These are some of the young people who have been killed in crew-related violence in D.C.’s Ward 1 over the past few years. Coates was killed last Tuesday in a shooting on U Street near the scene of the funeral of Ashley McRae -- another murder victim.
Living in the city, one gets used to these stories. They make the front page of the Metro section, or get a few minutes on the local news. We shake our heads at the insanity of it, and go on about our days.
And we get angry -- angry that our streets are not safe, angry that children are destroying each other. “Idiots playing gangster,” one Washington Post commenter called them. “These fools are savages,” said another. A third was even more blunt: “The bright side of this -- and a lot of the gang violence I read about in this city -- is that they're killing each other.”
But who was Jamal Coates?
Bryan Weaver, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and local activist who has done truly heroic work with the youth of Ward 1, knew Coates for more than a decade. He coached Coates in a local basketball league when Coates was 14, and Coates soon starting pressing Weaver to take him to Guatemala with his youth leadership and development program, Hoops Sagrado.
Hoops Sagrado gives at-risk youth from D.C. a chance to spend a summer month in Guatemala working with the Mayan indigenous community on basketball skills and cultural exchange.
“Even though I knew him and knew Guatemala would be a great experience for him, he had to go through the application process just like everyone else -- no special treatment,” Weaver told me. “And just like he bugged me every summer about going, every summer he also failed to follow through with any of the responsibilities. Back then he wanted to be seen as a tough kid who never wanted to be perceived as ‘soft.’”
Last year, though, things changed.
"Jamal had a serious brush with the law early in the year that had really changed him,” Weaver said. “We met on the roof of a building in Adams Morgan and had a very emotional conversation about life choices that he had made as a teenager, and how for his mother he really wanted to make a life change.”
Weaver said Coates “was great in Guatemala. Everyone that he met there, he left an impression on -- a good impression. The young children in his camp adored him. And he loved them back even though he couldn’t always communicate with them.” He embraced every new opportunity and experience that came his way, and “even ate a cow's udder,” Weaver said.
Coates had been involved with the 1-7 Crew, which is based around 17th and Euclid Streets in Adams Morgan. He knew Ashley McRae’s brother and a lot of the rival crew members who got into a quickly escalating confrontation outside the funeral last Tuesday. Coates tried to defuse the situation.
“I do not want to lionize Jamal in death, so let's be clear we are not talking about Gandhi or even Jimmy Carter here,” Weaver told me. “I am 100 percent sure that Jamal was completely indelicate in trying to separate the two groups last Tuesday. He knew what the right thing to do was, he had that part down. How to say it -- well, that was different beast altogether.”
Weaver says the media coverage of last Tuesday’s violence was not entirely accurate. The Washington Post ran an article on Coates that focused on his crew life, while TBD offered a more sympathetic portrayal. “I was really bothered by the immediate attempt to connect Ashley McRae's murder to Jamal's murder,” Weaver said. “My heart goes out to Ashley's family because many people walked away from the first day of the press coverage thinking she was associated with local crews. Not the case at all, and the horror of a domestic violence murder has been lost.”
“What really is bothering me is what is being left unsaid in the media,” he continued. “No one is holding public officials feet to the fire over this violence -- how many times in a one-mile square area we have had high-profile murders as a result of this neighborhood conflict over the last five years.”
A scholarship fund in Coates’s name has been set up to provide yearly scholarships for one boy and one girl from the Guatemala village where Coates taught basketball to attend high school. Contributions can be sent to: Jamal R. Coates Scholarship Fund, c/o Hoops Sagrado, P.O. Box 21332, Washington, D.C. 20009.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC