That man, Tony Lewis Jr., was focused on a different part of the city, and as the phrase he coined floated across social media in celebratory posts, his phone rang with a call that broke his heart into “1,000 pieces” and reminded him what those three words were supposed to mean.
“I just got a call saying my lil homey 10 yr old Daughter just was killed in the crossfire,” Lewis tweeted at 9:25.
Then at 9:36: “What have we become”
Then at 10:06: “Why do we hate ourselves so”
Lewis, the son of one of D.C.’s most notorious drug kingpins, a man whose name he shares, has spent his adulthood trying to help the same city that his father hurt. He has worked toward finding jobs for adults released from prison, helping troubled youth find productive paths and highlighting artists and other influencers in the city’s African American community.
And while doing that work, time and again, he has watched friends fall from bullets, young people go to jail for those shootings and the city quickly move on.
I first met Lewis in 2010. As we sat in his family’s rowhouse on Hanover Place, the same block where people lined the sidewalks in the late 1980s looking to buy crack, he showed me a photo of him at the age of 17. Of the 10 friends with him in it, three were in jail and three others were dead. His father was in prison serving a life sentence.
A few months after that conversation, in a moment of frustration with the violence in the city and the divide between people who grew up in the District and those who had moved into it, he thought of the phrase “D.C. or nothing.” The absence of more words was an invitation for others to fill in their own. Care about D.C. or care about nothing. Stand for D.C. or stand for nothing.
A look through tweets with that hashtag shows the first one with a date of July 21, 2010, and the username @mrtonylewisjr.
“Supporting the homies,” it reads, followed by the name of a local band and then #DCornothing.
“I just thought it was important to create something that we could all rally around,” Lewis, 38, told me recently. The hope, he said, was “that it would in some miraculous way bring people together.”
And it has but in a way he didn’t anticipate.
He has heard an emcee at a Wizards game use it to pump up the crowd.
He has seen the rapper Wale turn it into the title of a track.
And he noticed how it took on a separate life after Bryce Harper, a Wale fan, embraced it. Harper uses it on social media and had it inscribed on the inside rim of a limited-edition Washington Nationals hat he designed.
“I think the gentrified Washington, they don’t have any idea who started it and what it started from,” Lewis said. He compared it to Mumbo sauce, which D.C. locals grew up pouring on fried food bought at carryouts. “Now you’ll find it at The Hamilton or one of these newer establishments.”
Lewis said he doesn’t care about getting credit for those words, and anyone who has seen his work in the streets, knows that his efforts are rarely about him.
But Lewis does think people should know what that phrase is about — and at its core, it is about why the entire city should care that a 10-year-old girl heading to get ice cream was shot and killed.
They should care that as Harper was hitting home runs, eliciting pride in D.C. residents, a mother was cradling her daughter and crying, “Please don’t let my baby die.”
They should care that the girl’s name was Makiyah Wilson, that the masked gunmen who sprayed bullets into the courtyard where she and others stood have not yet been arrested and that her death comes as homicides in the city are up 47 percent from the year before.
“We got to value every life in this city,” Lewis said. “We share this city, we’re all here and we got to care when anyone is victimized.”
When the gunmen are caught, he believes they should have to pay for their actions. But he also believes all residents should be asking how the shooters reached a point where they felt so disconnected from the city that they could pull the trigger so indiscriminately. And just as importantly, he said, they should be asking what can they do to make sure other young people don’t hit that same dangerous place.
“D.C. or nothing is not something you say, it’s something you do,” he said. “That thing we have in common, living here, being here, is something that should encourage us to look past disputes and want the best for each other, and for our children.”
He still lives on Hanover Place but now he also has a wife and two little girls who run up to him squealing the moment he gets home.
His family was inside their home last year when he heard gunfire nearby and ran outside to find his neighbors had reacted the same way. The neighborhood is now a mix of native and new Washingtonians. They all stood together on the street, checking on one another and scanning for damage, when someone noticed a body down the road.
It was then Lewis said that he was reminded of the divide.
He went alone to check on the person and found another friend dead. When he walked back to his house, he discovered all his neighbors had gone inside, knowing they likely had no connection to that body on the ground.
“I hope this is a watershed moment,” Lewis said of Makiyah’s death. “Hopefully this is the one that wakes everyone up, that gets everyone on board.”
At 10:27 on Monday night — at the same moment the Washington Nationals declared on Twitter, “BRYCE HARPER WALK-OFF WINNER!” — D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser sent out a tweet that showed not all of the city was celebrating.
She began it with three words that weren’t “D.C. or nothing” but might as well have been. They held the same needed message: