday’s shootings, and she launched this year’s annual Summer Crime Initiative in the ward on May 1, earlier than in other areas. The initiative also involves helping connect residents with myriad government social services.
But Lanier said that even police on every corner can’t always deter violent crime. She said there was a uniformed officer on the very block earlier this month, when a gunman fatally shot a man across the street from a community baseball field. “If someone is committed to shooting someone, they’re going to shoot someone,” Lanier said.
Tensions were evident along Benning Road when the slain Cooper’s son was arrested after police said he became angry at the scene of his mother’s killing and later, while talking to detectives, threatened the person he thinks killed her. He was charged and released, confined to his house and ordered to stay away from the area around the intersection. The son later told police his statements “were made out of frustration.”
Tony Lewis, 24, grew up on these streets and works part-time repairing heating and air conditioning units. He helps out at a stand offering shoes, hats and bags that sits outside the Shrimp Boat, a landmark seafood spot at the intersection.
Lewis knows tourists arrive in his city for monuments and the White House, or the arts and club scene, but for him, this spot at the Shrimp Boat is the District as it should be: chaotic, vibrant, colorful, loud, edgy and scrappy. “This right here is the real D.C.,” he said. “It’s a good place. I wouldn’t want to live nowhere else. I love this place.” He acknowledges that young people need help; more city services, more activities to keep them from finding trouble and trouble finding them.
But Angela Leonard has a hard time seeing that kind of hope. She too sells merchandise at the Shrimp Boat bazaar and has watched the ebb and flow of the neighborhood for the past 15 years as she hawked shoes, purses and hats.
Two years ago in March, she left her two sons in charge of the stand about 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday. Thirty minutes later, a man stepped onto the sidewalk and approached one of her sons, 20-year-old Kevin Leonard, and the two argued. The man opened fire, killing Leonard. “Dude approached him and . . . they shot him dead in front my 12-year-old nephew,” Angela Leonard said. “In front of his brother.”
“People don’t know a mother’s pain until they lose a child,” she said. The gunman was never caught.
Leonard recounted her story one evening last week, saying she returns to her stand because “this is my bread and butter.”
From that spot, she has seen a gunman shoot up a bus stop. And tragedy again struck her family earlier this year when her 15-year-old nephew was fatally shot at the Deanwood Metro station.
On Monday, she saw people race from gunfire across the street, the bullets that killed Tayvon Cummings. “It’s crazy out here,” she said. “This don’t make no sense. They don’t play fair. They don’t fight fair. I leave it to God.”