Downcast eyes at the scene of the crime
I was in Miami a few weeks ago when my roommate in the District sent a link to a story from The Post: “Random act of violence claims man’s life.”
On Jan. 19, Bill Mitchell was walking home after seeing a play with his mother. The 33-year-old got off the Metro at New York Avenue and started walking up Florida Avenue NW. At the intersection with North Capitol Street, he came across someone hassling a woman. Mitchell apparently intervened to help her, and the assailant shot and killed him.
I live only a few doors down from that intersection. Eckington, NOMA or whatever you want to call this neighborhood has been home to me for nearly two years. You tell people you live here, and they sometimes wince like you’ve waved a grenade in front of them. Sure, my car has been broken into — twice. It’s kind of an initiation around here. Same window, repaired, and then resmashed a week later. But I truly had never felt in danger before; never entirely at ease, but also never physically threatened. Plus, this part of town has some real appeal for D.C. living.
The rent isn’t offensive, public transit is close at hand and you can see growth nearly by the day — trees planted, sidewalks installed, a great new trail in development between Union Station and Silver Spring. And most noticeably, the area right around the New York Avenue Metro station is bursting with life.
There’s a Courtyard Marriott, a brand-new 7-Eleven, a Harris Teeter grocery store and a Potbelly sandwich shop. It’s starting to feel almost neighborly. You can stop by Pound coffee for an amazing nutella latte. Chat with the owners, Khalil and Karl, and feel like a local.
Yet nothing lifts the curtain on the illusion of community like a senseless murder just a few doors down — especially when you have to step over chalk in the sidewalk on your way to get milk.
The easy lesson from Bill Mitchell’s death is to turn away. Keep your head down and don’t make eye contact, because that can establish a relationship you can’t control, and perhaps lead to feeling the need to help someone in peril the way Mitchell did.
I’ve felt this thinking taking root. Around 11 on a recent Saturday night, I walked home alone down P Street for the first time since Mitchell’s murder. I found myself feeling afraid of each figure on the sidewalk and shying like a horse from leaves rustling in the wind. I knew I had good reason to be fearful, but later I worried more about the consequences of that fear.
This part of town has never felt less like a neighborhood to me. But how do you build a neighborhood if you’re afraid to look your neighbors in the eyes? How can you expect to change a community’s course if your instinct is to withdraw or move away?
Mitchell lost his life as a consequence of a basic act of human kindness. His reflex was to reach out and help. I didn’t know him, but I know that the price he paid for caring was enough to harden any heart. I don’t know if I have the fortitude to walk confidently or cheerfully down these streets anymore.
Yet the best way I can think to honor Mitchell’s memory would be to keep faith in this neighborhood and city. Mitchell hadn’t given up. Neither should we.
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