The Bennett stoop inclines 10 steps up, marshaled by metal railings. The shabby gray concrete rows give way to a landing and then still farther up to posts of fading red brick, two scratched wooden doors, and the house’s own narrow frame. It’s nothing to look at, except everybody does.
Its location at the corner of 17th and Euclid Streets NW has put the stoop at the center of a lot of peoples’ orbits: the children filing out of H.D. Cooke Elementary, the Howard University women fresh from their 16th Street dorm in head wraps and heels, the Adams Morgan weekend tourists, the kids trying to steal beer out of the Euclid Market. On their way somewhere else, thousands have passed those steps, glanced up, and seen a Bennett.
The Bennett stoop has been a Bennett stoop for 36 years. Having to flee the riots and their burned-out U Street apartment, Katherine Washington and her husband, James Bennett, hurriedly settled on Euclid Street in 1968. They came with four children, eventually adding three more: Troy, Tina, Tracie, Teresa, Tami, Tank, and Tara. The big family would become a big success story, gracing the pages of the Washington Post and Time magazine in the early ’90s, victors over poverty and bad luck.The news was that the family had purchased their homes, buying both the corner house, 1701 Euclid, and the one next door, 1703. The stoop could be theirs forever.
Along with their parents, Troy, Tina, Teresa, and Tami still reside, now with broods of their own, in separate apartments at 1701 and 1703. There are more than enough Bennetts to keep the stoop an active place.
As most of the neighborhood’s social landmarks have disappeared into memory—the movie theater, the roller-skating rink, the bowling alley, the arcade, the pair of teen centers, the laundromat—the stoop has acquired additional significance. It has become part of civic lore, an accidental institution and sentimental head nod to anyone who ever spent time on Euclid Street.
Man—the Bennetts are the only black family left. So whisper the corner heads staring up at those concrete steps.
A warm fall Monday brings out the Bennett stoop’s typical roll call. Seated deep in the pocket of a vinyl fold-out chair, Uncle Bobby occupies the top row, the stoop’s most prized real estate. Teresa and Tracie and Teresa’s son, Larry, crowd just below.
Normally, Larry, 9, is the stoop’s water boy, in charge of offering a cold drink to any newcomer. But tonight his throat hurts. The two sisters debate whether Larry has reached that milestone in every kid’s life: swallowing pills.
James Bennett ambles up the stoop, wanting some peace. A friend, Adolphus “Gee-Gee” Jackson, from down 17th Street was murdered the night before. Bennett and a couple of buddies got together by the front of 1703 to sip tall boys before a pair of U.S. Park Police officers broke up their sidewalk wake.
The stoop soon gains Teresa’s mother-in-law, Anita; cousin “Chicken”; Teresa’s husband, Larry Holmes; one of Tami Bennett’s 16-year-old twin girls in pajama bottoms and slippers; and still more people. As the stoop reaches full capacity, it will grow a driveway, a 20-foot stretch of no-parking zone in front of the house. People will idle long enough to shout up what they came to tell.
Just past 10:30 p.m., Katherine comes home from her job cleaning offices to an empty stoop. She stops at the top landing to smoke the last of her Winstons. One last, long drag before bed. In the morning, she’ll find beer bottles still snug in brown bags and plastic cigar tips in the yard, and black plastic bags hanging from the fence like sleeping bats. But for now, the stoop is just hers. She folds herself against the stoop’s old red bricks, blue smoke trailing off between her thin fingers.
Of course, the moment doesn’t last. An old neighbor, one Katherine hasn’t seen in a long while, joins her. And then Tami and Tina come out to say good night.
From Uncle Bobby’s musings to child-care consultations, through car-pooling news, bad lottery numbers, and intense analysis of the No. 8 Boys & Girls Club’s football teams—the activities on the Bennett stoop are on the hit list of the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. Encouraged by neighbors complaining of noise, trash, and much worse, prosecutors have tried to build a case to evict the Bennett family from their property—or at least their own stoop.
In a letter dated June 18, 2004, prosecutors laid it all out: “It is our request that no one, either resident or non-resident, loiter, hang out, sit or congregate on the front steps or in the front yard of either 1701 or 1703 Euclid.” The letter went on to add: “This certainly includes putting chairs and umbrellas in the front yard which creates an atmosphere where people loitering on the corner feel welcome to do so.”
Get people talking about Euclid Street’s past and they default to a phrase—it’s a “family block.” They’ll rattle off names of families: the Stantons, the Youngs, the McRaes, the Mackeys. Those families all left for one reason or another: death, migration, sale to the highest bidder. But none of them were like the Bennetts. The Bennetts had the numbers.
The Bennetts stocked the neighborhood’s sidewalks with children and stoops with parents and grandparents ready to mete out Bennett family justice if any kid went astray. Through the late ’60s and ’70s, there were more than 30 Bennett relatives within a four-block radius of 1701 Euclid.
