Marita Michael grieves, and pushes on.
Her 16-year-old son was killed by a stray bullet in 2003. At the time of his death, she was battling throat cancer, fighting to save her own life.
She pressed on, moved into a different house — unable to bear the sight of her son’s empty bedroom.
While laid up in a nursing home recently, recuperating from an illness, she learned about the latest blow life had coming for her: eviction. Her belongings were piled up outside the house, which she had been renting in Southwest Washington for the past 12 years.
“I feel like I’m losing everything,” Michael told me during a visit at the nursing home. “But I believe there will always be a new beginning if you want it. I just have to start over.”
She was hurt, but not hopeless. A remarkable feat given the relentless misfortune.
Michael, 55, grew up in the District, the daughter of a garbage truck driver and a homemaker, both newly arrived from North Carolina. She was born with distinction — on Jan. 1, 1963, the first birth in the District that year.
“I started thinking that maybe I had a special purpose in life,” Michael recalled.
As it turned out, she did.
In the 1990s, Michael was part of a cadre of women on the front lines in the fight to save the city’s black communities from the scourge of drugs and violence. Some of them were legendary figures, such as Kimi Gray in the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing complex, who fought to get the properties converted into resident-owned and -managed homes.
Women like Evelyn Scott, who fought to get better public transportation and health services for residents in the Stanton Dwellings and Frederick Douglass Dwellings public housing complexes where she lived.
And Loree Murray, founder of the Near Northeast Citizens Against Crime and Drugs, who fearlessly confronted drug dealers in her neighborhood even after some of them tried to firebomb her home.
Artimitia Fowlkes, Michael’s daughter, recalled her mother’s work in those days.
“She was doing cookouts, pool parties, back-to-school parties, buying book bags for children out of her own pocket — anything to cut down on the violence a little bit,” Fowlkes said. “She’d take in homeless children if we had room and sometimes even if we didn’t have room. I’d say, ‘Ma, you can’t help everybody.’ And she’d just say, ‘I can’t help it.’ ”
When women like that pass on, the city loses some of its community spirit. When they get evicted from their homes, put out in the streets, the city loses its soul.
Michael had worked as a telephone operator at the old C&P Telephone Co., a reading teacher at a day-care center, a cook at the old MCI Center and after it became Verizon Center.
“My son would ask me to bring him a hoagie,” she recalled with a melancholy smile.
Her son, Devin Fowlkes, was a promising student and football player at Anacostia High. He was walking home from a dance one afternoon when another student pulled a gun and began shooting wildly at a passing car. Devin was struck in the chest and died en route to a hospital.
There was outrage over the killing and an outpouring of support for Michael. Mayor Anthony Williams spoke at the funeral, then police chief Charles Ramsey, and other city officials sat up front. But that was a long time ago in the life of a city.
Compassion can be in short supply for those on her side of town. But she always had plenty to give.
During the trial of her son’s killer, she stunned the courtroom with a lesson in grace. She embraced the killer’s mother, hugged her and persuaded her to co-found a group called “Forgiving Mothers.” She declared that the cycle of revenge had to end.
But there was more to it.
“To lose a child like that, the hurt was so bad the only thing I could think to do was try to help somebody,” Michael said.
The boy who killed her son was 15 and would spend only five years in a juvenile facility. Michael had wanted him charged as an adult, to get a longer sentence. She didn’t think that anyone who would shoot at a passing car, into a crowd of students, could be rehabilitated in five years.
Sure enough, Erik Postell would kill again, this time deliberately. In 2015, at age 27, a D.C. Superior Court judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison for fatally shooting a man outside a D.C. nightclub.
Michael still grieves — for his mother.
At the nursing home, she had a bandage on her neck covering the scar from the throat cancer surgery. She’d been hospitalized for nearly a month for an infection that caused dizzy spells and episodic memory loss. She wore a bracelet that read “Fall Risk.”
She had fallen, literally and figuratively, many times. Always got back up. But this time, she had to do it fast. She expected to be discharged from the nursing home in a matter of days, and she still hadn’t found a place to stay.
Documents filed in D.C. Landlord-Tenant Court showed that Michael was notified in December about an eviction hearing to be held the following month. She says the landlord began asking her to leave last summer, after she began complaining about a rat infestation.
I called the landlord several times for his comments, but he did not return my calls.
A hearing was held in January, and then another was set for April 20. By then, Michael’s viral infection was beginning to take a toll. She was having blackouts, falling, forgetting. She missed the hearing, says she doesn’t recall a date being set for one. On April 25, she was hospitalized.
Court papers show that Michael was not behind in rent or had committed any violation that would warrant an eviction. The landlord just wanted his house back, she said. And under D.C. law he has the right to it — on the condition that he reside there for at least a year before trying to rent it out again or sell it.
The house was on Q Street SW, in a part of the city called Buzzard Point. Michael had represented the area on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and helped wage a successful fight to get a recreation center reopened.
Last year, construction began on the D.C. United soccer stadium, directly across the street. D.C. property records show that the owner had purchased the two-bedroom,
1½ -bath house in 2001 for $25,000. Now it was worth more than $400,000.
Developers and real estate investors had already bought up property on the corner and planned to put up a hotel. They were calling residents throughout the Buzzard Point neighborhood, looking to buy them out.
On May 5, an eviction crew showed up to put Michael out.
Furniture, family photographs, her son’s high school football trophies, hauled to the curb.
Grieving, but pushing on.
“If the shoe was on the other foot, I don’t think I could have done that to a grandmother while she was in the hospital,” Michael said.
She sounded sorrier for the landlord than for herself.
A GoFundMe campaign has been launched in Michael’s name.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.