On a chilly New Year’s Day, about a dozen people formed a circle on Freedom Plaza in the District and vowed to help make Washington murder-free in 2016. There had been 162 homicides in 2015, up from 105 killings the year before.
David Bowers, an ordained minister and founder of a grass-roots movement called No Murders DC, urged supporters not to lose sight of their lofty goal.
“People say it’s crazy to think you can put an end to murder because it’s been happening since Cain killed Abel,” he told the group. “I don’t see it that way. What’s crazy to me is accepting killing as a cost of living in the city.”
The turnout was noticeably small given the magnitude of the cause. And it made for a striking contrast to the scores of people who had gathered the night before at Gallery Place, just a few blocks away, to protest police shootings of unarmed black people in other cities.
Those activists were marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter, a nationwide movement whose ranks continue to be fueled by cellphone and dashboard-camera videos of police officers in the act of killing.
If only there were comparable videos of everyday killers to spur more murder-free movements like Bowers’s.
There were 240 killings in Philadelphia last year, 344 in Baltimore and 484 in Chicago. In most of the cases, it turns out that the victims and perpetrators either knew each other or lived in close proximity.
Asked if he thought President Obama’s recently announced gun control initiative will help, Bowers said: “Anything that gets guns out of the hands of the wrong people is good. But, for me, what’s even more important is understanding why someone would feel it necessary to kill another person, whether they use a gun or machete to do it. Why don’t black lives matter to them, including their own lives?”
The 162 killings in the District, population 658,893, were the most of any jurisdiction in the area.
Prince George’s County, with 904,430 residents, had 81 homicides.
Montgomery County, home to 1,030,447, had 30.
Fairfax County, where 1,137,538 reside, had 12 homicides.
Alexandria, with 150,575 residents, had four.
Arlington, population 207, 627, had one.
D.C. Council member LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) joined the prayer circle and read the names of some of the victims whose funerals she attended last year. More than 50 homicides had occurred in her ward — more than all the Virginia suburbs combined.
“I was sitting in church and a young man, about 15 or 16 years old, came in and sat next to me and asked, ‘Do you know what happens when you die?’ ” May recalled in a conversation after the prayer vigil. “He said he had been walking up and down the street, thinking about death. The thought of death was weighing so heavily on him that he had to seek relief in a church he’d never attended before, from someone he’d never met. I don’t want our children going around preoccupied with death, being afraid to die. I want them thinking about school, about life, the way other children do.”
During the 1990s, homicides in the District often topped 400 a year, hitting a record high of 482 in 1991. They began to decline in 2000, which happened to be the year that Bowers founded No Murders DC. In 2012, the killings dropped to a record low of 88.
All totaled, however, there have been 2,500 murders so far in the District since 2000.
“What the city needs is a comprehensive plan with a stated goal to end murder in D.C. for good,” Bowers said with the fervor of an Old Testament prophet. “If Mayor [Muriel E.] Bowser can develop a plan to end pedestrian fatalities, she can have one to prevent homicides too.”
Tyrone Parker, co-founder of the antiviolence group Alliance of Concerned Men, struck an optimistic note. “If we can go from 482 murders down to 88, then we can go all the way to zero,” he said.
By the end of the day, there had been no homicides in the District.
The second day of the New Year came and went without a killing.
Then three, four days passed — and the District was still murder-free.
How long would it last?
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.