There were so many Bennetts around, in fact, that they at some point stopped distinguishing between family members and neighbors. One of the biggest events on the neighborhood’s social calendar was the Bennett family reunion every summer in Rock Creek Park. Everyone received an invite. “They were a major family in the neighborhood,” explains Darnell Bradford El, president of the Reed Cooke Neighborhood Association from 2000 to 2002 and the founder of the teen center Around the Corner to the World. “Just as the family on Ponderosa—like the Cartwrights.”
And someone from Euclid’s leading family could always be found on the stoop. After her weekend shift at the Columbia Heights Woolworth’s, Katherine would close out her Saturday nights with her girlfriends on the stoop. “We would sit out here—just us women—’til 3, 4 in the morning…Just sit on the stoop having girl talk. Talk about stuff going on around here, just talk, talk about our children. We had our little ponies, might have a little radio—oldies but goodies.”
The talk on the Bennett stoop competed with that of the 17th and Euclid corner, a gathering spot in its own right. The stoop and the corner are separated by just five sidewalk squares, about 15 feet. Even back in the Bennetts’ early years on Euclid, the corner hosted the neighborhood’s wilder folks, in a tradition that continues to this day.
The block’s old heads used to gather across the street in front of the corner market or sit on the planters in front of 1704 and down a few. Longtime resident Peter Lyden says he started calling the scene the “Men’s Club.”
Between drinks, people rolled dice. “You’d walk out there at night and you’d step through craps games,” says Bob Newmann, the Euclid Market’s landlord, who has owned property on the block since 1969. “Every once in a while, you’d clean off the roof and you’d find all sorts of dice that had been mucked with. They’d drill the holes a little deeper, fill the holes. If somebody challenged the dice, they’d heave them on the roof.”
The Bennetts don’t remember growing up with the corner as a distraction. The corner was just the place you crossed to shoot pool at the Morgan Annex rec center, down 17th Street, or to silk-screen T-shirts at Around the Corner to the World, next to the market on Euclid.
Plus, the old heads and gamblers didn’t really own the neighborhood. Kids did. They chalked up sidewalks. They practiced double Dutch. They belted out Whitney Houston songs. They starred in block-party talent shows and staffed street cleanups. Troy Bennett, 43, can point out the trees he planted on Euclid as a kid.
At every stage of childhood, Euclid Street gave the kids something to do. During their teenage years, Around the Corner to the World provided jobs, turned out a newsletter called Right On Time, even fielded a neighborhood softball league. If all else failed, there was always a Bennett on Euclid. “It was always a family member watching, always somebody there,” remembers Tracie. “We were always together. It wasn’t a time when we weren’t together.”
No event was bigger than the addition of a Bennett, especially the birth of Tracie’s son Lonnie Earl Washington, Katherine and James’ first grandson, in 1983. Tracie was 16 and still in high school. Instead of dropping out, she corralled her sister Tina to take care of him while she finished at Wilson Senior High.
Lonnie spent his early waking hours staring up at six aunts and uncles and dozens of other relatives cooing over him. He got everything he wanted. It didn’t matter that his biological father, Earl, was rarely around. “We gave him the best of our years,” says James.
As a child, Lonnie never strayed too far from 1701. After graduation, Tracie moved a block down Euclid to the Ritz, a low-income apartment building run by Jubilee Housing, and took a job at a health-care center on Wisconsin Avenue. While Tracie worked, Lonnie spent most days with Katherine, watching sports on TV and practicing his dance moves. He got so good that when he was 7, his aunt Teresa entered him in a local dance contest, and he won it.
At block parties, everyone loved to watch Lonnie. He’d get up and imitate Kris Kross, the teeny-bopper rap stars of the day. Everyone cheered as the boy, his jeans on backward, would stand in the street and swing his little hips to the beat.
“He could do no wrong,” Teresa says. “Nothing Lonnie could do was wrong.”
Just as Lonnie was getting his moorings on Euclid Street, he nearly lost them. By the early ’90s, the Bennetts’ landlord wanted to sell their houses, provoking a neighborhood-wide crisis.
The Bennetts scrambled to save their homes, organizing yard sales and fundraising trips to Atlantic City. They partnered with area nonprofits and neighbors to help them navigate grant applications and renovation plans.
The celebration of their purchase, in mid-August of 1993, drew not just a huge crowd from the neighborhood but also reporters. The Post ran a story under the headline “Persistence Brings a Payoff.” Teresa told the reporter: “This is my home and I’m not going anywhere.”
The neighborhood needed the Bennetts. By then the block had turned into a more difficult place. Families had already started to leave. Crack was everywhere, and gunshots were a common nighttime sound.
