Police chief Robert Contee standing masked flanked by two officers in foreground
Reformers say MPD Chief Robert Contee has failed to make many changes to the department, and lawmakers haven't forced the issue. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Donnetta Dyson. Keenan Braxton. Johnny Joyner.

These are the names of the three people who died in a mass shooting Saturday in Brightwood Park. Police officers arrived at the intersection of 7th and Longfellow streets NW to find six people shot. Dyson, Braxton, and Joyner lost their lives. Three others were taken to hospitals with non-life-threatening wounds.

As of publishing, the perpetrators are still at large. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert Contee said his team is looking for a dark colored Honda Accord with tinted windows. The suspects may have exited this vehicle before firing. Authorities said this weekend they’re not sure if the gunfire was back and forth, but regardless called the shooting “frustrating.” 

“We’ve been talking about gun violence for a long time,” Contee said in a briefing following the shooting. “We know that this issue is not unique to Washington, D.C., but I think it speaks to the overall sickness that we’re seeing in our community and that sickness being gun violence. … There are people in our communities who are committing these acts.”

Contee’s tone when it comes to D.C.’s recent mass shootings has sounded equally scolding and exhausted. Homicides are up 13 percent from this time last year. They’ve also attracted attention from a bigger network of media outlets, be it because a CNN reporter was nearby when gunfire broke out on 14th Street NW or because a shooting outside Nationals Park suspended a baseball game. Even this weekend’s shooting garnered attention hundreds of miles away

But Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George says this sickness, as Contee put it, has been denied treatment. The shooting happened within a block from Kennedy Street NW. Lewis George has called for this area to be included in D.C.’s nascent gun violence prevention program, Building Blocks D.C.

After this mass shooting, will Lewis George’s pleas be answered?

What is Building Blocks?

My colleague Ambar Castillo broke down of the program last month but, essentially, Building Blocks D.C. treats gun violence as a matter of public health. The program is meant to implement a “people- and place-based” strategy and focus on individual blocks where a plurality of gun violence is happening and providing the areas “mental health services, stable housing, good paying jobs, education and other critical supports,” according to its website. This is achieved by providing grants to community leaders in affected areas. The Bowser administration says each of the 151 blocks was chosen based on 2020 crime data. Forty-one percent of gunshot-related crimes occured on those blocks. 

Kennedy Street NW is not among them. 

Lewis George: Kennedy’s Cassandra?

Building Blocks D.C. was launched this year and Lewis George has been calling for Kennedy Street NW to be included for nearly as long. Since February, she and other area leaders have been pushing to bring the initiative to the area. In a statement released Sunday, Lewis George said the area around Kennedy Street NW “didn’t meet the data requirements” to be represented. Officials with Building Blocks D.C. did not immediately respond to questions about how an area would be added to the program.

“Last night the Kennedy Street area was the site of the most deadly mass shooting in DC this year,” her statement reads. “We cannot afford to be reactive to gun violence, then leave our communities to pick up the pieces.”

Lewis George’s office told City Paper Wednesday the area meets all of the requirements for Building Blocks. The area has crew conflicts, vacant properties, substance abuse, and doesn’t have plentiful options for local youth to receive employment. Coupled with the police who currently monitor the block, Lewis George’s team says the program would help “deter gun violence and respond quickly.”

Whether Building Blocks is effective is hard to say, as it’s not even a year old but resources are continually getting expanded. More money has been proposed for the program in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget. 

But for now, they’re not waiting on Building Blocks to address gun violence. Lewis George’s staff held a “Jobs Not Guns” job fair on Kennedy Street NW last month. They were going door to door in the week prior to the shooting and are pushing DCRA and developers to turn their blighted property into housing. They say they’re working with community members to address this without the program’s help.

Lewis George said in a statement: “I grew up on Kennedy Street and will never allow for any degree of gun violence in our community to be tolerated or normalized. Please join me in praying for our lost neighbors, Donnetta Dyson, Keenan Braxton, Johnny Joyner, and their grieving families. Each of them should still be with us.”

“We owe it to them to work collectively to build peaceful, just communities where all of us are safe.”

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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