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“Every year, for the past four years I’ve been here, a person has been killed from our Anacostia Community,” says 17-year-old Kamryn Anthony.
Anthony is a senior at Anacostia High School. She’s at the point in her life when she’s planning for her future. She shouldn’t be planning vigils, yet here she is. She and other students held an after-school assembly on Friday for her best friend’s neighbor, who was fatally shot this month.
On Oct. 9, 15-year-old Thomas Johnson was shot and killed near Nationals Park. Last year, in mid-December, 15-year-old Gerald Watson was fatally shot 17 times in his apartment building. Pictures of various students who fell victim to gun violence over the years, including Johnson and Watson, were projected on a screen behind Anthony.
“It’s become normalized. And it’s become something that we go through and we move past and then we do it again,” she says. “So at this point, I feel like we need to change, we need to go to councilmembers’ offices.”
The students’ vigil for Johnson became a call to action. Students from neighboring schools also attended, including H.D. Woodson High School. With the support of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Anthony says she and her classmates intend to visit the Wilson Building. They have a list of demands and they want the councilmembers’ ears.
“Since me and my best friend started here [at Anacostia] we’ve been seeing all of our friends going through this. And before another death happened we felt like we needed to make our voices heard and make a change,” says Aliyah Clark, 12th grader at Anacostia who served as an organizer and speaker at today’s vigil. “The whole school wanted to show that if we do this we can show that something positive is happening. It’s greatness happening in ward 8.” Thomas Johnson was her sister’s best friend.
Ward 8 ANC Commissioner Darrell Gaston says he and Ward 8 ANC Commissioner Robbie Woodland are also organizing a protest to the Wilson building on Nov. 5.
“The goal is to hit up every high school in the city and whoever comes down we can give them service hours for advocacy. I feel like we’re crying about what we can’t do. I feel like we play too many games,” says Gaston.
He is trying to get students from every high school to visit the Council. They are asking for more dedicated funding for trauma-informed care. They also want the city to fund conflict resolution initiatives, like keeping recreational centers open for longer or teaching yoga in school.
There have been 139 homicides in the District this year, a 9 percent increase compared to this point last year. Ten of those who were murdered were minors. The Metropolitan Police Department launched a Safer Stronger DC Fall Crime Prevention Initiative, which means more police presence in areas that experience a high density of violence.
“MPD officers cannot solve this issue. This is a public health crisis,” says Gaston, who’s godson was Gerald Watson.
Anthony Green, ANC Commissioner for 7C04 and Ward 7 Councilmember candidate, came to the vigil to support the youth and see what they need to feel safer at home. “I hope this will challenge us as adults to step up and figure out how we can create safety for all of us. Especially those who don’t see police as a form of safety or the criminal justice system as a form of safety. There are people who see their neighbors and the people that live around them as their form of safety.” Green stressed the importance of the Safe Passage Program as one way to look out for children as they travel to and from school.
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White and At-Large Councilmember Robert White were in attendance.
“The issues that you are facing every day as young people are issues that too many adults in our city are not taking seriously enough,” Robert White told students during the assembly. “Please show up to the Council building, make your voices heard, and make your demands heard. Today is an incredible start,” he added.
Over 100 students packed the auditorium as various speakers thought aloud about District’s homicides.
“If we don’t stick together now, there will be no more Southeast. The price of living is going up—the dynamic is changing,” said Trayon White on stage to students. “Fighting the kid on the block that we don’t even own. We beefing. All these different hoods—we don’t own nothing. Seventy-five percent of people in Ward 8 are renters.”
“I don’t feel safe coming all the way to school. It’s like you come to school and you can be shot at at any time. Who’s going to take initiative [or] action to make sure we get home,” a student read on behalf of her classmate who didn’t feel comfortable going on stage. She was met with a round of applause.
William Haith, principal of Anacostia High School, tells City Paper that he is frustrated with the violence but optimistic about what community partnerships will bring. “I think that there are more things that we can all do to be there for our students. If we can continue to build on the partnerships that we already have like with the ONSE office. The chancellor selected us to be a part of the redesign process. We’re a Connected School. So we get the chance to reimagine how we educate our students and push them to be advocates for themselves.”
He wants to see how the community will support the students after events like this. “How can we continue to support our students after today? Our students need internships. They need access to real world experiences because those are some of the things that can attract them away from the things they are doing.”
Student organizers say today was only the beginning of their plan to make a difference in their community. They want to continue to push for more opportunities to be productive. They also want to encourage others to work together to resolve their issues and keep the peace.
“Violence only begets violence,” read another student on behalf of her classmate.” “We need to find ways to communicate our conflict early and in a safe way. We don’t have to kill each other. If we continue this way there will be no generation after us. Safety is our responsibility. Be your neighbor’s keeper.”