“The corner was a soap opera,” recalls Mike Taylor, Tracie’s husband and Lonnie’s stepfather. “I sit on the [stoop]. A guy coming up the street with a TV in his hand: ‘Who wants a TV?’ Somebody coming up with coats, shoes—man. You could get just about anything….Some dude broke into somebody’s car and the owner caught him, and he’s chasing him up the street with a machete. Two minutes later, I see the guy running away with the machete being chased by a guy with a shotgun.”
Lonnie would sit up there on the stoop and take it all in, watching wide-eyed over the goings-on. He could see that some relatives stayed with him. And others would leave the stoop to join the corner’s running narrative. The relatives who had been sucked into the scene noticed Lonnie up there. They’d yell at him to leave them alone, to go inside his grandmother’s house.
“Sometimes we’d give him a beating for watching, sitting there,” recalls Nancy Bryant, a Bennett relative who lived at 1703 at the time. “There wasn’t much that he could see—or at least think he could see.”
For a while Lonnie listened. Family members remember that he consistently made the honor roll. And when he left the stoop, he often gravitated to Around the Corner to the World and the Boys & Girls Club, where he played on several sports teams.
His involvement in the neighborhood didn’t stop even after his mother and stepfather moved to Potomac in 1995. Despite the move, 1701 was still the center of their world. Lonnie’s status as a fixture in the household didn’t change, especially after the addition of cousins: Teresa’s daughter, Janai, and Tami’s twins, Donnice and Donnette. Janai remembers him always being there. “We’d look at movies together. We’d jones on each other,” she says. “He’s funny. He’s just funny. All the rest look up to him.”
As he became a teenager, Lonnie ventured beyond the stoop and discovered weed. He’d fake like he was going to school and then get lost around Euclid Street, building up friendships with what was left of the black kids.
Sometimes, Tracie would see Lonnie in the neighborhood during school hours. He’d always have an excuse. He said he was depressed and even suicidal. She took him to counseling, where he vented about the difficulties of adjusting to his stepfather’s presence. “We kind of grew up together,” Tracie explains.
Lonnie says none of the therapy helped.
When he finished junior high in the neighborhood, Lonnie begged to go to Wilson High School to remain with his friends, and his mother agreed. During 10th grade, Lonnie’s friend Delonte Hicks, 16, was stabbed in the chest several times just outside Wilson. Hicks died in Lonnie’s arms.
“I haven’t been right since. That’s why I’m paranoid….Shit went downhill,” Lonnie says.
Lonnie barely made it out the front door, let alone to class. “I was smoking too much, lazy. I didn’t want to do nothing but stay in the house, smoke weed, and fuck girls.”
Lonnie’s absences piled up, and Wilson expelled him.
Tracie had Lonnie transferred to Churchill High School, in Potomac. “It was hard,” Lonnie remembers. “There wasn’t but four black people in the school, and two of them weren’t even black….I loved that it was a challenge. The only reason I left—I got locked up.” Sometime during his sophomore year, he was arrested a block from 1701, on Mozart Place, in possession of marijuana.
Tracie decided to view Lonnie’s juvenile arrest as an opportunity. She signed off on a court-approved boot camp, a seven-week military-style rehab assignment. Lonnie came home with a shaved head, full of “Yes, sir”s and “Yes, ma’am”s.
Lonnie was the first Bennett to not graduate from high school.
“[Mom] was pissed off,” Lonnie recalls. “I’m the oldest grandchild, and they thought I was supposed to graduate first. It made me feel fucked up….Who doesn’t regret not finishing high school?”
Tracie, who by then worked at an employment center, hooked Lonnie and his friends up with jobs. Anything to get them to stop doing whatever they were doing. He worked for a while as a construction worker and in a flower shop. But none of the jobs lasted too long.
Lonnie would keep coming back to 17th and Euclid. But at the time Lonnie needed the old Euclid Street most, it was already gone. In the late ’90s, Around the Corner to the World moved away. The Morgan Annex was replaced by pricey condos. The longtime activists who had mentored the neighborhood’s children had burned out.
And so had Lonnie’s father, Earl.
Earl got a warning about Lonnie’s direction from Around the Corner to the World’s Bradford El, who had noticed that the teen had become withdrawn. He wanted Earl to reach out to his son, but Earl was “not really conscious of his role as a father.” “We tried to bring [Earl] into ACW so that he could have a more stable impact on Lonnie. But the streets grabbed.”
Bradford El says he never told Lonnie of his conversations with Earl.
“My father was a kingpin,” Lonnie says.
Lonnie watched his best friend go off to college; another friend, Bai Secka, got gunned down across the street from the Ritz apartments in 2001. Of his friend’s murder, Lonnie says: “I can’t talk about it. I have psychological problems. I can’t talk about that.”
The neighbors don’t make much distinction between the Bennett stoop and the corner. They just see blobs of black men. Heads and shoulders. Skullcaps and puffy coats. Through cracked blinds, natural obstacles such as trees, and man-made ones such as speed-limit signs, the neighbors down Euclid Street can make out shapes and shadows, bunches of them. One neighbor calls this mass the “Black Jackets.”
