Editor’s Note: This column was originally published on July 13, 1996.
It was an easy story to miss. On July 5, The Post’s Metro section carried a two-inch item on Page D5 headlined “Girl, 16, Slain While Cycling in NW Alley.” It said a teenager was fatally shot in the neck while riding her bike through an alley off the unit block of Hanover Place NW. Her name was not released, but it said she had been shot multiple times. The police reported no suspects and had no motive for the attack. She was murdered around 8 p.m. on the Fourth of July.
An even shorter notice ran inside last Saturday’s Metro section identifying the shooting victim as Tia Monique Mitchell of the unit block of L Street NW. Since then, silence.
Told nothing about her life, we end up knowing even less about the circumstances of her death. But I know something about the neighborhood where she died.
Tia’s last moments were spent in a North Capitol Street community that has more than its share of drunks, druggies, crime and trash. She died a few blocks from where she lived.
Maybe that helps to explain why Tia’s death wasn’t treated as much of a story by the media. Because I don’t believe for one second that, were she a 16-year-old girl living in Chevy Chase or Potomac or a Fairfax county subdivision who had been shot down like a dog while bike-riding in her neighborhood, her murder would have been treated so shallowly. The lack of attention to Tia’s death adds all the more to her debasement.
She was on her way to the cemetery when I arrived in her neighborhood this week. Neighbors and friends standing near Mount Airy Baptist Church where her funeral took place did not take her for granted. They were in mourning. One woman clutching Tia’s obituary program was heard to say, “She was only a baby.” Well, not quite, but she was just a kid. Were it not for the bullets, Tia would have entered her senior year in September at my alma mater, Dunbar High School. Instead, in the flower of her youth, it’s all over.
The image of life ebbing out of her young body becomes all the more wrenching when mixed with the thought that this city’s army of politicians and media did not seem to notice or — worse yet — care to find out what happened to her. Compared with girls her age in this region’s high-toned communities, Tia’s life probably was hard enough to bear already. She was shown even less respect in death. Gone in the reporting was any sense of injustice, urgency or concern.
And yet maybe in death, Tia tells us something about ourselves. Through her we see how insensitive we have become to the harm and dangers that affect those with whom we don’t identify or think much about. We learn, through her, that what passes for moral force is eroding in our community.
Instead of caring about the Tias, we live for our public offices and titles, the big boss, the big win, the “fronts.” We want the big story, our beats and bylines. Egos and ambitions come first. Everything else is a distant second. That’s why, on the public side, this city’s property assessment operations is an absolute disaster. That’s why federal money for developmentally disabled infants and toddlers and other human services programs were handled so incompetently by Vernon Hawkins’ D.C. Department of Human Services, even as his friend and boss, Mayor Marion Barry, ate “sandwiches,” “changed clothes” and exchanged views on youth matters at the home away from home of his latest spiritual adviser, the Rev. Roweshea L. Burruss — a man of the cloth who lacks a church but possesses an impressive criminal record.
That’s why the police department has become a marginal agency, why the District has been raked over the coals by federal officials for lousy management of the city’s tap water, why leaves aren’t picked up in the fall, snow isn’t removed in the winter, the streets are dirty in the summer, and why some schools don’t work. It also helps to explain why the bodies of 125 African American women have been found in the nation’s capital over the past 10 years — with only 37 of their cases closed by police — all without becoming a subject of top-level city hall concern or a major story. Tia’s death increases the toll to 126. Of all this week’s horror stories about the city, none captures our failings the way Tia’s death does. Someone else, to be sure, pulled the trigger. But we are accessories to her depreciation.
Standing with his wife beside the coffin of their only daughter, the German theologian Martin Luther said, maybe it is better this way, “this world is a hard place for girls.” It shouldn’t be so anywhere at any time, but maybe the District of Columbia has become such a place, too. It is a tribute to their inner strength that more young African American women in this city, witnessing the dinky treatment accorded Tia’s death, don’t begin to doubt their own worth. Just where these young women line up in the city’s priorities was in evidence this week. Of all the things to go off about, a top city official became bent out of shape because the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Carol Browner, failed to show the appropriate amount of deference to his boss, Marion Barry. Browner’s slight was denounced as “damn outrageous.” If only we would feel that way about the treatment of this city’s Tia Mitchells.
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