Hoping to stem the bloodshed, a team of violence interrupters from Cure the Streets, a program under the D.C. attorney general’s office, stepped in to forge a cease-fire. Since that day in May, there hasn’t been a shooting in this part of the community in D.C.’s far southeastern tip.
Violence interrupters, often people who have overcome criminal pasts and now mediate disputes to prevent shootings, negotiated a truce over contentious Zoom meetings between warring street crews. The truce has held nearly 100 days into the hot summer, even as shootings and homicides in D.C. spike to decade-high levels.
The negotiators now call the area a “safe place from past drama.”
Daniel Becton, a retired 67-year-old maintenance man and longtime area resident, said, “There had been so much killing. Now the atmosphere has changed.”
He said jealousy drove tensions.
“One man has more than the other one. That’s all,” Becton said. “One person needs to be bigger than the other.”
The area covering the truce is small, a sliver of one neighborhood among dozens in the city overrun by crime. But many District leaders, including the D.C. Council, hope violence interrupters and other alternative-justice programs can curtail killings before the police get involved.
The team that secured the cease-fire hangs a banner in its office, titled “Days since last shooting,” with numbers displayed on placards that resemble old-fashioned manual baseball scoreboards. Saturday marked the 99th day without a shooting in the area.
“It’s a miracle, for real,” said Brittany Graham, an outreach worker with Cure the Streets.
When the negotiations began in May, Jovan Davis, the program director who grew up in Washington Highlands, said the antagonists “wouldn’t even talk to each other. It was like, ‘You better not be outside.’ ”
Those leading the talks described the beef as personal, with the potential to erupt into something larger. After a dozen meetings over Zoom, Davis said, “They said they loved each other.”
The question is how long that love will last.
Homicides in D.C. are up 18 percent, and shootings have spiked 45 percent, adding to anxiety during a deadly pandemic and nationwide demonstrations over police brutality.
The grim crime stats posted by D.C. — including 22 people shot at a single party — are being mirrored in other cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, where killings and shootings are up but other violent crimes are down.
Authorities and criminologists offer a variety of explanations for the increase, including pandemic closures that keep people trapped in their neighborhoods, rising unemployment and increased stress. They also cite police pulled away from beats to confront protests, reduced arrests during social distancing, the proliferation of firearms, suspects freed from jails for coronavirus concerns and leniency for offenders.
Officials are reluctant to blame any one condition or episode, such as the impact of coronavirus shutdowns. But they say a tipping point may have been reached this year with the crisis over policing and the pandemic piling onto social ills already impacting impoverished neighborhoods.
“The condition of the pandemic and the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd are ingredients that activate underlying, persistent conditions,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Rosenfeld cautioned that violence interrupters — a program that began in Chicago and is now active in about a dozen other cities — are one part of a strategy to combat violence. He said gangs are less organized and less stable than they were a generation ago, with ever-changing affiliations and territories, meaning “today’s truce may not last long.”
He said disputes tend to be “extremely localized,” factors that “pose real challenges to violence interruption” and require vast and committed resources to calm small pieces of dangerous real estate.
The attorney general’s office has violence interrupters in the 5th, 7th and 8th wards. Workers have ties to those neighborhoods, and many were involved in past acts of criminality, which gives them credibility. The D.C. mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement also has violence interrupters.
Allen James, co-chief of the attorney general’s violence reduction initiative, said, “Kids are in survival mode when they go out on the street. They don’t have any vision into the future.”
James said people in communities such as Washington Highlands “are stuck, cut off from the economy, have high unemployment, substandard schools and very few outlets. . . . Families in these neighborhoods have been losing ground. This is the third generation where men have been swept out of the neighborhood and into prisons.”
He added that community and family upheaval means young people “are more vulnerable to the message of the streets than they are to the message in their homes.”
Washington Highlands has long been one of D.C.’s most dangerous communities, and the mostly successful cease-fire covers only a portion of the neighborhood. This year, there were 21 shootings on streets just outside what the violence interrupters call their “target area” — roughly Fourth and Sixth streets from Atlantic Avenue down to the Maryland border. Last year, the entire neighborhood had 33 shootings and 10 homicides.
Earlier, it was believed the area covering the cease-fire had reported a shooting from July, but a police report shows it was a reported assault involving a gun without any shots fired.
Davis, the 34-year-old program director, recalls growing up in Washington Highlands with “gun violence all around him.” In his bio, he writes he “couldn’t go anywhere without a firearm on me or thinking someone was trying to do something to me.”
Now, he works round-the-clock supervising a staff that embeds on the streets he once feared, handing out ice cream to kids, organizing socials and trying to talk people out of shooting each other. They are partnered with a community group called the Alliance of Concerned Men.
“The biggest challenge is finding what they need,” Davis said. “Most of them don’t really know what they need. You talk to them and you find out, ‘I do need my phone bills paid.’ ‘I do need housing. I do need food. I do need a job.’ ”
On Day 89 of the cease-fire Davis and his staff toured the areas of Fourth and Sixth streets SE, each known for crews whose battles date back generations. Dressed in maroon striped shirts resembling European soccer jerseys — adorned with the No. 8 for the 8th Ward — they combed streets, alleys and parking lots, talking up renters and homeowners, young kids and wayward teenagers, making sure the quiet held, and listening for hints of renewed tension.
Some wore pandemic masks with the phrase, “Don’t shoot somebody in Washington Highlands. Love all.”
One young man on Sixth Street SE, who would not give his name but was identified by violence interrupters as a key person agreeing to the truce, demurred when asked for a reason behind the shootings.
“I guess people are mad,” he said. “Got to be. That’s it. They ain’t happy.”
He said the truce works because the negotiators were familiar with the residents they worked “to bring communities together instead of beefing.”
An outreach worker offered to help him find a job, but the young man, who is 27 years old, told her, “I’m not really focused on a job right now. I’m focused on music.”
Frederick Mercer grew up in Washington Highlands and was convicted in federal court in 2009 of conspiracy to traffic drugs in the neighborhood. More than a dozen people were convicted, with some going to prison for 25 years.
Authorities alleged he was part of a violent crew called the Fourth Street Mob, though Mercer, known as “Freaky,” denies the group was organized and that he and others were essentially on their own.
Mercer, who is now 46, got out of prison in 2018. He’s back home as a violence interrupter trying to save young men from the life he had led.
The scene now, Mercer said, “is totally different . . . it’s not about the money anymore. It’s super petty, minute stuff, and it don’t even make sense.”
Mercer said people know his past and relate to him, which he hopes will help keep the peace as he continues work in the neighborhood.
“They know what I was like back then, and they see what I am now,” he said. “It’s time to calm this thing down.”