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Yesterday evening, about 140 residents of Wards 7 and 8—most of them young people—marched along Malcolm X Avenue SE in Congress Heights to protest gun violence and promote a “no slide zone.” Elementary school-aged children held their parents’ hands as they strode alongside members of the Ballou High School football team, concerned residents and advocates they knew from the block and those they didn’t know from neighboring wards, and police assigned to the neighborhood. Leading the march were two junior high girls carrying a banner with three words in large block letters: “How Many More?”
The march ended at the junction with Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, the intersection where, two weeks ago, 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney was killed by a stray bullet. Her killing, together with other high-profile shootings in the District, sent shockwaves throughout the nation and amplified calls to address and prevent gun violence in D.C.
The “No Slide Zone” red and white T-shirts and chants were telling: “Put the guns down, pick the kids up”/ “Don’t just stand there, do somethin’”/ “When I block you, under attack, Whatchu gonna go? Man, don’t slide back!”
What’s the “No Slide Zone”?
The “no slide zone” message refers to a lot more than its namesake organization, an initiative launched two years ago in response to the gun violence disproportionately impacting young people in Southeast, Northeast, and Northwest D.C. (The “slide” allusion is a way for the community to reclaim the language some young people and rappers have used for pulling up on neighborhoods and shooting, an outreach specialist with Building Blocks DC and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement affectionately known as Cousin Wayne explained to City Paper.)
Dodson Robey, a fellow Ward 8 Violence Interrupter with the two offices who de-escalates conflicts in communities, understands the importance of language reclamation in community involvement, particularly with young people. To build trust with youth, he likes to literally bring something to the table. Actively involved in the movement, Robey started an initiative called Let It Go after hosting informal conversations over Hubbies juices and 8-ounce Gatorades with youth in the afternoons.
“There’s a lot of conflict on social media, so I’m saying, ‘let it go,’” Robey says, “because if you don’t, a lot of things come out—petty stuff, so small. If you let things go from the beginning, it won’t result in actions where people end up dead or needing long-term care for themselves or others.”
No Slide Zone is a movement, Yaay Me founder Dr. Majeed tells City Paper, to not only prevent gun violence but to also help youth, young people, families, and returning citizens develop workforce and conflict resolution skills, uplifting the community. Yaay Me is one of several organizations, including J & J Monitoring, Cure the Streets, and Building Blocks DC, that seek to go beyond gun violence to address root issues stemming from poverty.
“A lot of people don’t have money, so they make bad decisions,” Majeed says. “Because they don’t have those coping skills, you look around the neighborhood, you have people being killed, people dropping out of schools. We’re not afforded the same opportunities as others, so we end up losing things—our life, our freedom.”
The No Slide Zone doesn’t stop at D.C. Wayne and Majeed, who started working together on Yaay Me in 2009, have gotten calls from folks from Philadelphia to Miami interested in training in their holistic approach to squash systemic violence from the inside and in developing their own programs in those cities. But before delving into training folks outside D.C., advocates are focusing on their own.
“You could see it in their face—their purpose,” Cousin Wayne says of participants in yesterday’s march. “Trying to figure out what’s next, what else they can do.”
What’s next for Yaay Me is a series of conflict mediation sessions with middle school-aged youth that advocates hope to hold before the start of school. Residents “sick and tired” of the violence in some of the hardest hit communities have been in talks about safety around the return to school, particularly as Mayor Muriel Bowser is adamant that all children learn in person, requiring a doctor’s form for virtual learning that some parents say is onerous.
What Role Will Police Have in Youth Violence Prevention?
While the police have yet to hold a formal meeting to plan for return-to-school safety details, standard protocol is for school safety officers to help provide safe passage to students on mornings and evenings. “Roving” officers also implement safety checks from school to school. Prevention is another key focus, according to MPD captain Johnathan Branch.
“We’re constantly monitoring social media—you know, talking ‘bout the older kids now,” Branch said at a Ward 7 ANC meeting last night. “A lot of times they may start an issue through social media, so we have units to monitor that, to make sure it doesn’t spill over into schools, or, from the school, spilling over into the streets.”
Beyond Keeping Guns Off the Streets
Watching men who were formerly incarcerated, many due to gun violence, transform their lives has given Majeed hope. Starting healthy relationships and families, learning a new trade, building a career off the streets, and buying a home—those experiences have shown him the power of focusing on individuals’ empowerment, starting with poverty.
He points out that, for residents of affluent neighborhoods, coping strategies are plentiful: “They can go to a safe place or take a walk in the park without getting their heads blown off or sit in a place where everybody’s got a good recreation center, play basketball, or shoot pool. In our community, our coping skills are drugs, alcohol, fighting, doing things that could be considered dangerous.”
The No Slide Zone movement “needs to be in your face,” Majeed says, referencing the need for allies, including volunteers of all races, ethnicities, and religions from outside these communities, to join the movement.
“What are you doing to end gun violence? Everyone has a responsibility to help the movement … If you’re not a part of it, you may be part of the problem.”
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