The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On a D.C. street beset by gun violence, calls to fix policing, not defund it

A close friend of Davon McNeal is comforted after expressing his feelings about his slain friend as a crowd gathers for the celebration of the life of the 11-year-old sixth-grader, who was fatally shot by a stray bullet after a July 4 anti-violence cookout organized by his mother. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The children marching for Davon McNeal through the darkened streets of historic Anacostia this week shouted, “Kids’ Lives Matter.” Adults implored the crowd: “What. Is. His. Name?” to a thunderous ovation of “Davon.”

They screamed, “No justice, no sleep,” vowing to keep the neighborhood awake until the boy’s killers are arrested.

“Somebody knows something around here,” they yelled through bullhorns. Police arrested one suspect Thursday, a second Friday and continued to search for others.

Mourners for Davon, the 11-year-old star football player who was fatally shot at a Fourth of July stop-the-violence cookout in Southeast Washington, have borrowed stock phrases and modified others of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has focused its energy protesting the killings of people of color by police and calling on law enforcement agencies to be defunded.

Davon was one of 11 people fatally shot in the nation’s capital in the first week of July. His death came during a wave of violence that struck cities from Miami to Chicago over the Independence Day weekend, sparking new calls for people to get just as angry over the loss of a life taken by a person with a gun as a rogue police officer.

On Cedar Street, where Davon was shot and children are taught to duck when they hear gunshots, the residents’ long battle for just policing is intertwined with another reality: Each trip outside their front doors can be deadly.

There’s a grandmother afraid to leave her apartment after a gunman ran by her seconds after Davon fell mortally wounded; a young boy forbidden from taking out the trash because it’s too dangerous; a mother who piled her family’s belongings in boxes, rushing to escape.

Residents in this small Southeast Washington apartment community share the same fears of police and the same desire for a cultural change as those protesting the killing in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They want bad officers to be fired and jailed. They want society to confront racial bias in law enforcement. And they support pouring money into alternative justice programs.

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But their relationship with law enforcement is more complicated and nuanced than the slogans shouted in front of the White House. They are not so quick to support shrinking the size and wallets of the police force. If anything, they want more police, and they’re willing to invest to get them better trained and more attentive to their communities.

Matthew Underwood, 23, a landscaper who said he has been racially profiled — once searched for weapons because he said his seat belt was unfastened in a parked car — complained a police officer was at the far end of Cedar Street when Davon was shot.

“He wasn’t up there where the shooting came from,” Underwood said, noting two gunmen had shot up the street with assault-style weapons five days earlier. “That to me don’t make sense. They got to be more vigilant. They know where it’s coming from.”

Ebony Kibler, who has lived on Cedar Street for more than a decade, said both police and criminals put her 10-year-old son “at risk for maybe not coming back home to me. We already got crime going on. We don’t want to have to feel like we have to fight the police too.”

Kibler, a 35-year-old child counselor, said she tells her son to “be respectful” when encountering officers and to run inside when he sees someone with a gun.

“Once you step outside this door,” she said of her son, “there is nothing I can do to protect you.”

No easy solutions

Cedar Street is a strip of asphalt that rises slightly through rows of boxy red-brick apartments steps from where abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass lived the last 17 years of his life. It dead-ends at a cul-de-sac that loops around a traffic island like the eye of a needle, with more apartment blocks separated by a maze of pathways and lawns.

Davon’s mother, Crystal McNeal, lived here with her family until a year ago, when they moved to Maryland. Other relatives remained, and McNeal returned often for her job as a violence interrupter for the District, mediating disputes between rival crews as part of an effort to tamp down violence.

McNeal forged a truce after taking a group of young men on a retreat to the Eastern Shore, and she organized the July 4 cookout as a trust-building exercise. She worked in the type of alternative justice job activists and lawmakers want to expand.

She lost her son to the very violence she had worked to prevent.

“I don’t know if they let her down,” her father, Tony Lawson, said as he waited for a march for his grandson to begin. He sat near where Davon had been shot, where his mother had cradled him until an ambulance arrived.

Davon McNeal, 11, fatally shot at anti-violence cookout in Southeast Washington

On a front door to a nearby apartment building, someone pasted a police flier announcing a $25,000 reward for Davon’s killer next to a Black Lives Matter poster. Residents said the placement was no accident, a message that Davon’s life matters too. Police and court papers say the suspects all lived in or had ties to the neighborhood.

