City Paper is not for tourists
In old D.C., there wasn’t so much traffic, Ron Moten is explaining. He snaps his fingers: That’s how long it took to drive uptown from Southeast.
Moten is running late. Lucky for him, on this Saturday morning in May, the empty streets resemble that former city. He was supposed to begin talking on a panel at U Street Music Hall 20 minutes ago, but at the moment he’s gunning his Chevy Impala down I-395.
When he arrives, the dim club is half empty, but people have shown up to find out what happens in the aftermath of #DontMuteDC. The uproar over a longtime Shaw phone store being asked to turn off its go-go soundtrack has rejuvenated the debate over the erasure of old D.C. Less than a month after the height of the controversy, organizers are hosting a conference where Moten is speaking with other activists. Over the past three weeks, go-go has made an improbable public comeback. A decade ago, the city’s leaders drove a stake through the heart of go-go, evicting its most popular club on U Street and calling the music genre a crime magnet. Nowadays, pols are overeager to prove they are guardians of D.C.’s indigenous culture.
Events have aligned well for Moten. If this will be a campaign to salvage Chocolate City, Moten may fancy himself its indefatigable, 5-foot-7 public face. For over two decades in the District, Moten has persistently reinvented himself, playing the part of a political rabble-rouser, organizer extraordinaire, and violence fighter, notching himself friends and enemies along the way.
It’s been seven years since the demise of Peaceoholics, the violence mediation nonprofit co-founded by Moten that received millions from the District government to broker truces between warring crews. After allegations of misspent money, Moten settled with the city, admitting no wrongdoing but agreeing to pay D.C. $10,000 and to not manage the finances of a nonprofit in the city.
The District again finds itself with a rising murder rate. This time, the city has its own violence intervention program that employs ex-offenders to mediate conflict, a model not unlike that of Peaceoholics. And the city is making room for Moten. Last month, Attorney General Karl Racine persuaded a judge to relax the Peaceoholics settlement, erasing the fine and giving Moten the option to start a nonprofit.
After a few quiet years, the 49-year-old is back in public life, propelled by the go-go triumph outside the Shaw Metro PCS store. His latest project is his most ambitious. Moten wants to buy the property that houses his business and community house, Check It Enterprises, on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia. Moten is partnering with Banneker Ventures, a construction and facilities management firm, to buy three buildings—the Check It shop and two neighboring structures—in a historic district where well heeled developers are chomping for bits of precious land.
It would mark the latest turnaround for Moten, whose comebacks are only outnumbered by his various titles over the years: former cocaine dealer, returned citizen, political loudmouth, entrepreneur, go-go impresario.
“He’s almost like a political polymorph,” says Philip Pannell, a Ward 8 fixture who has been friends with Moten for a decade. “He seems to find a 25th hour in a 24-hour day.”
Moten was 15 and mopping floors at an ice cream parlor in Friendship Heights when he saw a man who impressed him.
The man was dressed like a character straight out of Scarface, and Moten introduced himself. “Can you just give me a chance?” Moten remembers asking. He later supplied Moten his first half ounce of cocaine to sell.
After two separate trips to prison for drug-related arrests, including a bust on the New Jersey Turnpike and a felony charge in D.C., Moten says he left prison in October 1994. He began engaging with criminals again, this time working with nonviolence groups to stop petty disputes. His anti-violence operation grew into the nonprofit Peaceoholics, which he co-launched with Jauhar Abraham. Peaceoholics first got city funding under Mayor Anthony Williams in the early 2000s.
Moten grew up in Petworth, where his grandmother still lives. He attended Deal Middle School at the same time as Adrian Fenty, the former mayor who bankrolled Peaceoholics with government contracts. He didn’t know Fenty growing up, but Fenty knew him, he says. That’s because the whole school knew Moten as the kid who took regular trips to the principal’s office. By 11th grade, Moten was kicked out of Roosevelt High School. He rents a basement in Hillcrest now, and is the father to six children; the oldest is 30 and the youngest is 4.
In 2017, Moten opened Check It Enterprises at 1920 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, creating a retail apparel store and community hotspot. On either side of Check It is an identical one-story building.
Moten’s vision is to redevelop all three structures into a four- to five-story building, making it the tallest building in the vicinity.
Whether he can succeed will reveal how D.C. is handling gentrification in 2019. City leaders once trusted Moten enough to lavish Peaceoholics with millions. He says the city—specifically, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, headquartered a block away at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road SE—could give him the funds to do the redevelopment.
“If our project don’t work, everybody in Anacostia can say goodbye,” he says, promoting his project as a bellwether for the future of the neighborhood. “’Cause this is a chance for the city to get it right.”
