Credit: Greg Hart

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During an afternoon in October, Jay Murphy was making his way to his car on W Street NW when he spotted a group of maybe three middle-school-aged kids huddled near the street. As they looked over at him, the 54-year-old Murphy felt as if he was being sized up. He remembers wondering, “What are those little shits up to?” After all, he lives in a neighborhood where kids sometimes throw rocks at people for recreation.

Still, Murphy walked on, hood over his head, distracted by the rain. Though he didn’t hear anything after he passed the kids, one of them tailed Murphy and slugged him from behind on the chin. “That’s when my street smarts kicked in,” Murphy says. He screamed “like a banshee” and booked north as fast as he could. He heard footsteps pounding behind him on the sidewalk, but the sound eventually trailed off. Murphy made it to his car, sat inside, and fumed.

“I asked myself, ‘Where would I be right now if I were a policeman?’ ” says Murphy. “I figured I’d be at the 7-Eleven on U Street making small talk with the girls behind the counter.”

Murphy drove to the 7-Eleven on U Street, where he immediately found a policeman making small talk with the girls behind the counter. He and the officer raced in a squad car toward the scene of the attack. There Murphy found a fellow resident from his Harrison Square development holding one of the culprits by the collar up against the wall. The resident, who’d watched Murphy get socked from the window of his home, was too angry to resist playing vigilante; he, too, had been attacked by a similar group in the same manner outside his home just months earlier.

This past year included at least four such random assaults by children at Harrison Square, a development of 98 town houses near 13th and V Streets. Passers-by were jumped by early- or pre-teen kids wielding rocks, bricks, or simply their fists. Most baffling of all to victims, the kids demanded no money. Although such incidents are difficult to track—the police department does not distinguish juvenile nonrobbery group attacks from run-of-the-mill assaults—Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor at large, which includes Harrison Square, have recently proven popular places to catch beat-downs at the hands of juveniles.

All of the Harrison Square attacks occurred in broad daylight, sometimes on crowded streets. David Bryant was walking home from lunch on a busy U Street at about 2 p.m. one afternoon when he was tailed by six rowdy kids who he figured had cut school. They followed him north on 13th Street NW, heading toward Harrison Square, when one of the boys came up behind him and struck him on the side of the head with what he thinks was either a rock or a brick still in the boy’s hand. Bryant stumbled into a low brick wall, bleeding. “None of them said anything; they just laughed as they hit me,” recalls Bryant. “They were half my size, but when six of them rush you with rocks in their hands, it’s overwhelming and unexpected.”

After Bryant bolted, the boys followed him for about half a block until he turned down V Street. When he pulled out his cell phone, the boys retreated. “It didn’t feel like they were after me to rob me,” says Bryant. Police canvassed the area but came up with nothing.

Some victims and witnesses to the Harrison Square attacks suspect that the roving packs hail from nearby Garnet-Patterson Middle School on 10th Street. On a couple of afternoons after school let out this year, this reporter tried to talk with some of the more rambunctious kids spilling out of the school’s doors about random assaults and rock hurling in the neighborhood. (Some of Garnet-Patterson’s kids hail from the 11th Street corridor, where countless bikers passing by have had to dodge rocks and bricks hurled from the balconies of the Garfield Terrace housing project [“Stone Cold,” 4/7].) On the first afternoon, the vast majority of kids seemed to walk home responsibly, but a few of them hung back to pluck rocks from a nearby construction site and hurl them at buildings. One kid picked up a block of wood and threw it at a homeless woman sleeping on a bench, hitting her in the chest.

On the second afternoon, I biked past a particularly bored-looking group of kids when the smallest of them picked up a rock from a flower bed, cocked it to his ear like a catcher, and dared me to “say something.” He then promised to “bust [my] ass.” But instead of hurling it at me, he agreed to discuss rock-throwing over chips and sodas. The student, who declined to give his name, explained that he’d been hurling rocks “since Meyer”—Meyer Elementary School on 11th Street—and that he’d once been suspended from school for throwing a rock at a crossing guard. He does it maybe twice a week with friends. “We go for the back or the neck,” he explained, and they have a phrase for when rock connects with body: “He got aimed.” He also said they’ll sometimes pull people from their bikes and rough them up to goad a chase.

Before Harrison Square saw its rash of juvenile attacks, Southwest D.C. played host to middle schoolers who took joy in beating on passers-by. Supreme Court Justice David Souter was jumped by children—nothing was taken from him—as he jogged near the waterfront during the spring of 2004. First District police detective Robert Saunders says that most of the attacks that followed, which carried into 2005, were perpetrated by the same group of kids looking for fun rather than money. They had a term of unknown origin for this activity: “unking.” After breaking one of the cases, Saunders learned that the boys, who were in their early teens, had a typical profile for their victims: white and vulnerable-looking.

Victims and witnesses to such attacks say they were shocked at the children’s sense of impunity. After Harrison Square resident Sean Sands saw from his window a group of about eight children stalk and then jump a man in an alley at about 9 one morning, he ran out of his home and shouted at them as they walked off calmly. Their young ringleader, obviously attuned to the dynamics of gentrification, turned around and told Sands, “This is my neighborhood.”

For a white, progressive-minded victim in a rapidly changing neighborhood like Columbia Heights, that kind of message can sting. Will Nolan, 23, who was jumped by kids near 14th and Euclid Streets NW earlier this year, has since then occasionally grown wary of large groups of neighborhood kids, albeit reluctantly. “It makes you feel really shitty,” he explains. His newfound sense of caution has made him ask himself, “ ‘Why am I so mistrustful? Why am I so paranoid when I should be giving people the benefit of the doubt?’ ”

In his case, mild paranoia would be understandable. As he walked to meet friends for a soccer game at Malcolm X Park, a group of five kids snuck up behind Nolan. One of them choked him so that he could barely breathe, then they took him to the ground, punched him in the face repeatedly, and kicked him. All Nolan could hear was laughter. After the 30-second drubbing was over, he walked off with a footprint on his face.

Says Sands: “It’s brazen, fearless kids who are bent on inflicting physical pain on people.”

Some may be fearless with good reason. None of the four assaults at Harrison Square, for instance, resulted in prosecution, although the attackers were identified in two cases. After Murphy was jumped, a cop told him he’d take the child to his school, tell the principal what had happened, and find out which other boys were involved. Murphy tried to follow up a couple of weeks later but never heard back from the officer after leaving a message at the station.

In another case, Jon, a 35-year-old Harrison Square resident who asked that his last name not be used, had a brick hurled at him by a group of middle schoolers as he went to retrieve his mail on foot. He ducked and it him in the shoulder. Less than intimidated by their size, he chased them through the plaza and down V Street, eventually catching up to what he describes as an overweight, winded 13-year-old. Jon held him until the cops arrived, even though the kid’s friends threatened him with more rocks.

Cops collared three of the boys after Jon ID’d them on the street, but they were all quickly released. A detective later visited Jon at his home, where they conducted a positive photo lineup. But after following the case for three months, Jon was recently told that the city attorney general’s office would not bring a case against the boys.

“Something needs to happen to these kids,” he says. “If I didn’t move, [the brick] most definitely would have hit me in the head”