At a recent “safe communities” meeting in Southeast Washington, where some of the District’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods are located, D.C. Council member LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) offered a sobering take on her short time representing that part of the city.
“I’ve been a council member for 72 days, and I’ve already been to seven or eight funerals for people younger than me,” said May, who is 39. There have been 80 reported homicides in the District so far this year — 30 of them committed in her ward, including seven killings in the past month.
After giving that grim overview, May then had to concede that no sustainable crime prevention plan exists for the ward, that at-risk youths aren’t participating in government-run programs aimed at helping them stay out of trouble and that some neighborhood public safety meetings are so poorly attended that “it’s not even worth having a meeting because people are not involved.”
Which raised a question for the D.C. government officials, ministers and nonprofit service providers whom May had called to the meeting: How do you make black lives matter to black people who have come to believe that they — and those who look like them — don’t matter?
Ward 8 has about 70,700 residents and is 94 percent black. It has the highest rate of poverty, crime and unemployment in the city. In May, the nonprofit group Save the Children released a study called “State of the World’s Mothers 2015: An Urban Disadvantage,” which found that infants in the ward were 10 times more likely to die than infants in Ward 3, which is predominantly white and the wealthiest in the city.
There are jobs available to residents with the right skills. But Tamara Johnson, director of communications and outreach for Covenant House, said that efforts to prepare residents for those jobs are being sabotaged by the people themselves.
“We have to go so far as testing them for drug use when they come to class just so they will be able to pass a urine test when they apply for a job,” she said at the meeting, which was held Monday at the Covenant Baptist Church near Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and South Capitol Street SE.
Hopelessness seems to have led to some people just giving up. And that has manifested itself in many ways — alcohol, drugs and, in some cases, the inability to see the people who look like them as worthy of life.
“There is a lack of parenting,” said D.C. Police Commander Willie Dandridge, whose Seventh District covers Ward 8. “Late at night I see parents on the streets with 2- and 3-year-old kids, just cursing.”
Phil Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, told the group, “You see all of these kids out here smoking cigarettes. You can’t talk about having safe communities if the people don’t value their own health.”
Everyone agreed that many services and programs were available but that residents needed help connecting to them.
“I have asked young men, ‘If I could get you a job right now making $12 an hour, would you put your gun away? Would you turn in your gun?” said Charles Thornton, director of the city’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs. “The answer is always a resounding ‘yes.’ But they are so disconnected from everything that you have to hold their hands and walk them through each step of the process.”
May was elected in April to fill a seat vacated after the death of the incumbent Marion Barry. It was too late for her to have much of a say in the city’s 2016 budget, so residents will have to ramp up their crime prevention efforts without new funds.
Instead, they will have to rely on a faith — and a belief that black lives really do matter.
“We are black, ours is a black community,” May said. “We must educate our people.”
She recalled that some have wondered whether police are required to perform CPR on residents who are wounded in the street. She has told them that she knows a certified CPR teacher.
“She can train people how to perform potentially life-saving procedures so we don’t have to wait around for police,” May said.
That would certainly be one way to show that black lives matter. Getting people to stop shooting each other would be even better.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.