Sometimes the Black Jackets talk back. One Sunday night, a row of dudes roost along 17th Street just up from the Bennett home. They’re watching a man inside a nearby house who’s spying on them. They spit out gay jokes at the expense of a guest leaving the vigilant neighbor’s house—the dudes had caught the two men hugging. “He don’t wash his dick,” one guy shouts.
At 2505 17th, across from the hecklers, someone has sprayed in big white letters “RIP WHITES.”
The neighbors can hear a lot of things coming off the corner. An argument over cigarettes or the who-spilled-my-beer perennial. Or “Sunshine,” “Slim,” “Shorty”—the corner’s cascade of catcalls to any woman who happens by—especially the “Georgia Peach.” Also audible are the crew’s frequent responses to romantic rejection: “Get your shoe out your ass!” “Suck my dick, bitch!”
“We might have 100 guns out here like we’re from New York, New York,” one North Face jacket raps from across 17th.
If the neighbors have to pass through the corner, they will pick up their pace just enough to get by without raising too much notice. But they can still smell the pot smoke and see the rocks in hands.
Neighbors see menace in the kids hovering over the Bennett stoop—the ones the dealers make hold their beer or get them McDonald’s, the ones they’ll simply call “Fetch.” The hangers-on are sometimes joined by Latino kids—“meegoes”—who hang out on the stoops across 17th Street. The corner’s men, most of whom have long been displaced from homes in the neighborhood, will play cards on the nearby utility box, along the 17th Street side of the Bennetts’. Someone has scratched “1-7” on the box, a reference to a neighborhood gang. And someone has written “1-7” in Wite-Out down a spindle in the Bennett fence.
The neighbors believe the corner’s energy comes from a generator in the Bennett house. Some have even started developing conspiracies about what they’ve watched, filling in what they imagine to be true: None of the Bennetts have jobs, they run drugs out of their house or back yard, they own the corner like the Mafia, or, at best, they’re a failed “low-income experiment.”
“You’ve got 10 kids running down the sidewalk screaming,” complains one Euclid neighbor. “And anywhere between eight to 12 adults yelling. A certain part of the African-American population communicate with their children by screaming. If you try to talk to them in a normal tone of voice, they don’t understand it.”
He’s talking about the Bennetts.
His thought then leapfrogs to still more trouble: “You have lower-class Latinos and they’re not as clean,” he adds. “You do have people with an upper- and middle-class background, from a suburban environment—you have people with different ideas who are motivated and want to see the neighborhood improve.”
The first NIMBY salvo against the Bennetts came during a 1999 meeting on the roof of the Dorchester House apartment building at Kalorama Road and 16th Street, where residents drew connecting lines between the family’s stoop and the neighborhood’s drug-dealing and violence. Bradford El, who crashed the session, describes an anti-Bennett groupthink among the attendees. “It was really, really offensive, because they made assumptions and presumptions and they had already arrived at their conclusions before they asked any questions,” he says. “I asked, ‘Has anybody here talked to anyone from their house?’ They said, ‘No.’… What’s clear is that there was always an undertow of racism.”
Following the Dorchester House gathering, the Bennetts participated in mediated conflict-resolution sessions with some neighbors.
The oust-the-Bennetts movement is a longstanding project of Euclid Street homeowner David Buie, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1988. Buie represents a group of newer residents who have become soldiers in something of a local culture war. No one crowds their stoops. None of their relatives visit every night. In their world, the bigness of the Bennett clan is a liability, something utterly foreign and suspect. “The folks are very deeply entrenched. There are several generations living in the homes,” says Buie. He later adds, “No one has any experience living outside of their own small world.”
Buie’s home is a few doors down from the corner, separated by what he regards as a fragile buffer zone. “[The dealers] would not be out there if I was living on the corner,” he says. “I would be out there with a garden hose.”
Buie claims that the Bennetts coddle the corner drug dealers. They allow trash to pile up, their yard to turn into a series of rat burrows, and noises to go unshushed, he argues. “When there’s no one on the stoop, suddenly it’s a charming little neighborhood,” Buie says.
In the spring of 2002, Buie and his allies found Jose Sueiro, a neighborhood-services coordinator in the mayor’s office. Sueiro began hosting meetings at H.D. Cooke and at the Potter’s House on Columbia Road to address their concerns. In between the roughly monthly meetings, he kept up regular e-mail exchanges with residents.
Sueiro says he wanted to take a comprehensive approach to the corner’s ills, including recreation ideas for the kids, rodent abatement, and improved communication between beat cops and residents. Euclid Street neighbors pleaded with him repeatedly that they simply wanted the Bennetts ousted.
