Amid a global pandemic, the gun-related death of a local grandmother, and an uprising against racialized police violence, some residents of Washington Highlands are quietly acknowledging the recent passing of a year without a gun-related homicide in their community.
The milestone, for which a celebration is pending, has been largely credited to Cure the Streets, a violence interrupter program in the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) that operates between 3rd and 6th streets, and Barnaby Road and Atlantic Street in Southeast — much of which is considered Washington Highlands.
Julia Tutt, a Washington Highlands community member of 12 years, reflected on the significance of the occurrence while on her way to work at the polls.
“My residents are happy and the kids who come out don’t have to worry about kids getting shot,” said Tutt, who has served as resident council president at Highland Additions on 8th and Xenia Streets in Southeast for nearly four years.
The last time the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) documented a homicide at Washington Highlands was on the evening of May 9, 2019, when officers responded to reports of gunshots. Upon arrival, they found an unconscious Mark Milline Jr., 28, who would later be seen on camera running away from his assailants just minutes before his death.
In the year since, a 48-year-old man lost his life on the nearby 700 block of Brandywine Street, in an area just outside of this Cure the Streets group’s purview. However, Washington Highland residents endured at least four incidents of gun-related assault.
The fear of gunshots had often prevented Tutt, and her daughter and grandson, from taking brief walks around the corner or up the street. In 2016, out of what she said was a yearning to curb violence, Tutt assumed a role as Highland Additions’ resident council president. That year, the MPD documented eight gun-related assaults.
By August of the following year, the violence interrupters and outreach workers of Cure the Streets — oftentimes sporting blue, yellow and white varsity jackets — had started using their rapport with Washington Highlands residents in their attempt to prevent acts of gun violence and settle disputes — independent of the police, a Cure the Streets official told The Informer.
In addition to Washington Highlands, that particular Cure the Streets group, composed of members of the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens, developed ties with residents at Trenton Park and Wahler Place — part of what’s designated by the MPD as cluster 39.
“Cure the Streets was always around. They posted up, and they walked the block and talked to the guys that hang out in the cuts,” Tutt said. “They make us feel comfortable. [Cure the Streets] being with the guys and de-escalating situations helps. I hope that it continues to be like this.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s fiscal 2021 budget proposal doesn’t renew Cure the Streets’ access to the City Litigation Fund and removes more than $3 million from Cure the Streets — half of what Attorney General Karl Racine reportedly committed to allocating. It also includes a decrease of more than 10 percent in funding for the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.
This happens as Cure the Streets cohorts dispatched throughout Wards 5, 7 and 8 respond to coronavirus-related food and resource gaps activists said have exacerbated the violence in recent months. While some D.C. Council members and crime-reduction advocates have raised their concerns about the proposed funding cuts, others such as Washington Highlands resident Olivia Henderson have been vocal in demanding violence interrupters either strongly confront those using guns or cease operations altogether.
For Henderson, a homeowner and community leader of 12 years, MPD, not Cure the Streets, has been the leading force behind the reduction in gun-related homicides.
“The violence interrupters in the community are being part of the problem instead of the solution,” said Henderson, commissioner of ANC 8D02 and head of the recently developed Washington Highlands Civic Association.
“If we know these individuals are hanging out and partying, I don’t think you should chill with them with your violence interrupter jacket,” added Henderson. “There should be something done to move this group of individuals along so they can stop loitering. The violence interrupters stand out there and talk as if they’re among them.”
Supporters of Cure the Streets however tout it as a public health response to violence that enables returning citizens and other credible messengers to quell potentially violent neighborhood conflicts. In total, at least 60 front-line staff workers, employed throughout the District, play a part in preventing retaliations, organizing vigils, settling disputes and hosting anti-violence forums.
While Ronald Whaley, a Cure the Streets operations/program manager of two years who works in Washington Highlands, contends that there are bounds still to be leapt in organizing residents around the nonviolence, he affirms that there’s no better people to take on the job than those who are of the community.
“The wonderful thing about this model is that we hire people from the neighborhoods we work in [so they can] reach out [as] someone from the community who is credible and the people would listen to,” Whaley said. “We also do a lot of community engagement activities, and raise awareness about gun violence. We also talk to more people, and find out when there’s beef. We’re doing our best to mediate.”