Ra’Shauna Brown and Brishell Jones lived three and a half blocks apart in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8. They weren’t biologically related, but they’d been close since middle school and considered each other sisters. In the early years of high school, they’d ride the Metrobus back to the neighborhood together. When they parted ways, Ra’Shauna walked down South Capitol Street and up the hill to her house, while Brishell walked in the opposite direction to hers.
At the meeting point between their homes, on the corner of South Capitol and Brandywine streets, was a run-down brick house with a sloping lawn and steps leading up to the front door. The evening of March 30, 2010, Brishell heard that some other kids were planning to meet there. The gathering was a way of continuing to honor their friend, Jordan Howe, whose funeral they’d attended earlier that day. Jordan had been gunned down a week before.
The best friends shared a pizza at Brishell’s house. Then, despite protests from Brishell’s mom, they headed over to the house together, where a group of young people were hanging around the front yard.
Ra’Shauna remembers talking to a friend when suddenly she was on the ground, her arm gushing blood. She can’t remember hearing any of the 23 shots fired from a silver Chrysler minivan that had sped by moments earlier.
Holding her arm, she looked around, finding herself at the center of an eerie constellation of bodies. To her right was a young man with his head split open, his breath coming in hisses. Another was bleeding from his stomach. Behind her another friend with long dreadlocks had been sitting in a lawn chair. She now saw his hair all over the grass. And at her feet, unmoving, her beloved Brishell.
At the hospital, Ra’Shauna was treated for her wounds, then waited for hours, hungry for news of Brishell. In a hospital bed, too upset to eat, she finally agreed to try some applesauce from a plastic cup. When her mom came into her room shaking her head, she knew that Brishell had not survived. She threw the applesauce across the room.
“I felt nauseous, I just felt like I wanted to scream,” she recalls. “Everything in my body just wanted to come out.”
At 17, Ra’Shauna survived what would become known as the South Capitol Street massacre, one of the deadliest shootings in the district in years. It was a bloody exclamation point on a string of retaliations that sprawled over nine days and left five young people dead and nine wounded. Brishell, a 16-year-old who loved cooking and Hello Kitty, was the youngest victim. Five men, all in their early 20s, were later convicted on multiple counts of murder.
The term “mass shooting” has become synonymous with cities like Las Vegas, Orlando, and Parkland, Florida. But multiple-casualty slayings most often affect poor communities of color. A New York Times national analysis of mass shootings in 2015 found 358 instances in which four or more people were injured or killed, including the shooter — an average of nearly one per day. For the victims whose race could be identified, the majority were black.
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Ra’Shauna was shot twice, once each in her shoulder and knee. Because the bullet had passed clear through her shoulder, the doctors left it open; it would need to mend from the inside out. When her mom removed the bandage to clean the wound, she could feel air blow through the opening. It was months before a scab began to form.
And there were deeper scars. She didn’t like to sit by windows. Passing cars made her feel anxious. Her nightmares featured unending scenes of death. She explains: “Riding a car, somebody pull up next to you, you get shot. Walking out of your house, you get shot. Walking down the street, on the bus, somebody pulls up next to me, and I get shot.” For months, she couldn’t shower unless someone else was home. It felt too vulnerable.
She stayed busy. She went to physical therapy, talked with local reporters, and sought help from a counselor. After graduating from high school, she started college in West Virginia, where her grief started to catch up with her.
The death of Brishell wasn’t Ra’Shauna’s first experience of loss and violence. Her dad was shot and killed when she was 4 years old. A few years later, her younger brother died in a house fire. And, in 2016, her mom survived being shot in the crossfire of a shoot-out in their old neighborhood.
She ended up taking several semesters off. One because she needed to testify at the shooters’ trial. And because her personal experience with death had taken its toll. Surrounded by mountains and green in West Virginia, she became depressed.
“I actually had time to think in my own space,” she says. “It gives you too much time to think, too much time to dig yourself in this deep, sunken place.”
She is now 25, taking online classes to finish her degree in psychology and working a job in retail. The nightmares have tapered off. Her depressive episodes are rarer. She doesn’t have problems showering in an empty house anymore. She has learned to compartmentalize her grief in a way that feels necessary for survival.
“If I let all of that stuff consume me, I would be freaking insane,” she says. “Some things are too much for the human form.”
She found some unexpected solace at the gun range, where her brother taught her about firearms. Being around guns made her nervous, but it was also liberating. “This is something that has changed my life. It’s ended plenty of lives, and I want to make sure that I’m comfortable around it,” she says.
In early 2018, Ra’Shauna attended the dedication of a street sign bearing the name “Brishell Jones Way.” At the event, a reporter asked her how it felt to be a survivor of such an infamous massacre. Ra’Shauna balked. “You’re shining a light on the fact that I survived. In my head I’m thinking, ‘This is not a good thing.’ It’s not something that I’m ready to celebrate,” she reflected later. “I spend a lot of time thinking about why her and not me.”
To keep Brishell alive, Ra’Shauna often speaks about her in the present tense. Brishell is shy and petite, she says, but she can be sassy and fierce. She makes the best guacamole. She defends others. She is brightness. She is selfless. She is her sister.