The complainers were successful in forcing official action from the very first meeting. In late May, Benjamin Friedman, a prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, became involved, writing in an e-mail that he intended to file a nuisance-property civil lawsuit against the Bennetts. The suit would be based on a D.C. law that allows seizure of property from homeowners involved in drug activities. Friedman wrote that he was “building up a case against them. I need members of the community to help me with this endeavor.”
In the summer of 2002, Sueiro assured residents that he had administered a wholesale regulatory shakedown of the Bennetts, siccing an array of city officials and inspectors on 1701 and 1703. In a July 1 e-mail, he wrote, “DPW [the Department of Public Works] assures me they are moving on requiring private trash pick-up at 1701–03 Euclid if they do not meet city requirements for public trash collection.” The neighbors had long lobbied for such an action, in the hopes of pinching the Bennett family’s wallets.
Residents barraged Sueiro with the latest intelligence on all things Bennett, in a dossier-compiling frenzy that Sueiro had pushed: “Please remember to document every nuisance incident no matter how ‘fuzzy’ or peripheral,” he had written in a June 17 e-mail.
Any Bennett sighting would be recorded, including the family’s celebrations of the nation’s freedom. One neighbor spotted the clan at Malcolm X Park on July 4, 2002: “Among the celebrants were many of the besieged families of 1701 Euclid Street all in electric blue t-shirts.”
Although the Bennetts did not attend Sueiro’s early sessions—they say they weren’t invited, nor were they aware of them—the family wrote a letter complaining to Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Charles H. Ramsey, denying any involvement in drug dealing and concluding their letter with a mantra they would repeat many times over: “We are not criminals. We are homeowners.”
On June 11, 3rd District Lt. Robert Fulton visited the Bennett home to inform them of Sueiro’s meetings with their neighbors. “As I told you we have attempted to attend community meetings in the past,” Teresa wrote Fulton in a letter dated July 8. “When I show up, the meeting is cancelled. Except for those that were cancelled we have not been notified of any other meetings.”
When the Bennetts finally met with Sueiro, they continued to deny any involvement with the corner’s drug activity.
Ronald Butler, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ (DCRA) lead housing inspector for Ward 1, who attended the early meetings, didn’t understand all the attention paid to the Bennetts. “It’s nothing there,” he told the Washington City Paper in March 2003. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it. Initially they were talking about child abuse, kids out in Pampers at 2 o’clock in the morning. It’s nothing happening there.”
Butler added that he found the eviction talk carried racial overtones. “The way it was said, it was almost like, ‘I’m not going to be politically incorrect, but they can move them on.’”
Sueiro eventually mellowed on his commitment to a putsch against the Bennetts, citing their cooperation in improving the block in the wake of the complaints. “They were much more aggressive in moving people on. They were much more careful about making sure that things were kept relatively clean,” said Sueiro in March 2003. More to the point, the police actually policed the corner and moved the dealers down Euclid and into the Ritz.
Fulton agreed that the corner’s problems had all but disappeared. “I haven’t had a complaint for several months in regards to that actual location, in regards to the house,” he said.
Cheryl Pendergast, then commander of the police department’s 3rd District, which encompasses the Bennetts’ neighborhood, completed the consensus: “It’s dead…The block is changing.”
Sueiro wondered in an April 23, 2003, e-mail to 3rd District cops, among others: “Are the tenants @ 1701-03 part of this problem? I’ve heard varying responses to that over time and it seemed to me that our premise from the last meeting was that these accusations are overstated.” He further remarked on the stubbornness of the anti-Bennett group: “These are folks that have already made up their minds, nothing will change that.”
If the Euclid neighbors had lost Sueiro and the police, they hadn’t lost the U.S. Attorney’s Office. On May 14, 2003, prosecutors wrote their first letter threatening the Bennetts with possible civil action and eviction, writing, “According to sources at MPD, the sidewalk outside the building is essentially an open-air market for drug sales….Indeed, it is reported that the majority of problems in the nearby area result from activity in front of 1701 and 1703 Euclid Streets.”
In July 2003, the Bennetts met with the prosecutors and police, who expressed their concerns about the family and the trouble on the corner. Chief among those concerns was Lonnie.
The Bennetts have done a lot of things to prevent their eviction, to draw a bright line between the corner’s shady activities and the activities within 1701 and 1703.
Katherine and Nancy Bryant launched a neighborhood watch: “There were two black women—me and Kat,” recalls Nancy. Katherine would spy the corner from her window in 1701, and when trouble assembled, she’d call Nancy in 1703. “She’d say, ‘Nancy, they out there again.’” The two women would then walk onto the street armed with only this exhortation: “Y’all need to move.”
The Bennetts have paid thousands of dollars to have their windows washed, their front yard landscaped with new trees and sturdy bushes. They’ve cleaned out their back yard, installed a tall wooden fence, and painted it red. And when the stoop’s steps started to crumble, they replaced them with new concrete. But of all the pains they took, nothing compared to the pain of what they did to Lonnie.
