Tomorrow we will bury another young man. Another young life cut short by a type of violence we all, no matter who we are or where we are from, struggle to understand.
A little over a year ago I was sitting on a mountain path, high above lake Atitlan in the Mayan village of San Antonio Palopo in Guatemala. Leaning on a wall looking out over one of the most beautiful vistas in the world, I had a short conversation with my travel companion, and victim of last week’s shooting: Jamal Coates. “B, I never thought I would see things like this in my life. Thank you my man.”
Jamal’s six weeks of work in Guatemala with my organization Hoops Sagrado was part of his campaign to recover his life from the streets. When we got home he partnered with another mentoring program, he took a paid internship working with the Department of Parks and Recreation and was going full-time to a GED program. (He also starred in a Weaver Ward One video and volunteered for my campaign.)
Over the 12 years I had Jamal Coates in my life, to be completely honest, he was often irritating, stubborn and self-destructive — but he was also big in spirit, great with children, and so, so funny.
Jamal had a catch phrase, “I gotta keep it 100 with you.” If you heard that phrase it meant he was going to give you his unfiltered, honest opinion.
So in the spirit of my fallen friend, I gotta keep it 100 with you all.
Those who forget their past are condemned to repeat it and unfortunately in the District of Columbia our past seems to be on a constant loop. Promises are made after each tragic incident to get tough on the crews and that the city will remain vigilant.
However, once the glare of the TV cameras and the attention of the blogosphere is gone, when the image of an overturned car in the middle of U Street fades from our memory, young men are still dead and young men are still in jail for life. It’s what we, as a city, do after the heat of the moment passes that really matters.
Since, 2005 when 9-year old Donte Manning was shot in the head by a stray bullet at 13th and Euclid, what have we actually done other than be witness to countless other senseless murders?
In 2007, it was Tayon Glover, brother of The Wire actor Anwan Glover. Anwan came to Columbia Heights and begged for the local crews to put down their guns… to no avail. Earlier that summer Terry Cutchin, a 13-year-old honor student, was caught in the crossfire. Both were killed in the 1400 block of Girard Street NW.
In 2008, it was another friend of mine, an art student and all around great guy Derrel Goins, aka “Willow,” who was murdered in Adams Morgan.
In 2009, it was Deborah Ann Brown who had been making iced lattes at Dunkin’ Donuts in Columbia Heights. It was just a few steps away from the store, on the 2900 block of 14th Street NW, where police said a teenager with a gun riding a bicycle spotted a perceived enemy across the street. He fired, and Brown was caught in the crossfire between two rival gang members.
This year it’s Jamal Coates, in a dramatic shootout and tragic car crash, while Jamal was attending a funeral of yet another young DC murder victim. Jamal marks the fourth murder associated to crew violence this summer in the small square mile of asphalt that separates Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and U Street.
Public officials will tell you that the crews have moved on to other parts of the city… so don’t believe your lying eyes. We have been here before, a high profile killing that grabs the up and coming part of the city. But then like collective amnesia we move on and forget.
The point being made in article after article is that last week’s murder happened in the rapidly gentrifying part of the city. But we can’t coffee-shop and bike-lane our way out of this tragedy. There are still numerous people in DC who have degenerated to the point of expressing dissent through murder and haven’t learned to disagree without becoming violently disagreeable, no matter where they live. But my hope is that the people who use those coffee shops and bike lanes can and will be the change — if they care enough to do so.
I don’t profess to have the answers. If I did, Jamal would not be dead. But I do have some ideas about how we as a community — the entire community — can begin to frame the conversation that will hopefully bring about real change and possibly save some lives.
We must demand accountability from our elected leaders, not just sound bites for the 6pm news. The last thing we need is another blue-ribbon panel/
coffee klatch on how to the fix the problems plaguing our young people and ultimately our city. We need real action.
We need people who are really willing to look at our system and fix it, from how we educate our children to how we adjudicate them. The solutions to our public safety problems need to be enforceable and long-term. Blanket ideas like civil injunctions and curfews, that are not well thought-out, can’t be the only solution.
The best way to stop a bullet is an education and a job.
And we must make sure their stories are told. Every young person murdered in this city has someone who loved them. A parent, a grandparent, a friend, a cousin, a mentor. None of these young lives should end up being relegated to just two column-inches buried deep in the Metro section. Their stories need to be told. They must be humanized instead of being turned into a passing sentence or two on a blog, in the paper or on TV.
We must take the time to get to know our neighbors and reach out to the young people in our community. We need to celebrate our differences instead of condemning them.
We must give of our time positively. Every household in this city, no matter how busy the occupants may be, has at least one hour they can give to the community in which they live. We can’t simply write a check and think it will all be better. The greatest gift we all have to give is our time and ourselves.
Jamal Coates’ family has created a scholarship fund in his memory. Each year, the money will send one boy and one girl from the village where Jamal worked in Guatemala to high school.
Jamal Coates Scholarship Fund
c/o Hoops Sagrado
PO Box 21332
Washington, DC 20009
Bryan Weaver is founder and Executive Director of Hoops Sagrado and was a candidate in the 2010 Democratic primary for Ward 1 representative on the DC Council.