We are experiencing an escalation of Anti-Black expression in Hill East from residents expecting a level of safety and comfort that has been unavailable to longtime residents over the last 35 years. The result, if the course is not changed before it’s too late, will be traumatizing, if not lethal, to Black residents and ineffective in creating better community for anyone.
Research shows that the U.S. population, Black and not, is susceptible to anti-Black bias which is reinforced in countless ways every day. Additional research shows that police training, however inadvertently, promotes associations between “black” and “criminal”; makes the shooting of an unarmed, Black individual more likely than that of a white, armed suspect; fosters more aggressive responses toward Black people than toward white counterparts; and leads to perception of Black children and teens as older, stronger and more suspect than white children and teens. These realities must be considered seriously in any call for additional policing in our neighborhood.
And yet, we are now hearing calls from some on Hill East to criminalize Black residents perceived as dangerous, potential suspects whose very presence threatens their safety and property values. To take just one recent example, a meeting was convened on June 17 by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and Chair of ANC 6B Chander Jayaraman (6B08) at the Community Action Guild (124 15th St SE), to discuss “issues on the block.” Several residents, mostly white and a few Black, complained about noise, trash and drug use, calling for increased police presence and bewailing lack of quick arrest and conviction. Jayaraman spoke of robberies around the 7-Eleven at the corner of 15th & Independence and “incommoding,” as in blocking the entrance and harassment, at SE Market across the street.
Some meeting participants cited specific fears for their children, ranging in age from toddlers to teens. Most mentioned property values. A common theme was insufficient attention to their needs, given their high property taxes. High on the list of issues raised was the presence of chairs in the tiny pocket park, under the jurisdiction of National Park Service, opposite the two markets. When one white participant suggested replacing a hodgepodge of items with benches for neighbors to enjoy the park, she was shouted down.
A number of later meeting arrivals, longtime Black residents of the area, noted that there is some misunderstanding on the part of newer residents regarding what is and is not drug-related behavior.
One Black participant who lives at 17th and East Capitol asked about jobs and other interventions, rather than police. Police surrounded her on her own property due to reports of “suspicious behavior” by her own neighbors, she stated. She and the second author of this letter were in the minority who worried about increased police presence. Many participants, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Denise Krepp (6B10), preferred to place pressure on the city to utilize the police department to remove the inconvenience of poverty, drug addiction, inter-group violence and street gatherings. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that some residents are afraid of Black presence in the spaces around their “high property tax” homes: There is a polite Race War happening in our neighborhood and our city.
The two of us are members of DC’s Cross River Dialogue (CRD), a group of white Jews and Black non-Jews from both sides of the Anacostia who have been sharing perspectives for a year now. We are learning together that fear and lack of contact between communities, too often breeds objectification and danger and even calls for extermination. So we applaud Jayaraman’s suggestion to get neighbors together, for a street party or other communal activity, as a response to the growing unrest. But we equally believe that Black residents of and visitors to, Hill East must never be expected to prove their innocence or worth, to other neighbors or to police.
The CRD endeavors to respond when our communities express views or take action that plays into racism, anti-Semitism, or other oppressive systems. The CRD recognizes that real safety can only be built through trust and trust can only be built by truly being in relationship with one another. We, CRD members and long-time residents of what is now “Hill East,” call on all our neighbors to work toward true relationship and to consider the costs to our neighborhood as a whole and to our Black neighbors in particular, of increased police presence.
Maurice Cook, ANC 6B10, has lived in Hill East/DC on and off since 1998. He is Founder/Director of Serve Your City/Co-Organizer with the March for Racial Justice/ONE DC/Empower DC. Virginia Avniel Spatz, ANC 6B08, has in Hill East since 1988. She is a freelance writer and volunteer with Charnice Milton Community Bookstore.