Katherine and Teresa made a rule in the summer of 2003, after the meeting with prosecutors: If you hang out on the corner, you’re cut off from stoop and house privileges. And Lonnie, now living among friends, hung out on the corner every day, with roughly two dozen other associates, dealers, and friends. “It was a hard decision. This was my first grandchild,” Katherine explains. “It hurts. He was a good child….It really hurt, but you have to do what you have to do.”
The decision to exile Lonnie was not lightly made. It followed some debate between the adults and Lonnie’s younger cousins. His cousins didn’t think barring Lonnie was fair. They were used to sharing the family-room couch with Lonnie, giggling at his put-downs, and hearing his advice about life beyond the stoop. They worshiped Lonnie and had never seen him do anything wrong.
“He’s the oldest. That’s what makes him special,” Janai, 17, explains. She couldn’t imagine not seeing Lonnie in her house.
But from now on, Lonnie couldn’t come home. His interactions with his own family would have to take place in his world, not theirs. If they wanted to talk, it’d have to be on the corner. If they wanted time with him, they’d have to walk his beat up and down 17th Street. Once they climbed that stoop, they’d have to shout if they wanted to talk to Lonnie.
Exile has cost Lonnie. He’s missed out on eating his grandfather James’ Southern delicacies, hearing his aunts’ singalongs, listening to his Uncle Troy bitch about work, and trying to do what no one else can: beat little Larry at Madden football. Last Christmas, Katherine had to pass on Lonnie’s presents—long johns, T-shirts, and underwear—through Tracie.
“You hurt to see your nephew out [on the corner] with the other ones,” explains Teresa. “We worried too hard to do things for our children to have a letdown like that.”
On the evening of Feb. 7, 2004, the police, armed with a search warrant, stormed through Katherine Washington’s first-floor apartment at 1701. It was the night of Lonnie’s 21st birthday. They were looking to find the makings of a crack house.
In the affidavit for the search warrant, police noted that a “a previous certified Special Employee had conducted a controlled purchase of crack cocaine from inside of the premises .” The police then, according to the affidavit, contacted another “certified Special Employee” to verify such activities. Watched by police as he entered 1701, the informant reportedly observed: “On top of the coffee table in plain view was a single brown paper bag that had a chunk of a white rock-like substance on top of it….The SE further reports that there was multiple empty small ziplock bags spread out on top of the coffee table lying inches away from the chunk of white rock-like substance.”
When the police searched the apartment, they found screaming children, Bennett siblings, and a small joint in Tami Bennett’s purse. According to the Bennetts, the cops ransacked the kitchen and the living room, dumping things onto the floor. No matter. The place didn’t turn out to be the crack factory police had been led to believe.
Tami Bennett was charged with possession of marijuana. On Feb. 26, prosecutors no-papered the case—not an outrageous outcome for a first-time offender with such a charge. But prosecutors decided to recharge her in the beginning of March.
After the raid, the Bennetts put up signs in their windows. They read:
We Are Not Criminals!!!!
We Want To Live
Peace & Comfort
Just Like You
The night of the raid, Lonnie says his mother called him on his cell phone. He says she told him that the family was sticking with its decision to bar him from the Bennett property. By then, the Bennetts had already started negotiating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and city officials, including Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, who represents the neighborhood. Lonnie still pleaded for a reprieve.
On a warm spring night, one of those clear nights when everybody is out, the Bennetts piled onto their stoop in full force. Lonnie approached, drunk. He stopped at the steps and cried. He vented to everyone: “I’m family….I love you all….I can’t be around here…can’t go in my own aunt’s house…can’t even go home…Nobody cares….” His eyes were bloodshot, his speech slurred.
The Bennetts waited Lonnie out in silence. After Lonnie finished his pleas, nothing else was said. Nothing else could be said. Choices had been made.
And then Lonnie shoved off. “Fuck everybody!” he repeated long and loud past the stoop.
Lonnie will just appear on the corner as if he had floated above all the junkies and parachuted down right in front of the Euclid Market—a spotless ball cap atop his braids, hands tucked into his jeans pockets, coat unzipped and flared behind his hands like a cape. He doesn’t say much when he arrives. He mainly watches everybody else. Unlike most of the corner’s dudes, he still has life in his eyes.
If he stays, Lonnie’s gonna need a beer and a craps game. He lives to let the bright green dice fly on the sidewalk up 17th. Scrambling the dice in his palm, he’ll let go, snap his fingers, and hope for a winner.
One Euclid Street beat cop, Officer Andrew Zabavsky, recalls seizing some $4,000 in illegal gambling proceeds from Lonnie last November. Still, the man didn’t give the cop much heat about it, just noted that his Christmas would take a hit. That’s always been Lonnie’s vibe. He’s quiet, respectful, and no baby when it comes to the police.