Moten’s last venture into real estate collapsed. In 2008, the Fenty administration’s Department of Housing and Community Development gave Peaceoholics $4.6 million to transform three apartment complexes into affordable housing for young men. The Washington Post documented how Peaceoholics was taken off the project in 2010 with zero units created, an embarrassment for the Fenty administration after its lax oversight. Moten says he wasn’t in charge of the project’s spending.
The co-founder of Peaceoholics, Abraham, says “we never did anything with the intention to defraud the city.” (After Peaceoholics shuttered, a judge in 2014 ruled that Abraham owed the District $639,000 for using the group’s grant funds to buy two SUVs. Moten and Abraham, who denies that he misused any public funds, have fallen out since the lawsuit. Abraham says they were never friends in the first place.)
In his new project, Moten has help from developer Omar Karim, a Fenty pal who caught scrutiny after winning high profile contracts during his administration, benefiting so much from Fenty’s largess that he called the former mayor “God.” As Moten lays it out, Check It would own a 49 percent stake in the redevelopment, with the option in 10 years to buy the remainder from Karim’s Banneker Ventures. “I’m not a developer. You let people do what they do well, and you hire lawyers so that you and the people you represent don’t get fucked,” Moten says on what he learned from the Peaceoholics development debacle.
The Jack Kemp Foundation, which helped open Check It with a grant, is funding an attorney for the redevelopment project. The foundation honors the late Republican senator and congressman, whose son is a major supporter of Moten, also a Republican. The store’s name derives from the Check It gang, a crew of LGBT youth that banded together in the mid-2000s to shield themselves from street violence. Its members own part of the business, selling custom T-shirts in the front. A community garden and go-go stage are the backyard.
Architecture firm Hickok Cole began working pro bono on the nascent development project last month, drawing up a concept for nine to 12 residential units, says founder Michael Hickok.
Hickok did not know Moten personally until his colleague met Moten at an event. “Our impression of him was that we like this guy,” he says. “He was very straightforward and to the point.” The firm is also working with developer Four Points on a massive hotel and residential project, known as Reunion Square, across the street from Check It. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration wants to give $60 million in tax increment bond financing for that project, but the neighborhood is split. Moten supports the deal, but the legislation was halted last November after Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White wanted more affordable units.
Since Anacostia is a historic district, Moten’s project would need approval from the Historic Preservation Review Board. Dave Wahl, associate principal at Hickok Cole, says existing retail space and the storefront facade would be preserved, with residential additions setback on top. Moten wants to include a museum for go-go. It’s unclear whether there will be affordable units.
City First Bank is engaged in acquiring the three properties for a total of $2.3 million, Moten says, before October. (Banneker did not return a request for comment.) “We’re close, but it’s going to take some help.”
Moten’s portfolio is growing in other ways. It has been years since he’s collaborated this closely with the District government to break up violence amongst crews, whose rivalries and alliances, if drawn up on a map of the city, can form a dizzying picture of lines crossing over each other.
Attorney General Racine has emerged as Moten’s biggest admirer in District government. He donated to Check It, where his name is listed on a wall under “gold sponsors.” Last year, Racine paid to print hundreds of re-election campaign T-shirts at Check It.
“I view Ron, as an individual, not unlike all other people, including myself, who is certainly not perfect,” Racine says. “But I gotta tell you … I’ve not seen many more people more willing to go fully in for the betterment of the community and the uplift of our young people.”
In arguing to a judge to erase the financial penalty against Moten, Racine wrote in his filing that “Mr. Moten seeks to form and fundraise for new violence interruption initiatives and the terms of the current consent judgement prevent him from doing so.” He adds in an interview that Moten has indicated to him he is considering starting a nonprofit.
Moten isn’t so sure about, say, rebooting Peaceoholics. “I don’t want to be one of those old guys talking about quashing beefs,” he says one day last month at Check It. “It’s our job to train other people.”
And he’s not the biggest fan of nonprofits, favoring entrepreneurship. Not to mention, the city effectively barred him from running one for years, leading him to open Check It as a for-profit. “I’m never doing nonprofit work again, never,” he told City Paper in 2016.
For months, Moten has been training former felons, hired by the attorney general’s office to run its violence mediation program, known as Cure the Streets. A nationally developed model for violence de-escalation, the program is running in two small areas, in Northeast’s Trinidad and around Congress Heights and Washington Highlands in Southeast. The Council voted on Tuesday to inject an additional $3.86 million into the program, paving the way for an expansion.
The results aren’t too shabby, according to Racine, who on April 22 told the Council that there have been no murders in the two zones since the programs began after a deadly Memorial Day weekend last summer. He conceded there were two homicides “right on the border of our sites.”
