Heard on the Hill – June 2017

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Photo: River Finley

This was supposed to be a story about resilience and the human spirit. I was going to write about the ever-generous Capitol Hill community, love in all its many beautiful manifestations, the kindness of strangers, and how a positive outlook can help overcome any obstacle.

I still will mention all of those things, but now all is clouded by a despair and sadness that is all too familiar to many.

Many in the neighborhood learned about the senseless shooting of Zaan Scott after being alerted to a Go Fund Me page (www.gofundme.com/help-zaan-walk-run-swim-again) which had been set up to raise money for his medical expenses. Scott was a very popular swimming instructor at the Rumsey Aquatic Center at Eastern Market. He taught local kids to overcome a fear of the water and eventually to swim. He was a favorite of both kids and grownups.

Scott was engaged to Jamese Harvey and was outside their apartment building on the evening of April 9, when he was shot in the spine during a robbery and was paralyzed. Scott spent weeks in rehab and then he and Harvey needed to find a new home to accommodate his wheelchair. The Go Fund Me effort was set up to help assist with the mounting bills and help them find a new place to live.

The community rallied and donations began to pour in. This is not surprising to anyone who has lived here for even a short time. Whenever tragedy strikes one of our neighbors, Capitol Hill can be relied upon to show up. Be it illness, crime, fires, or unexpected homelessness, Hill residents are ready to help both with their checkbooks and a willingness to pitch in.
As Scott recovered, Harvey updated the page with photos of him exploring the rehab center in his wheelchair. The couple was still planning on marrying and were maintaining an upbeat view of their radically changed future.

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak and a Post photographer spent time with the couple, and she recounted this positive outlook in a haunting and heartbreaking column. The very same day, Scott collapsed and died. That was it. All the hope, dreams, shared jokes, plans … gone.

Dvorak mentioned the Go Fund Me page in her article, and even more donations came in, but instead of a new life for Scott and Harvey, the funds would now go toward funeral expenses.

Frequently I am asked to bring a sense of humor to this column, which I am always happy to at least attempt to do. That will not happen this month.

I have never been a gun-rights supporter. I grew up in the suburbs disconnected from all things rural. I have never touched a gun, and sensible gun laws have just seemed to make sense to me.

Then our family joined the ranks of a terrible club no one wants to join. In July 2015, my cousin Joe McMahon was murdered by a friend in front of his home in Pasadena, Calif. Joe was 24, almost the same age as Scott. The killer was an old high school friend who had come over to play video games. He left and then returned and shot Joe, who died on the street with his younger sisters and mom around him. Even with California’s relatively strict gun laws, this young man, who went on to kill himself the next day, was able to easily purchase a gun. He had no recorded history of mental illness.

Scott and McMahon were two very young men at the beginning of their lives. They were both hard-working and so, so well-loved, and it is devastating that neither is here anymore. Two families and many lives are forever changed because some people can easily get their hands on a gun.

I feel like I am typing into the abyss. This gun issue is so intractable. Common sense and the experience of other Western nations is nothing compared to the sweet cash of the NRA and the stranglehold they have placed on our political system. In an environment where even background checks and a ban on semiautomatic weapons are inexplicably controversial, I want to shut down and curl into a ball of my own ineffectiveness. If the murder of 20 first graders could not do anything to move the hearts and minds of those in power, certainly the murder of two young men will not feature on the radar.

Luckily there are others who are not so easily daunted. McMahon’s parents are involved with Everytown for Gun Safety and also with Mom’s Demand Action, which has a local branch here in DC. I reached out to the leader of the all-volunteer DC Chapter, Hill resident Sarah Dachos, to get the organization’s point of view.

Dachos said, “The death of Zaan Scott should be an urgent wake-up call that we must do more as a city to protect all of our citizens. We must continue to work for full funding for the NEAR Act, legislation that addresses this city’s violence with methods proven to work across the country: community involvement, healthcare focus, and individual support. More than 90 Americans are killed every day with guns, and hundreds more are injured; Zaan’s death is a tragic reminder that we have to do more to address this crisis.”

Back at the Rumsey Aquatic Center they are planning to host a vigil in Scott’s honor, but as of this writing they have not set a date. The online chatter has spoken of establishing a swimming scholarship in his name, which Rumsey assistant manager Aisha Moten thinks would be awesome. The community and loved ones will continue to keep his spirit and memory alive, like so many others who have suffered tragic loss before them.

June 2 is Gun Violence Awareness Day. Around the country, Moms Demand Action is organizing events of people who will be wearing orange to bring awareness to this crisis. There will be a rally at the Wilson Building at 11:30 a.m. On Saturday, June 3, they will gather on the Mall (the grassy knoll between 14th and 15th streets, immediately to the south of the National Museum of African American History and Culture) to honor victims and survivors of gun violence. The event will feature kid’s activities, snacks and drinks, speakers, and time for the community to raise consciousness for Gun Violence Awareness Day. Learn more at www.momsdemandaction.org.

Jen DeMayo is the mom to two boys who attend DC Public Schools (off the Hill). No matter what she may end up accomplishing in her life, she is sure that her obituary headline will say she was the founder of Moms on the Hill. Contact Jen at jendemayo@gmail.com.