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The hottest inner-city reading this summer may well prove to be a gritty piece of nonfiction penned by Columbia Heights homeowner Sara Akbar. Her “Stop Rock Throwing in Columbia Heights” is basically a piece of paper printed on both sides, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in relevance.
Akbar, a 29-year-old contract-compliance manager for the federal government, spent this past Friday evening researching her soon-to-be-self-published work at the Boys & Girls Club on 14th Street NW. The idea, she explains, was to meet and greet some of the troubled neighborhood youth. That sort of happened: As she sat on a cement slab in the parking lot, reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees, a 9-year-old boy approached from the south and hurled a rock at her.
“He just threw it right from the [club’s] steps,” says Akbar, who put aside her novel to engage the perp in conversation. “When I went up to him, he’s like, ‘I didn’t do it!’ I’m like, ‘I saw the rock leave your hand.’”
The 9-year-old was just the beginning of a productive evening of research for Akbar. Later, two girls used her for target practice. When she confronted them, she says, one girl informed her that “It’s a free country.”
Kids throwing stuff at people isn’t news to anybody residing in Columbia Heights. The practice is more or less an honored neighborhood tradition (“Hater Tots,” 4/25/03): In the winter, roving bands of preteens pelt pedestrians with snowballs and less-forgiving ice chunks; in the summer, they choose gravel, asphalt, and garden stones. But according to Akbar and the police, the pint-sized deadeyes have stepped up their airborne barrages in the past few months. “It’s on the increase,” says 3rd District Inspector Diane Groomes. “We’ve probably had 10 reports of damage in the past eight weeks…[and] unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t reporting it, either.”
The hurlers have become so bold as to even claim a base: the Boys & Girls Club.
The location’s tactical advantages quickly become clear to any scholar of warfare. The gravel-strewn parking lot offers a near-infinite supply of ammunition. A lonely, pockmarked dumpster furnishes an on-site shooting range. The building’s hilltop position is an ideal sniper’s perch, looking over several sidewalks and the heavy traffic of 14th Street.
“This isn’t the Gaza Strip. I shouldn’t have to walk to my car and dodge rocks from children,” Akbar complains. But she says there’s little recourse: “I found out [that Friday] that if I press charges against the kids who threw rocks at me…it doesn’t do any good, because [the courts] can’t do anything unless I’m physically hurt. That being said, what can you do?”
In Akbar’s case, going public is the answer. Her broadsheet, which should hit the local market sometime next week, attempts to guide both parents and victims of rock throwers toward a less bruise-inducing tomorrow.
“One side is for people who don’t have children and who just live in the neighborhood,” says Akbar. This section includes helpful bonding strategies such as saying hello to passing children and volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club. When hit by a rock, the pamphlet instructs, victims should get the name, or failing that, a description of the chucker. With that info, the club can ban the kid from the property for a couple of weeks.
The other side of the pamphlet emphasizes parents’ liability for injuries and property damage, and suggests that they interview their children at bedtime to find out if rock throwing features in their social schedule. The gist, says Akbar, is: “I don’t know why [you] wouldn’t know, but if you didn’t know, now we’re telling you: You need to talk with your kids about this.”
As board president for 1420 Clifton St., a modern, four-story condominium that abuts the Boys & Girls Club, Akbar says she’s been toying with the idea of publicizing rock throwing for some time. On a Sunday morning in July, she says, somebody cracked her building’s front-door glass with a stone. The next Thursday, another person took a rock and rammed it through that crack. This past month, an unknown person broke through the glass completely, grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall, and emptied it in the laundry room. “We suspect it was children,” says Akbar, “because grown people don’t tend to get off on destroying fire extinguishers.”
After the laundry-room incident, Akbar and other residents paid to install a security camera inside the foyer. This feature almost brought them up-to-date with other homes in the neighborhood: Across Clifton Street is a row house with two similar cameras fixed to its façade. The owner of that property, Mike Rosinbum, stands in the front yard with a power saw, trying to finish some interior renovations on the drizzly Sunday before Labor Day.
Rosinbum, a 32-year-old Department of Public Works networking consultant, looks harried. To be more accurate, he has the look of an Army grunt expecting to be bushwhacked at any minute.
“We had drug dealers before. Now we have kids,” says Rosinbum, who has lived on the block for three years. “I had less damage during the drug-dealing days.”
The day before, a trespasser opened the gate to his yard, picked up one of the biggest rocks in his modest garden, and hurled it through his basement window. The exploding glass and missile nailed a sofa but missed Rosinbum’s shocked renters. “I now have some metal grilles I’m going to stick on there when the new window comes in,” he says. “At least that will limit the size of the rocks.”
Rosinbum remembers receiving an abbreviated Akbar effort (a PowerPoint printout, actually) in the past month titled “Stop the Rock Throwing!!!” He gives a thumbs-up when it comes to that sentiment and says that better management of the corner youth center would be a good first step. “The club is promoting vandalism,” he says. “It’s an open lot, and even though there are police inside, they don’t manage what’s going on outside. And it’s just the best place for kids to damage stuff.”
“What can we do?” asks Bernardo Jimenez, the club’s director. “Just the notion that we can put a police officer out there 24 hours a day—it’s crazy.”
Both Jimenez and Inspector Groomes note that many of the rocks are coming from a gravel bed at 1420 Clifton. “We’re very glad citizens are stepping up,” says Groomes of Akbar’s pamphlet, and she suggests they step up some more to cart away the easy ammo. “Maybe they can have a Rock Giveaway Day or something.”
Residents have come up with other creative solutions. Rosinbum describes his own approach while four or five children—“good kids,” he says, whose names he’s not exactly sure of—walk in and out of his house. “I bribe the kids with hamburgers, actually,” to get them to reveal who and where their parents are. He spent today searching an apartment building on Fairmont Street NW for the mother of a child who might have pegged his window. “I knocked on a couple doors where the kid told me he lived,” he says. “It didn’t turn out that’s where he lived. So I have to keep searching, I guess.”
One boy who’s maybe 10 pulls a cheap switchblade from his pocket on Rosinbum’s porch. He flicks the double-edged blade in and out. “I guess we’re having hamburgers tonight,” says Rosinbum.
Akbar isn’t surprised that her neighbors have been reduced to paying kids protection money in the form of hamburgers. The rock throwers have been getting more aggressive. Last week, a stone crashed through a second-story window in her building. This past Sunday, a group of children bouncing on a discarded mattress near the club pummeled passing cars while chanting, “Stop throwing rocks! Stop throwing rocks!”
“Something’s in the cereal, and they’re all acting up,” says Akbar. “The only time it doesn’t happen is at 2 in the morning, because they’re at home, asleep, getting the energy to do it again.”
Finding the parents, Akbar admits, will be a tough task. That’s why she plans on blanketing the neighborhood with 500 copies of her pamphlet, for total out-of-pocket-expenses of $35. Right now, however, the publication is still in the review stage: She’s having the police and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s office look it over.
“I just want to make sure everything I put in there is legal,” explains Akbar. “You know, like, you can’t grab a child and shake them and say, ‘What are you doing?’”
And, she adds, “You can’t throw rocks at kids.”CP