His corner buds, whom Lonnie calls his “second family,” will talk at length about girls, which ones they’re gonna fuck. They grab their dicks for emphasis, jiggle their junk in front of friends passing in cars, hump air. Lonnie doesn’t partake in all the crudeness.
Lonnie has prominent front teeth that make him look younger than his 21 years. Down Euclid Street, runners call him Squirrel. At 17th and Euclid, older guys sometimes call him Little Earl or just Earl, after his father. On the occasion of one of his arrests, Zabavsky says, Lonnie gave him a business card, emblazoned with “Earl” in big letters, his cell number below.
Lonnie’s adult arrests have mostly been few and petty—a gambling charge here, a fleeing-an-accident collar there. The big one, when he was caught with 25 baggies of weed in May 2001, got thrown out. “And I was guilty,” he says. “But it wasn’t mine.”
Lonnie continues to hang out on and off the corner. According to several police officers, he’s one of the biggest dealers on Euclid. “This ain’t shit,” Lonnie says. “This is just us. This ain’t no life a motherfucker want.”
“My grandmother calls the police on me,” Lonnie says. “My family don’t like me….That shit hurt. It made me suicidal.” Lonnie pauses on the word. “My grandmother hates me. My family hates me.”
But Lonnie still loves his family. One Tuesday, around 11 p.m., Lonnie gets the attention of a cousin, one of Tami Bennett’s twin girls. He sees her walk out onto the stoop’s top landing. Across the street, he’s sipping a beer, posting up in front of Euclid Market.
“Get inside!” Lonnie shouts.
The twin ignores him.
“Get inside!” Lonnie shouts again. Still, the twin lingers on the stoop. Lonnie’s associates, playing cards on the utility box, have started calling up to her, flirting. The whole scene burns Lonnie. His cousin is supposed to listen to him. He’s the oldest.
“You heard me: Get inside!” he shouts across Euclid. Finally, after a long huffy exhale and pout, the twin turns and goes inside.
“These motherfuckers by the pole around my grandmother’s house,” Lonnie says disgustedly, between sips of his brew.
Euclid residents expected big things from the raid on the Bennett house. Bryan Weaver, who represents the street on the area’s advisory neighborhood commission, recalls how prosecutors hyped up what they thought they would find. “In hearing from the U.S. attorney, it was like New Jack City,” says Weaver.
Even though the crackdown netted absolutely no crack, the U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t cool on its pursuit of the Bennetts. Three days after the raid, prosecutor Tad DiBiase hosted one in yet another series of meetings with concerned neighbors, the police, and
Graham, among others. DiBiase, says Graham, didn’t try to dampen hopes of an eviction. “We were encouraged,” Graham says. “They were very encouraging.”
The post-raid meeting felt to Weaver like a pep rally for a winless team. “It turned into ‘Damn the evidence,’” he explains. “The feeling that I got out of the meeting—the people from the neighborhood definitely thought the result of it should be to remove the people from the house.”
And in the following weeks, city agencies began to converge on the Bennett household.
•On Feb. 14, 2004, the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency sent a letter addressed to James Bennett noting: “A report has been received in your name and this letter serves to inform you that this worker has been assigned to your case. A home visit was attempted today, however, you were not found to be at home.” Perhaps unknown to Child and Family Services, the youngest “child” of James Bennett is 29 years old. Tami Bennett also received a home visit. Nothing came of it.
•On March 4, according to records from the DCRA, the Bennett property was inspected. It revealed trash in the back yard and rat burrows. According to Teresa, no fines were levied.
•On March 10, Graham e-mailed Leslie Hotaling, then director of the DPW, to resurrect the trash issue. He wanted to know if the Bennetts’ two properties qualified for public trash pickup: “This is a six unit coop that has enjoyed for years DPW pickups. The neighbors are very concerned about this. I believe a coop of this size, even though it straddles two buildings, does not qualify for city trash services. May I have your conclusion?”
Four hours later, Tom Day, the DPW’s Ward 1 supervisor and sanitation inspector, replied in an e-mail that the Bennetts qualified for city trash collection, noting that 1701 and 1703 each had three units and that “separate addresses and separate defined buildings allow city collection.”
•In the early morning of March 11, Graham responded to Hotaling, arguing against the DPW’s ruling: “Actually this is not two separate buildings. For tax purposes I have been advised it is all 1701. Who told you that it was two separate buildings? What inquiry was made other than visual? Please go to the Office of Tax and Revenue and you will see what I mean.”
Day stands by his decision and adds of the Bennett house: “I don’t think that qualifies as a nuisance. Not the property itself—the neighborhood qualifies as a nuisance.”
•On March 18, Buie, still on his crusade, petitioned a host of public officials to cast out the Bennetts. “[W]e do not believe concessions, short of replacement of the current tenancy, will appropriately effect behavioral change,” he wrote in an e-mail.
