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A corner gathering of Capitol Hill activists turns into a verbal shootout.
At the corner of 15th and C Streets SE, most of the small-bill exchanges take place inside the New Dragon Carryout restaurant. On a recent cold and breezy Friday night, New Dragon’s brightly lit entrance fills with hungry customers—teenage girls in too-tight jeans, a professional-type woman wrapping and unwrapping a silk scarf, and wrinkled, sad-eyed men shuffling near the entrance.
Outside, the only noise comes from a first-floor classroom at Payne Elementary School, where a radio plays Smokey Robinson crooning a sweet R&B tune that makes the empty street feel really lonely. Just out of the radio’s range, three girls provide the night’s supply of nervous energy, playing tag inside Payne’s baseball diamond.
By 8:15, the girls playing tag are gone. A cop is parked at the corner of 15th and C. I chat him up about crime in the neighborhood. “I got to go,” he interrupts after hearing something over the radio. “One of my guys just got in a traffic stop.” It’s a slow night.
This is not the scene activist Bryce Suderow described when he left a message inviting coverage of a corner takeover by citizens on Capitol Hill. He suggested that they would be out in the streets reclaiming public space because do-nothing cops aren’t up to the job. Suderow is the District’s last angry man when it comes to police issues. No one is more insistent, more critical of the Metropolitan Police Department, than Suderow, and he has an unending catalog of police misconduct and sloth to back it up. Suderow knows a lot about cops—he’s been covering them for a number of years in his newsletter, Streetstories—and his gripes against the department are often legit. But he has only one story—the cops are poorly led, poorly trained, and poorly equipped—which he sells over and over. And in Suderow’s world, every corner on Capitol Hill is a potential staging ground for criminal enterprises.
His voice-missive concerning 15th and C, and 16th and D, Streets SE was no different from the dozens of other pictures he’d painted before: desperate citizens vs. reckless drug dealers. This time, the citizens—fed up with inept policing—would be taking over the two corners at 9 o’clock in an effort to “blackmail” the police department into patrolling the area. “I think this is a significant story,” Suderow said. “[It] shows the impotence of the chief.”
Cruising the corners, I can’t help but feel like a perp myself. I have come looking for menace and have found only a Fox News truck parked at 16th and D. The truck’s generator buzz is louder than anything the neighborhood can throw out. The only gritty scenarios are the ones Fox reporter Will Thomas is giving his camera crew. Thomas insists he’s caught more than a few car-window exchanges. “I see a lot of lounging, hanging out,” Thomas says.
A blue Cadillac creeps to the corner, and the driver, after seeing the TV truck, hollers, “What happened here?”
“Nothing,” I say, unable to figure out how else to describe it.
Just past 9 p.m., the residents on patrol show up. The drug dealers, if there ever were any, have disappeared. And the residents would like me to disappear, too. They are not interested in a story about citizens taking back their streets because the cops are punched out. And they are angry at Suderow for framing their event to suit his purposes. They grumble about the fact that Suderow doesn’t live in the neighborhood, and suggest that in spite of what he says, police patrols in the area have increased. The residents of what they call “Capitol East” and Patrol Service Area (PSA) 109 East are here to support—not rail against—police efforts.
“It’s not a protest,” says David Barrows politely, stuffing his knit scarf tighter into his brown suede jacket. “It’s a neighborhood thing. [This] is one of the many things you have to do.”
Just as the residents have settled in for a long night at 15th and C Streets, Suderow shows up. Standing off from the quiet group, the bulky activist can’t believe the lack of rancor. This was supposed to be a protest, he says.
Suderow gives the others the silent treatment. He says the residents shouldn’t have to camp out on street corners to get the police to do their job.
“They’re afraid,” he continues. He calls Jim Myers, one of the residents who organized the corner stand-in, a “gutless coward.” Suderow says that Myers shares his belief that the cops are not getting the job done, but that he won’t be upfront about it. “He likes to put me out there as a wild-eyed radical,” Suderow says, leaning against a one-way sign. It’s not much of a reach. Later on, the anti-crime activist says of Meyers, “Tell him I hope he dies.”
Urban street corners have always occupied a dynamic part of the landscape within the culture of crime. In the ’70s, Martin Scorsese and blaxploitation films used corners as settings for pimps, dealers, and Harvey Keitel. They were viewed as menacing windows into a world few ever get out of alive. By the ’90s, in books like The Corner, city blocks could be their own private little hells. For District residents over the last two decades, corners have served as perches for panhandlers, addicts, and drunks—places were you would find the previous night’s needles and plastic baggies.
But the locals who have shown up to hold down 15th and C say things are getting better. Not great, but better. Things change, they say, but Suderow doesn’t. Even when the cops are around and crime is down, Suderow is still demanding the chief’s head.
According to a local newsletter, Hill East News, “September, with more police presence once again, was quieter.” The residents are tired of screaming bloody murder and have decided that they will make more progress by making nice with the cops. With Chief Larry Soulsby—and a little of the mayhem—gone, their days of raising holy hell at community meetings are gone, too.
According to 1st District Sgt. Ed Smith, the eastern part of Capitol Hill does support a large drug trade, but the police have stepped up their patrols and are willing to work with residents to make more progress. The neighborhood still averages more than a shooting a month, according to Smith, but he adds that there are at least three cruisers out on these corners tonight. He admits that the cops’ show of force has something to do with the residents’ decision to camp out. I count at least eight officers cruising the blocks.
“It’s a team effort,” Smith says. I can’t help but believe his cliche.
Suderow doesn’t. As we walk down to the corner of 16th and D Streets, he details a list of woes that begins and ends with what a rotten loser Police Chief Charles Ramsey is. Suderow believes that Ramsey is no more than a PR dervish who has done little of substance to banish the occupying army of bad guys. He can’t stand the fact that the media—and now even his cohorts in protest—are buying Ramsey’s bullshit.
Thomas, the TV guy, has just finished his live feed as we walk up. When Suderow asks him what he said, Thomas says he aired a story about residents getting together to show their support for the police department.
Suderow looks as if he’s going to puke.
A few feet away, the residents have assembled a makeshift yard sale consisting of a Hoover Tempo vacuum cleaner ($8), a Wild Turkey decanter ($10), a silver dish ($15), a big white vase ($15), and a painted cow’s skull ($8). It isn’t exactly the fusillade of placards and bullhorns Suderow was hoping for. The event comes off more like a bull session among friends than any kind of declaration to neighborhood thugs and the cops who are supposed to be chasing them. One guy, Glen, who refuses to give his last name, sips a vodka-and-cranberry-juice cocktail. When I point out the irony of his alfresco drinking, he doesn’t bite. “Excuse me, do you see a bottle in my hand?” he asks.
The fact that the sale’s $23.50 profit will go to the local Boys & Girls Club doesn’t mollify Suderow, who claims he remembers a time when it, too, was crooked.
In the absence of a discernible enemy, the activists and Suderow begin to turn on each other. Suderow taunts Barrows—he says Barrows used to be one of his foot soldiers.
“That was then,” Barrows shouts back. “Things have changed. [The police] are a lot better.” Barrows says that Suderow is a one-note wonder, that his rant is old, that police are responding to their complaints.
“How about the cops doing their job?” Suderow asks bitterly. He goes on and on with more questions. “Ramsey pledged to clean up the area. I don’t see a cop.”
“Look right here!” Barrows shouts back. Sure enough, a patrol car sits parked a few feet from Suderow.
“You don’t live here!” Barrows bellows. “You have to try. Everybody has to try.”
It sounds sweet to everyone but Suderow. “You know what an enabler is?” Suderow asks. “You’re enabling the pathetic police force.”
The fight between Suderow and the residents has cast a pall over the night. I’m not sure where the true crime is. Is it Glen’s drinking his vodka in public? Is it Suderow’s wishing Myers dead? Myer’s bad-mouthing Suderow? Or is it that suspicious activity the residents keep murmuring about every few minutes?
Residents start to drop off by 11:15 p.m., and I eventually do, too. As I leave, one of the residents turns to me and apologizes: “Don’t be afraid of us,” she says, smiling nervously. Too late. CP