But the Bowser administration isn’t so hot about the program. There’s more than a whiff of competition between Racine’s crime fighting outfit and the mayor’s, which is based out of the Office of Safety and Neighborhood Engagement. (Moten says he has worked with both, making about $30,000 in less than two years.) With the mayor’s program taking longer to set up, the Council in June 2018 found $360,000 to begin Cure the Streets as a pilot program. Since then, the two branches of government have simultaneously built programs that aim to mediate and reduce beefs between rival gangs.
In the process, a rivalry has formed, with nonprofits keeping close tabs on the competition to see who’s winning contract awards. Early on, recruitment of the violence interrupters became a source of friction between Racine and Bowser officials. “We came to an agreement pretty quickly of no poaching,” says a city official. Moten muses there are enough beefs to go around for everyone.
But Bowser officials reason it’s too early to more than double Cure’s budget. “What we have are two programs that operate, in some cases, the same general geography,” City Administrator Rashad Young told the press last week. “I would hate for us to create a circumstance where we’re inadvertently pitting programs against each other,” he added, “or taking a program that isn’t yet ready, or has the experience to scale at the size that [the Council’s] investment suggests.”
It’s the collection of data that sets both of the city’s new crime fighting programs apart from Moten’s Peaceoholics, even if the latter’s former leaders contend they took extensive notes. While the philosophy is similar, the city’s programs are tracking metrics like number of gun shots. With Peaceoholics, “there wasn’t a performance management program,” says the city official. “It was really like, you give them money, they go and spend the money and hire a bunch of people—and shootings go down. It was sort of like this magic box [where] you don’t know what’s happening with that money.”
For now, Moten maintains he only wants to train other violence prevention officers, not run the show.
The #DontMuteDC panel last Saturday featured everything from speakers that gave a leftist takedown of gentrification to Moten, who told the crowd “I’m probably the only Republican you love.”
There’s a nine-lives quality to Moten, who left the Democratic party and registered as a Republican to unsuccessfully run for Council in Ward 7 in 2012, proclaiming the “R” stood for “Ron.” He says he didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but he’s visited the White House twice this year for events marking opportunity zones, the administration’s attempt to invest in underdeveloped urban areas.
Moten insists he’s over politics, but he’s back in the spotlight in another way with #DontMuteDC, a hashtag the mayor adores.
In recent years, Moten has mellowed in accordance with the tenor of D.C. politics. Gone are the titanic clashes between Fenty and his rival Vince Gray that provided Moten ample room to become a walking megaphone for Fenty. (He still asserts that his campaigning for Fenty is what led Gray and others to look into Peaceaholics’ spending in 2010. The group’s bookkeeping was so lax, the D.C. Auditor found in 2011, that scrutiny was inevitable.)
When the political temperature rises, Moten still dials it up. Last fall, Moten was working for Independent at-large challenger Dionne Reeder, helping assemble a who’s-who of organizer talent in the majority black wards of the District. From the perspective of his critics, he was pouring kerosene on already-caustic campaign rhetoric.
“He used racially divisive politics in my campaign,” says At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who won re-election. She cites a Moten-produced campaign music video, where he raps that she should enjoy her term “while it lasts.” “He is somebody who, I guess, likes controversy, and likes to be a rabble-rouser,” Silverman says.
For a moment there, the old political Ron Moten was back.
What would his detractors have to say? “That he’s brash. That he’s loud,” says Chuck Thies, a political consultant who counts Moten as a friend, even if they are typically on opposite ends in political fights (Reeder’s campaign was an exception). “He’s never met a camera he doesn’t like,” he continues. “But I got to tell you, what are those criticisms in politics? If you want to do something, you got to get attention, and Ron has learned how to get attention.”
Moten says he’s not raring to dive back in what he likes to call “politricks.”
Friends say Moten has matured, even if he can still have a short fuse. “Actually, you’re reaching rapprochement, detente, with some of the folks who are his detractors,” says Pannell. He raises a recent example. When Hilary Brown, a longtime civic leader in Ward 8, died in 2017, Moten attended his funeral, even though Brown “detested” Moten, rarely skipping a chance to bash Peaceoholics.
“Now, if [Brown] had been alive, he would have probably asked Ron to leave his funeral,” Pannell cracks into laughter.
Moten’s next moves include building #DontMuteDC “committees,” using Check It as a space to brainstorm resistance to displacement. The day the music was turned back on at MetroPCS in Shaw last month, the television cameras were fixed on Moten, and he produced a list of places and institutions on the losing end of gentrification. In gold rimmed sunglasses and a “Chocolate City” T-shirt, he demanded respect for black restaurants and churches he said were victims of yuppie contempt.
“There are several black businesses that are being attacked by gentrifiers,” Moten blared on the corner of Florida Avenue and 7th Street NW. “They move in our community,” he warned, “like they come with good intentions, but once they come in, they try to push us out.”