By Theresa Vargas / The Washington Post
In the short, out-of-focus video, Davon McNeal stands in front of a whiteboard fastened to a blue wall and speaks about courage.
“Frederick Douglass said,” the sixth-grader tells his classmates, “once said, ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
His class assignment had called for writing a speech about a courageous historical figure, and Davon chose to focus on the former slave and abolitionist. The video, posted recently by his middle school principal, shows him holding a sheet of paper as he speaks. For his presentation, he could have picked a number of powerful quotes from Douglass to recite. The renowned orator was known for many:
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
“The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery.”
But the quote that called to Davon was one about progress, about moving forward, about doing better.
The 11-year-old is now gone because we are not yet in a place where that progress has been realized. We are not yet past the comma in that quote. We’re still stuck in the first part; the part about struggle.
If we weren’t, the police wouldn’t have found Davon dying in his mom’s arms just miles from the White House on the Fourth of July.
If we weren’t, the city wouldn’t have seen — yet again — relatives pleading for justice, rewards offered, an arrest made and balloons released toward the sky for a boy who no longer stood on the ground.
If we weren’t, social media pages wouldn’t be filled with the face of yet another gone-too-soon child in a city that keeps vowing “enough is enough.”
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted those exact words two summers ago after the death of Makiyah Wilson, a 10-year-old girl who had been heading to an ice cream truck when a bullet hit her. Her mother cradled her, too, as she lay dying.
At the time, the mayor wrote, “Enough is enough. We need every community member to help us get illegal guns off our streets. If you have any information related to tonight’s shooting, please call 202-727-9099 or text 50411.”
After Davon’s death, she wrote, “Davon should be with us today. He should be doing the things 11-year-old boys do and enjoying his summer with family and friends. Anyone with information abt this tragedy should call 202-727-9099 or text 50411.”
Same phone number. Same sense of senselessness. Different black child.
Some people will see Davon’s face and the face of the men suspected in his shooting and dismiss the death as a failure of the black community. They will wipe their hands and conscious of it in the same way people have done before after finding out a black child died at the hands of a black person, with a question: If black people don’t care about black lives, why should everyone else?
But Devon is dead not because black people haven’t been trying hard enough to end gun violence. He is dead because we all haven’t been trying hard enough to end it. His loss is our collective failure.
Guns end up in evidence bags as a result of many hands, of all colors. Someone makes them. Someone sells them. Someone chooses where public funds are invested, and where they are not. Someone decides to look away from a headline about another dead child because it’s easier than considering how they can help prevent the next one.
I have seen people in D.C.’s black community try in different ways to make the city’s streets safer.
Black teenagers have written songs aimed at getting people to put down their guns.
Black artists have painted murals to serve as reminder of who has been slain.
Black residents have pushed for more school funding, more job training, more affordable housing; more ways to give people growing up in some of the District’s most neglected neighborhoods more hope.
Davon was in that Southeast Washington neighborhood that night because his mother, Crystal McNeal, had organized a stop-the-violence cookout for the community. As a violence interrupter for the District, she works to convince people to stop settling beefs with bullets that can’t be taken back.
Bullets that too often hit people who aren’t their intended targets.
Davon was shot in the head near the Frederick Douglass Community Center while heading to get ear buds and a cellphone charger from a relative’s residence. Police officials have said the suspects were not aiming for him.
In the days since his death, relatives and friends of the family have spoken out in front of news cameras and through social media. The have talked about Davon’s love of football and his dream of making it to the NFL. They have described feeling “heartbroken” and “not OK” and haunted by “what ifs.” What if he hadn’t gone to get that charger? What if he had dropped to the ground as soon as the shots rang out? What if no one had pulled that trigger?
They have also not gone easy on the community where the shooting occurred. They have called for arrests of everyone involved. They have marched through the streets, shouting, “No justice, no sleep.” At a Thursday night vigil that saw orange and black balloons fill the sky, hundreds of people listened to someone pray and someone sing. But first, they listened to someone tell them, “We are killing us. Every single day, it’s us killing us … I have a problem with another race killing one of my brothers or sisters, but I damn sure have a problem with one of my brothers or sisters killing me. We’re supposed to stick together, y’all.”
No, Washington’s black community isn’t ignoring the gun violence that is killing the city’s children. They can’t. There are too many constant reminders.
July 18 will mark a year since 11-year-old Karon Brown was fatally shot. He would have been in Davon’s middle school class. And Karon’s death came less than two months after 15-year-old Maurice Scott, an honor roll student, was shot and killed near a convenience store.
Artist Demont Pinder painted Maurice after his death, just as he did Makiyah after hers. His latest work features Davon.
In the painting, the boy carries a cross and wears a crown made of bullets and fireworks. In one corner, hover these words from an unseen person: “How are we going to say #BlackLivesMatter when you guys are killing each other.”
In another corner, appears the face of Frederick Douglass and some of his most famous words: “It is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.”
Davon would have likely come across that quote while doing his research.
He might have even read a speech Douglass gave, titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” If he did, the boy who died on that day would have seen these words, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @byTheresaVargas.