Writer Jim Myers wondered why 30 of his neighbors were murdered just one mile east of the United States Capitol building during the 1990s. In an investigation of the conditions that led to such a high toll, he found that there was a wide range of circumstances, including, “drive-by killings, run-by killings, sneak up killings, gunfights and battles, car chases…drug killings, vengeance killings, the killing of witnesses to other crimes, accidental killings, and killings that enforce values we can only vaguely fathom.” The killings occurred in a context in which handguns were common, and an illegal drug economy thrived.
By personalizing the victims and perpetrators in The Atlantic in March 2000, Myers provides a nuanced picture of a community where fear, youthful bravado, and distrust of broader law enforcement leads to fighting, confrontations, killings, and woundings. Notably, the characteristics he describes are not only those of the ones holding the guns or peddling the drugs. Rather there is a generalized fear in the community, the anticipation of the unknown by large numbers of people, that provides the context for the killing.
The “epidemic” of thirty killings Myers wrote about occurred in Police Service Area 109 of Washington, DC, an area only 11 blocks wide, between 1992 and 1998. Twenty-six of the thirty victims were black, and one of the whites was a police officer. Three of the killings were by police officers. Many of the victims and shooters had attended Payne Elementary School, which despite its proximity to the iconic U. S. Capitol building, was one of the most segregated schools in the country. Out of 332 students in 1999, 330 were black, and none were white. Over two-thirds of the 30 killings occurred within 1,000 feet of the school. Four of the victims had been members of the same basketball team.
Myers begins his story by drawing a contrast between the highly publicized killing spree by two teenagers at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, with what happened in his Washington, DC neighborhood. In the case of Columbine, 13 middle class students were killed in a single day. The incident received international publicity, and politicians from the President on down publicly bemoaned the cultural situation leading to the deaths. In contrast, eighteen of the thirty deaths Myers tracked were unsolved at the time he wrote his article. While several had not even received an article in the local newspaper, the murder of a white police officer received widespread publicity including a mention in one of President Clinton’s speeches bemoaning street violence.
On the micro level, Myers’ descriptions of killing in Washington, DC illustrate well the role of youth, impulsiveness, gangs, bravado, guns, and alcohol in setting the context for killing. Most of the killings were of young males by other young males, on the street. The killings often involved dares and affronts to male machismo; one assault, would lead to a dare, and another assault. The person hurt might or might not have been the cause of the initial assault, thus creating a further grievance, and a widening circle of potential enemies. For example, police “solved administratively” the 1992 death of Theodore Fulwood—they stopped their investigation without officially identifying his killers because the police believed the killers themselves had been murdered. Because Fulwood was the brother of a former police chief, the Washington Post pursued the story and found out that Rowmann Dildy and his cousin Thaddeus Latta were believed to be the gunmen, and had killed Fulwood after an “altercation…over a drug transaction.” Dildy was killed in April 1993. Latta was murdered in 1995 in the same neighborhood, and his murder is also unsolved. What is left in the neighborhood is a sense of fear, suspicion, and distrust. No one knows who has killed, and who might kill next.
So in addition to the issues of youth and impulsiveness, Myers’ story was also about a neighborhood, or a portion of a neighborhood, where people sought a sense of both safety and justice. Around the area of Payne School, the police could not deliver this sense, because they were perceived as being both untrustworthy, and ineffective. Young males in the neighborhood believed that police contact resulted in harassment, and did not view them as all-powerful allies in the settlement of grievances. Potential witnesses were afraid to speak to the police and become witnesses, both because they might have had something to hide, or simply because they feared retaliation on the streets. The unsolved death of one 54 year old woman was attributed to the fact that she herself witnessed a killing; the power and legitimacy of the law becomes tattered in such a context, and potential witnesses would not come forward. Such killings reinforced fears of retaliation, and made even the appearance of cooperation with the police more difficult.
Myers found out that a number of the “unsolved killings” had in fact been “administratively closed” because the police were convinced that the killer himself was killed, and the case therefore no longer worth pursuing. In this context, the police gave up investigations without telling the aggrieved families. Administratively solving crimes without public disclosure protected the rights of the innocent, but also raised a separate question for the family about the legitimacy of police decision-making. And herein lies a lesson about the tension between privacy rights, the need to know and “find closure,” and justice. Justice, in part, was the need for not only the family, but also the neighborhood to know and understand that blame was assigned, and justice provided. But it is also about protecting the reputations of deceased people who themselves have been victims.
For the community, in traditional terms, assigning blame is called justice; in pop psychology it is called closure. It is something that happened in Columbine where the killers who committed suicide had blame clearly and effectively assigned to them. But, somehow, in the more amorphous world of an impoverished Washington, DC neighborhood, such an assignment of blame did not occur, and the cause of justice suffered as a consequence. Families of Columbine’s victims traumatized as they were, were at least able to achieve “closure.” As Myers (and Durkheim) note, this is an important part in reconstructing society after the trauma of such a crime. But this never happened in Washington DC, where the privacy rights of the dead “killers” were respected. Was one result that, with a lack of “closure,” angry people took justice into their own hands, and killed again?
Myers, Jim, “Notes on the Murder of Thirty of my Neighbors” The Atlantic Monthly, March 2000. Pages 72-86.
Excerpted from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007.