A Mayor Tries to Turn Anger Into Resolve
When Mayor Adrian Fenty arrived to meet the grieving family of DeOnte' Rawlings, the 14-year-old who was shot in the head by an off-duty D.C. policeman Monday night, the slain teen's relatives turned on the mayor with all the rage you would expect from people who have just lost their child.
The family shouted and wailed at the mayor in a painful, raw and utterly public venting. Fenty stood there and took it. He waited through the screams and the sobs. He expressed his sorrow and his determination to figure out what happened. And by the end of the meeting, Charles Rawlings and other relatives of DeOnte' were hugging the mayor, putting their trust in him, accepting his offer of help.
Fenty is new on the job, and already, he says, this is the third time he has had to wade into a family's horrific grief soon after a homicide. I asked the mayor what that's like and here's what he said:
"This is a mother and father who've not only lost a 14-year-old and not only that, but he was shot and on top of that, by a member of the Metropolitan Police Department. I don't know how anybody could cope with that. I would expect them to be angry and devastated. If any of their grief and resentment is directed toward the government, I would expect that. There really could not be anything more terrible. I expect them also to demand a lot of answers. In fact, when I came up close to them, I asked, 'What can I get you?' and the mother said, 'Answers.'
"I just kept saying, 'We will not sweep this under the rug,' that I don't know about guilt or innocence, but we're going to get to the bottom of this. I expressed the condolences of myself and the entire city."
Fenty is not given to flowery rhetoric. He's not quick with quips or ready with easy words of sympathy. He has a bad habit of referring to himself as "we." His strength is his presence and his energy, his apparent devotion to getting things done. So what Fenty took from his rough few minutes with the Rawlings family was this:
"To be honest, it's fuel for what we need to do. It kind of just moves you--the amazing strength of people to live through circumstances that are unimaginable to so many people."
Again and again as he moves around the city, Fenty recalls moments from his year-long door-to-door campaign for the mayoralty, and in this case, he recalled knocking on the door of a family that had taken the murder of their son and turned their grief into a drive to establish a park in memory of their lost child.
"We lose too many young people in the District of Columbia," Fenty said. "When we are in neighborhoods where progress is needed the most, even in the most pleasant conversations, I ask how are things going and immediately they say, 'Man, we need jobs.' Instantly. And no question: we have to do more."
Fenty wants the Condon Terrace area--a place so persistently violent that it's named in a definition of jump-out squads, the police units that zip in to try to nab drug dealers-- to be one of the city's next New Communities, an initiative that his predecessor, Anthony Williams, created to bring some of the city's toughest neighborhoods the benefits of gentrification without displacing existing low-income residents. In New Communities, high-crime housing projects are swept away and replaced by mixed-income communities in which market rate housing helps to pay for the relocation of all of the previous tenants in new, subsidized housing.
Fenty says he intends to bring answers to the Rawlings family. But beyond that, he wants to repair a broken neighborhood. " Where this shooting happened," he said, "there is a ton of work to be done."
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