But by the end of spring, says Buie, who had since rented out his Euclid home, DiBiase had declared that a lawsuit resulting in eviction was a non-starter. Buie remembers DiBiase saying, “‘You want us to file a lawsuit—this has very little chance of success.’”
Graham went ballistic at the news of the prosecutors’ change of heart, according to several sources who attended DiBiase’s meetings, including Buie and Weaver. Buie says he thought Graham was playing politics, pandering to what the more vocal anti-Bennetts wanted to hear. “Absolutely. This is no question,” says Buie.
“‘Grandstanding’ is not too strong a term for his behavior,” says another source in attendance. “And it has been consistently pointed out that no court, particularly a D.C. court, is going to force these people to leave the homes that they own based on this type of evidence. Graham still wanted to go forward with the lawsuit despite being told the level of success he wanted was unlikely.”
Graham admits to being stunned by the seemingly abrupt change in attitude on the part of DiBiase.
“I have been disappointed at the sluggish pace of the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Graham says. “I wanted them to take meaningful action.”
During negotiations in early spring, the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked the Bennetts to bar themselves from their stoop. Teresa says that although the family opposed the request, they tried it anyway. That lasted three weeks. In June, prosecutors sent their letter formally demanding that they be evicted from their stoop.
Teresa instead trotted out a compromise with Janai. If the teenager’s girlfriends stopped by, she had to take them upstairs right away. That rule proved impossible, too. To Janai and her friends, the stoop was the safest place to hang out, the place they could sit above it all. Girls off the stoop get fucked with.
Next, prosecutors wanted Tami evicted from 1701. Teresa refused.
When Larry wanted a sleepover for his 9th birthday in July, Teresa, fearing the neighbors’ notebooks, chose to rent a hotel room nearby. There, about 10 kids played Monopoly and video games and woke up to a continental breakfast.
Teresa made sure that the stoop always had a parent on watch. Troy made sure the patch of land around the utility box, which the family dubbed the “Community Park,” was swept up regularly. And Katherine took to scolding any corner dude who still wanted to be loud when she returned from her night job.
But all the adjustments in the world didn’t make a dent in the corner’s illegal activities, which went on long after the family went to bed. Teresa didn’t understand the cat-and-mouse aspect of police work, the fact that even the jump-out busts felt routine and devoid of any real progress. She still had to walk past the corner guys. She could hear them holler out “Whooop! Whooop!” or “Feds! Feds!” long before the police cruisers even made their appearance.
Teresa was the one who had to meet with prosecutors. There were always more requests, more negotiations—over security cameras, landscaping, how often the family called the police. “As long as we live here, we will never have a happy ending,” Teresa said one November night.
In mid-October, one neighbor floated the idea of filing a private lawsuit against the Bennetts. Graham bit: “Perhaps a private attorney can advise us on the private nuisance theory?” the councilmember wrote on Oct. 20.
Just before Thanksgiving, prosecutors returned to a familiar subject, Lonnie. They floated the idea that the Bennetts go to court to file a stay-away order against their grandson, thus barring him not only from their stoop but from their neighborhood. They refused.
“There’s no doubt about it—all their problems are because of Lonnie. There would be none of this trying to declare it a nuisance property, no search warrant if it wasn’t for Lonnie,” says Zabavsky.
“They say if I’m not here, drug dealing will stop,” Lonnie says. “I don’t believe that shit. I got a lot on my mind: My son got diagnosed with asthma. I missed my urine [test]. I can’t drive. I got a lot of shit on my mind. My friend already in jail might get life.”
On the evening of Katherine’s October birthday, her daughters crowd her apartment, waiting for their mother to come home from bingo. After feeding their kids a hurried Popeyes dinner, they will drink a few beers and sing along to Teddy Pendergrass tunes. Teresa will fall asleep on her couch in her own big front room, her daughter’s ACT application half-filled out in her lap. Tracie, visiting from Potomac, will walk out onto the stoop for a cigarette and spot Lonnie gliding up to the corner.
“Son!” Tracie shouts.
Lonnie walks up to his grandmother’s fence, careful not to get too close.
“Today’s Grandma’s birthday, Lonnie,” Tracie shouts. “You doing anything for Halloween?” She doesn’t know where her son lives. In the many months since Lonnie was banned from the stoop, the spot has only grown in importance to her. The concrete planks have become her watchtower, a place to scan for her son. It’s how they can communicate.
Lonnie tells her his boy has a cold and that he’s worried about him.
“I’m going to take my GED on Monday,” Lonnie boasts.
“Where?” Tracie asks.
“K Street,” Lonnie says.
“You study?” Tracie asks.
“That’s easy,” Lonnie says before easing across Euclid and to the guys waiting on the corner. “I want my own strip club. Seriously.” Tracie chuckles and goes inside.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.