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Focusing the next campaign
(Published August 22, 2005)

Drive-by shootings have again become a common occurrence on the streets of Washington, reminding many ill-at-ease residents of the not-forgotten days when the nation's capital gained its notorious nickname as the "murder capital of the world."

Despite the frequency of cowardly cruisers spraying bullets in D.C. neighborhoods during the past two years, most local news reports focus only on isolated incidents such as 46-year-old grandmother Dorine Fostion being gunned down while watching television in her fourth-floor apartment Aug. 17 as her Southeast Washington block was strafed by an unknown gunman.

There are other prominent examples such as 16-year-old Anacostia Senior High football player Devin Fowlkes, who was killed in October 2003 when a stray bullet fired from a moving car struck him as he left his school's afternoon homecoming assembly.

Violence is escalating in many of the city's neighborhoods, even as police officials tout statistics that show overall crime going down. The "good news" image being promoted by city officials is hardly a proper response to the problem.

Frustrated residents in one of the District's "good" neighborhoods, near Catholic University in Northeast Washington, registered their dissatisfaction with that kind of official response during a community meeting Aug. 10 in Brookland Elementary School's gymnasium. Almost half of a standing-room-only crowd walked out of a meeting that was called to demand police shut down a 20-year-old drug market following a young man's murder, after police and politicians spent more than an hour lecturing about the good things they already were doing for the community.

As they spoke, the murder victim's father, James Watkins, walked to the front of the room to stand a frame containing photographs of his slain son. Rather than interrupting the lectures for a moment of silence, the meeting's moderator took the frame and callously turned it face down on the table. Watkins, later noting the embarrassment to his family in attendance, left the meeting. His 21-year-old son, Lamont, was found dead at about 3 a.m. Aug. 7 in a short alley leading to Ottenberg's Bakery, lying in a fetal position with four bullets in his body, one in the back of his neck.

Watkins, who moved to the District from Northern Virginia a few years ago and immediately became active in neighborhood affairs, is among the 100,000 new residents Mayor Anthony A. Williams hopes to attract by improving the city's image. Unfortunately, that image failed to include a warning to Watkins that his then-teenage son couldn't walk across the street to a city recreation center without getting sucked into at least the periphery of an entrenched illegal drug market.

Government officials need to get serious about attacking quality-of-life problems in the District with effective solutions, rather than continuing to hide behind a "feel good" public relations veneer.

And D.C. voters, as they evaluate candidates for public office in the 2006 elections, should hold their feet to the fire. This time, the politicians should discard buzz words for some straight talk about how they plan to engage the city's young people in public affairs, create jobs for the District's chronically unemployed residents and eradicate illegal drug markets in residential neighborhoods.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator