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A trumpeter plays taps this spring at the "Memorial to the Lost," erected to remember victims of gun violence in the Greater Washington area.

City Limits

‘I’m Mad. I Have a Right to Be.’ Three Residents of Washington, D.C. on the Human Costs of Their City’s Surging Gun Violence

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: Stories from a capital city where murders have already matched last year's total, and shootings are spilling outside the hardest-bitten neighborhoods.

After a particularly bloody night in late August, with seven confirmed shootings and two deaths, Washington, D.C., recorded its 105th homicide of the year, equal to the city’s total for 2014 and a 45 percent increase over the same time last year. The surge has continued despite an expanded police presence intended to stem the tide.

The intensifying bloodshed has been difficult for law enforcement and city officials to explain, and even harder for them to manage. In the past, the district’s homicides were largely clustered in certain high-poverty neighborhoods in the southeast, known collectively as Ward 8 and separated from much by D.C. by the Anacostia River. Police Chief Cathy Lanier stated in one interview that 95 percent of the murders are still contained to that area, but crime reports suggest a different picture. 

One shooting last Friday took place in northeast D.C., just blocks away from Catholic University, and the site where 21-year-old Amari Jenkins was fatally shot two weeks prior. During the same week, a 23-year-old American University graduate was killed by crossfire outside a metro station in Shaw, a neighborhood lauded for its revitalization and influx of new businesses. And in one of the cityhigh-profile murder cases this year, a family was murdered in a mansion on Embassy Row, just a few minutes away from Vice President Joe Bidens home.

As part of a weekly series on America’s urban gun violence epidemic, the Trace shares three stories from Washington residents whose lives have been reshaped by shootings. 

The grieving mother angered by the city’s response

Sandra Gliss is the mother of Tamara Gliss, 31, who was shot on Memorial Day outside her apartment on Sixth Street NW. She grew up in Northwest D.C.

Tamara was my oldest daughter, my only girl. My first-born. She was just happy-go-lucky. She loved the kids in the neighborhood. She would take them skating, to the movies, to the pool. She loved her family, too. Her brothers, her nephews, her cousins. She was a good mother to her son, DeVontae. He plays football. He used to look up in the stands and she was always there. Ain’t nobody up in those stands no more.

I wasn’t there when she died. I just heard that they were having a Memorial Day cookout. She was sitting in her chair, and they said they heard a noise — they thought it was a car backfiring. But when they looked over, Tamara was slouched over her chair. I was destroyed when I went into that hospital. But I knew. When that clergy lady came, and that doctor and that detective, and they all came in and told me to sit down. I knew. 

The only time you hear about my daughter now is when another shooting comes up, and they tally her with what they call “gang-related deaths.” My daughter’s death wasn’t gang-related. My daughter had nothing to do with gangs. She was a single mother, sitting out there on Memorial Day night enjoying herself. The only time the city wants to act is after something happens. When my daughter got killed, there weren’t police in her neighborhood. Then three more people get shot, and they shut down the block. Now there’s a man posted there 24 hours a day. Where was all this back at the beginning? Don’t think that now you put a band-aid on the problem, everything’s going to be okay. Look at the murder rate. This city is under siege. And it’s not just in the area where Tamara got killed. It’s everywhere.

I’m hurting right now. I’m depressed, I’m grieving. I can’t concentrate. And I’m mad. I have a right to be mad. Don’t come over and tell me you know how I feel, because you don’t. You don’t know how it feels for a 12-year-old to say he wants his mom. It’s been three months since Tamara was killed, but it seems like yesterday. I try to pick up the phone and call her, and her phone just rings.

The veteran church leader fighting the downward spiral

Bishop Melvin G. Brown has been the head of Greater New Hope Baptist Church in Northwest D.C. for the past thirty years. He grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated from the Harvard University School of Divinity.

Recently, two young ladies in D.C. were killed by stray bullets in the span of less than a week. One of them, Tamara Gliss, was a member of my church. I was shocked when I heard, and almost in disbelief. How could this happen? Why would this happen? She had just been to church that Sunday with her son. The home-going service for Tamara was held here, and the message I had that day was directed at the youth. I talked about how Tamara chose life. There’s a passage of scripture in Deuteronomy: “I set before you life and death, choose life.” And I said, she chose life. But many in the community have decided to choose death. They do not value life, they do not see the worth of life, they do not appreciate life, but she chose life and she manifested it in all she did by reaching out and trying to help others, encourage others, and steer others in the right direction.

It just so happens that most of the killings are primarily young African-American males killing other young African-American males, and sometimes other people, if they get in the crossfire. There’s a lot of peer pressure if you start hanging out with the wrong crowd. If I could speak to the individuals in this city who were on the verge of getting caught up in all this violence, I would tell them it’s a no-win situation. It will take you on a downward spiral, and you may reach the point of no return. Either you’re going to kill somebody, or somebody is going to kill you. And either way, your life is ruined.

The high school student who wants a better future

William Spencer, 17, is a student at Ballou High School in Southeast D.C.

The first time I ever saw violence in D.C. was when I was 10 years old. In this area, it’s common for people to be shot for nothing. It affects my life because I could just be walking down the street and somebody could try to shoot me over a pair of shoes or some jewelry. It’s stupid. We killing each other over, like, clothes. I’m not with all that. I’m against it, but I live in this area. I just deal with it.

We moved down to Virginia because my mom wanted us to get a better education — she says she don’t like D.C. public schools because they don’t really do much. She said she wants to live a better life. But we went through some financial problems, so we had to move back here. Now my mom says she’s always worried about me when I’m not at home. She’s always calling me and stuff. But I know who to hang around and not to hang around.

The homicides mostly come from people my age. It’s mostly teenagers doing it. And it’s common here to know people who are involved or have been affected. Like my friend. I grew up with him for a long time. When I was living in Virginia, I was going to go back to D.C. to visit him, but I heard he got killed. I don’t know why, I just learned he got killed. Some of my friends, some of them are dead.

I know a lot of people my age that got guns to make them seem like they are tough and cool. That’s why they want them, it makes them seem all big and bad. They buy them off the streets. It’s easy, like buying alcohol off the streets, or buying weed off the streets. You actually see more people dealing guns, because weed is legal in D.C. now. I do have friends who get into all that. I can tell them that it’s not the right decision, but really, there’s nothing I can do. They don’t listen. And they end up in jail.

I want to go to college and I want to make music. I want to be a producer, or to be in criminal justice. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I want to leave here after I graduate. Me and my girl, we gonna move out in Maryland somewhere, or Virginia. A person who doesn’t get into that stuff, who doesn’t get a gun, they want things from life. They have a better future, like going to college and getting a good job. Someone who doesn’t, they don’t see past age 18. All they see is being on the streets and selling drugs, or getting killed.

[Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images]