Erik chose a long time ago to move forward, not backward. He’s hoping he can do what Devin’s mother asked of him soon after the shooting: “Get out of jail and change your life around for me,” she said. “Then my son can live through you.”
T o make sense of what happened, Erik says, you have to understand his life at the time. He was living with his mother, but she was working and going to school. For him, that meant late nights outside. No rules, nobody calling him in for dinner. He was running the streets at age 14, so when he ran into trouble at school, a gun was the easy answer.
Erik’s grandmother, Marva Green, had cared for him from the time he was two because his mother, Michele, was an addict and his father wasn’t around. Erik adored his mother.
“Take me with you, Mommy,” he’d say when he saw her fixing her hair to go out. Green didn’t want her daughter dragging Erik and his brother, Daryl, into her self-destructive lifestyle, so she helped get Michele into rehab and said she would take the boys. For a while, everything was fine. Erik’s grandma filled his lunch box with homemade fried chicken and cookies, and he talked about becoming a doctor when he got older. In elementary school, he would come home, do his homework, and run around with the neighborhood kids until dark. He had his own bedroom, but in the morning Green often would find him curled up at the foot of her bed.
When Erik was 11, he and a friend wrote their names in graffiti on the exterior of their middle school. Erik’s grandmother couldn’t help but laugh. “Why would he write his name?” she thought. Her grandson started hanging around older boys she didn’t know and telling her she was too strict. Michele was sober by then, so Green told Erik it was time to go live with his mother.
His mom had an apartment on 25th Street, Southeast, a few blocks from his grandmother’s house. She was working too much to keep tabs on him. He’d always liked brand-name clothes, even as a little boy, and the guys he knew who were dealing drugs seemed to have the best of everything.
Erik made a good profit on the corner because he never smoked what he sold. As a boy, he’d spent weekends with his mother at the Oxford House—an addiction-recovery group home in a nice neighborhood in Northwest—and sat with her in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where he saw men without teeth and heard people with AIDS talk about sharing needles.
“People really don’t understand how much a kid can comprehend at a young age—a five- or six-year-old can soak in so much from just listening,” he says.
He made so much money dealing that he might go to bed at night with $600 in his pockets. A few hundred for a gun was no big deal.
B en Clark (not his real name), a community activist who does youth-violence work in the District, has met lots of kids like Erik. Most buy guns because they’re afraid, he says: “Eight times out of ten, when you try to kill somebody, it’s because you fear that if you don’t kill them, they’ll kill you.”
He once tried to shake hands with a middle-schooler he passed on the street, and the boy wouldn’t take his hands out of his sweatshirt pocket because he was trying to conceal a machine gun.
“What the hell are you doing?” Clark asked him.
“Man, they coming through my neighborhood,” the boy said. “I’m gonna do that to them.”
Do that meant kill them.
“No, you’re not,” Clark said. “Give me some time to talk to you.”
Two decades ago, when Clark was growing up in DC, he says, you could look at certain guys and know they were dangerous. The thugs stood out. Now everybody blends together and you never know who might be carrying a weapon.
“Years ago, there were rules to this,” Clark says. “Somebody’s with their mother, you wouldn’t shoot them. If somebody’s in their house, you wouldn’t go shoot up the house. Nowadays, they don’t care about the rules. The rules are ‘I live—you die.’ ”
People call Clark, who has served time for attempted murder, when something bad is about to happen. His job at the nonprofit he works for is to step in and try to quash beefs before they become violent. It’s not the type of work you want to bring attention to, Clark says. If your name is out there, the kids will stop trusting you: “You’re not supposed to hear about the truces.”
He’s especially busy after a shooting, when there’s word on the streets that someone is going to retaliate. Many fights start at school and spill over into the community. The key, Clark says, is to get to the kids before they get to each other.
“Somehow, God has blessed me to be able to de-escalate. I can talk to kids and they’ll listen,” he says. “I’ve been in instances where I didn’t even know a guy, and I ran and pushed another kid out of the way so he didn’t get shot, and the guy pointed his gun at me. The other kids were like, ‘Nah, that’s Ben,’ and he put the gun down.”
He recently got involved with a feud between a neighborhood crew and a group of high-school football players.
“Someone called me and said, ‘Man, we need you to come over and deal with this before it gets into gunplay,’ ” Clark says. “We negotiated, and I had to settle for someone getting beat up.”
A colleague of Clark’s once received a call from a member of DC’s Trinidad crew. “The E Street dudes are in our neighborhood right now,” the guy said. “We’re about to do that.”
“No, no—hold on!” he said. He made a couple of calls and found out the E Street guys were in Trinidad checking out girls—they weren’t looking for trouble. Nobody got hurt. “A lot of times we’re able to stop these things,” Clark says. “Sometimes we find out too late.”
When Erik fired his pistol, Devin Fowlkes and his teammates were hanging around in the parking lot, waiting for football practice.