“We see all these protests only when an officer hurts a black person,” said Davon’s paternal grandfather, John Ayala, who runs a private security company and founded the D.C. chapter of the Guardian Angels. “Where are the Black Lives Matter people when black people are hurting black people?”

Black Lives Matter has long said caring about black lives lost to police does not exclude caring about black lives lost in other violent acts. April Goggans, a core organizer of Black Lives Matter in the District, posted on her Facebook page that “we’re all outraged and heart broken over a child being murdered.”

At a vigil Thursday night for Davon, D.C. Council Member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) challenged his constituents to be as determined to change the attitudes that lead to gun violence as they are in demanding change from police.

“We go hard when it’s the police doing it to us,” White said. But “just in the last seven days it’s us doing it to us, over seven people shot in Southeast.

“If the police are killing us, and we are killing us, there will be no more us.”

Five people have been killed in Anacostia so far this year, and slayings across the city are up 18 percent from last year’s decade high. As frustration mounts, so does the search for solutions.

After the D.C. Council unanimously voted last week for a budget that strips the District’s police force of millions of dollars, which will probably result in a smaller force, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said, “They made the District less safe.”

The police chief wants more officers and harsher penalties for repeat gun offenders, noting two of the suspects in Davon’s killing were awaiting trial in firearms cases. Members of the D.C. Council say those ideas don’t work and want a smaller force and money diverted to other programs to help communities.

The challenge is to address underlying causes of violence — rooted in a wide array of urban ills that police argue they’re ill-equipped to deal with but confront on a daily basis — poverty, drug addiction, joblessness, underfunded schools and lack of opportunity, to name a few.

Bowser, answering questions about Davon and her city’s spending plan last week, made it clear there are no easy solutions. “Are you suggesting to me there’s some magic answer that’s reflected in my budget?” the mayor said. “I wish there were.”

She added, “But it all makes us feel powerless to stop gun violence.”

A push for change

Balencia Adams’s mother lives on Cedar Street and saw gunmen as they ran from Davon’s shooting, close enough she saw green laser sights on the guns.

Adams, who is raising a 9-year-old son, lives near the complex and visits often. Before Davon was killed, Adams, 30, said, “I would say defund them,” referring to police. Now she is having second thoughts. Noting the death of the boy, she said, “This is beyond. Police need more presence here. They need to step it up. They’re sitting in their cars. Walk around. Where are all the police people on bicycles?”

Canethia Miller, 23, is raising two young sons on Cedar Street. She is starting a business to teach teens and young men how to invest money.

Miller said she fully supports Black Lives Matter — “it’s about time somebody said something” about police violence. “They need to put their money into training, because the way they’re being trained is not correct.

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“The best advice I can give you is stay in the house. I’m so serious. You go outside and think you’re having fun, the police might stop you from doing something, or claim it’s illegal, or you might get shot outside. Either way, it doesn’t work for us.”

Both officials and residents must look for answers, said William Borum, 59, who has lived on Cedar Street for eight years. He attended the demonstrations at Black Lives Matter Plaza and wants changes in policing. He also wants politicians to more strictly regulate firearms and thinks parents should go through their children’s things to learn what they’re up to.

But defund policing?

“Of course not,” Borum said. “That’s totally, totally wrong.”

Nyeem Smith watched Davon since he was 5 and saw him grow alongside his own son. The boys played football together, dreaming of one day playing professionally as teammates. Smith supports the progress the Black Lives Matter movement has made in sparking conversations about ­revamping the criminal justice system but said police are still needed.

“If someone shoots someone in the community, there has to be consequences,” Smith said. “For now, they are the only system in place to stop the people who killed Davon.”

But that system is flawed. He wants to see more programs to promote peaceful resolutions to disputes. He thinks police need more homegrown recruiting because “we don’t have people from our communities policing our community.” And he thinks departments need deeper psychological checks to find out if potential hires harbor racist beliefs.

“I think the BLM movement has opened the door,” Smith said. “They have perked up the ears of the people in charge to listen. I ain’t going to say dismantle it, but something has to change.”

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