Opinion writer

Editor’s Note: This column was originally published on July 20, 1996.

An irate caller from Silver Spring wanted to know why she could read more in The Post about a young girl dying in Egypt from a botched clitoridectomy than about the events and circumstances leading up to the shooting death of a bike-riding teenage girl in a Northwest D.C. alley, which I wrote about last Saturday. The answer to that question, I told her, was above my pay grade. Both tragic deaths deserved attention, in my view, but Tia Mitchell’s especially cried out for explanation because she was 16 and had been struck down in our own back yard. Several other callers seemed to think so, too.

Since last week’s column, I’ve delved a little more into life around Hanover Place NW, where Tia died. It wasn’t for nothing that police once called it Fort Hanover. This much seems clear after speaking with police and others intimately familiar with the neighborhood: Tia Mitchell did not lose her life in random cross-fire. If anything, she was summarily executed:

Just as 16-year-old Dennis Hines’s life was taken from him in the unit block of O Street NW, a few yards from the alley where Tia died two days later.

Just as her acquaintance, 19-year-old Milton Latik Brown was executed on March 31 in the same alley where Tia was gunned down.

From all accounts, these three young people were systematically sought out, set up and put to death with the efficiency of a Mafia hit.

A still distraught Milton Brown, father of slain Milton Latik, asked why his son’s death was treated so cavalierly by the media. Here’s what he’s complaining about:

Milton Latik’s shooting got all of two inches on Page B8 of the Metro section on April 1. The brief merely said, “A man was found shot to death yesterday morning in an alley near Dunbar Senior High School.” Police investigating a reported shooting found him lying in the alley about 9 a.m. There was no media follow-up to the shooting.

Dennis Hines’s murder was captured in two sentences on Page B5 of the Metro section. They said he was found by police in the block where he lives “lying on the sidewalk suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. He was pronounced dead later at Washington Hospital Center.” End of story.

Contrast the short shrift given to Tia, Milton, Dennis and dozens of homicides in the District and in Prince George’s County with this week’s front-page story in The Post, complete with photos, on the horrible beating death of a 19-year-old by five youths in Charles County, Md.

Let’s be clear. This would be a better world if no one was being killed anywhere anytime. Callers such as Milton Brown aren’t begrudging the coverage given to the death of another person’s child. Neither is that the main point of this week’s column or the last two in this space. What is bothersome, however, is a growing sense that public officials and the media are getting so used to the wholesale murders of inner-city African American youths that their deaths are no longer treated as tragedies or important newsworthy events.

True, many of the victims live in crime-ridden communities. Home for Tia, Milton and Dennis wasn’t a quiet, integrated and generally crime-free neighborhood as is the Charles County subdivision where the beating death occurred. Supermarkets and shopping malls are hard to come by on the byways along North Capitol Street. And drugs, alcohol and guns are as plentiful as the air. That is an aspect of life that those kids knew well. They lived in a world unto itself. But that is no reason to abandon them. Maybe the press has, though. In this it is not alone.

Stand on North Capitol Street beside Mount Airy Baptist Church, where Tia Mitchell’s funeral was held, and the most prominent feature you’ll see on the southern horizon is the dome of the U.S. Capitol. As far as Congress is concerned, Tia Mitchell’s community could be in Burkina Faso. The mayhem in her neighborhood is greeted by too many on Capitol Hill and in the city government and the news media with a yawn.

There is, however, a sure-fire way to concentrate this town’s attention on the carnage. Consider the reaction among the federal and local bureaucracies, the downtown business establishment and in newsrooms if slogans were found scrawled across the walls above Tia, Milton and Dennis’s bodies that read: “Death to blacks by order of the Ku Klux Klan.” Or suppose the slogan read, “Next time, Georgetown and K Street” or “Destroy the Fascist Congress.”

In other words, convert the nightly butchering into a real and present danger to vested authority and the respectable folks of the nation’s capital and this city would have a 100 percent pure, unadulterated media frenzy on its hands.

TV would spring into round-the-clock team coverage. Police, the National Guard, demagogic politicians and enterprising journalists would be jockeying for position on every inner-city block. And Mayor Marion Barry. . . . Oh, I shudder to think. Sadly, race and extremism work in this city.

By the way, in the Charles County slaying story splashed across Wednesday’s front page, the victim was white; all five defendants are black. The victim’s family said race had nothing to do with his death.

Without a racial angle or threat to the status quo, deaths like Tia’s, Milton’s and Dennis’s become relegated to just another routine case of blacks killing blacks. Which, of course, feeds the stereotypical notion that inner-city blacks have low regard for the law and an inherently criminal bent for stealing and killing. Keep the bloodshed contained and away from the better neighborhoods and it’s not a problem — and not much of a story.

The consequence? When city leaders and the media are nonchalant about these assassinations that occur at will in poor, black communities across this region, they confirm what the young assassins have come to believe: namely, that black life is cheap.

Milton Brown Sr. wants people to know that despite the circumstances of his son’s death, he was a good kid who was trying to make something of himself. Brown said he tried to be a good father. His answer to why his son had a record of drug violations and other infractions: “He was caught up in the streets. I did the best I could.”

Tia Mitchell’s relatives want us to understand that while crime exists in their neighborhood, the Mitchells are strangers to death. Tia was the first member of the immediate family to die in 22 years, said her uncle, Robert Mitchell. Both families want us to know that their losses mean as much to them as ours mean to us. There is one difference, perhaps. Unlike most area residents, many in crime-drenched communities live in paralyzing fear, especially of reprisals. In their neighborhoods, despite police efforts and because of a lack of a public spotlight, assassins rule.

A D.C. homicide detective said this week that with his workload, his greatest challenge is to guard against treating the victims as “just names in brown jackets.” He’s right. Tia, Milton Latik and Dennis were human beings. Treat them as anything less and we fail the public. We lose some of our own humanity as well.


Read more on this issue:

Colbert King: Tia Mitchell’s murder