How to Get Away With Murder: A Story of Grief, Apathy and Gun Violence in the African-American Community

Police increased their presence at Woodland Terrace, a public housing complex in Southeast Washington, D.C., on July 31, 2015, after a spate of killings in the neighborhood.
Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Ken McClenton is a grieving father whose family is getting by on faith. His daughter, Charnice Milton, was killed last year in Southeast Washington, D.C., while she was changing buses on her way home from work.

“We are persevering in the midst of our loss,” McClenton tells The Root. “You never get fully over the fact that you love someone and they’ve been taken from you in such a capacity, but by his grace we walk every single day.”


Milton, 27, was a reporter for Capital Community News. She was gunned down May 27, 2015, around 9:40 p.m. Police told her parents she was shot to death by a gunman among a group of all-terrain vehicle riders who was firing at another group of ATV riders. One of them used Milton as a human shield.

Last week, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier returned to the spot where Milton was killed, asking people for help as police released a grainy surveillance video of the ATV riders they think fired the bullet.


“We know there are people out there who can give us the last pieces,” Lanier said. “We really need for them to come forward.”

This past Friday, McClenton says, about 60 people turned out for a vigil in memory of his daughter and for Tamara Gliss, who was shot and killed in D.C. two days before Milton was slain last year. They passed out fliers, hoping that will lead to more information about Milton’s killer. Milton, who had a stutter and Asperger’s syndrome, was known for covering communities of color.


McClenton’s view of the effect of gun violence in the African-American community in D.C. is chilling: “The sad thing is that most people have put their focus on the tool that’s used, and not the heart that uses the tool. In our city, there’s a seemingly quiet motif that one can get away with murder in Washington.”

He adds: “Our priorities are in the wrong place … and criminals know they can take advantage of people that cannot defend themselves.”


In Washington, D.C., last year, there were 105 homicides. According to data from the Metropolitan Police Department, 78 percent of them were African-American men and boys, and 15 percent were African-American women and girls. The next-highest percentage of victims were the 3 percent who were Hispanic men and boys.

But Washington, D.C., is far from alone in dealing with gun violence that is disproportionately affecting the black community. The exponential gun violence in Chicago, heavily affecting the predominantly African-American 11th District over this Memorial Day weekend, has police promising more patrols in what First Deputy Superintendent John Escalante told the Chicago Tribune was “an unacceptable level of shootings.”


National Gun Violence Awareness Day is June 2, and there are events planned around the nation. People are asked to #WearOrange in a campaign started last year by friends of Hadiya Pendleton. She was the 15-year-old Chicago high school student killed by gunfire shortly after she performed with her school band at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. The color orange was chosen because it is the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others.

The D.C.-based Violence Policy Center released a study (pdf) in March that found 85 percent of African-American homicide victims were killed with guns. Based on FBI data from 2013, it found that Indiana had the highest black homicide victimization rate in the nation, followed by Missouri. Nationally, African Americans represented 50 percent of all homicide victims that year, despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population. The black homicide victimization rate in 2013 was 16.91 per 100,000, compared with an overall national homicide victimization rate of 4.27 per 100,000. For whites, the rate was 2.54 per 100,000.


Part of the problem, says VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann, is that many African Americans live in urban centers where a high number of guns are being transported, and there’s a high rate of gun ownership for self-defense.

“This issue on the whole hasn’t received the attention it deserves because the impact of gun homicide is so extreme on black males,” Sugarmann tells The Root, “and the impact on black females is overlooked.”


The study showed that the homicide rate for female black victims was 4.36 per 100,000. In comparison, the overall rate for female homicide victims was 1.72 per 100,000. For white female homicide victims, it was 1.39 per 100,000.

Sugarmann says that states need the ability to create laws to protect citizens, the tools to find out where guns are coming from, and ways to limit their availability in the market.


“There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that communities that face daily violence, especially children and young adults … have the same kind of symptoms you see from PTSD,” Sugarmann says. “They’re living in constant fear … they see the effect of gun violence on those they know and care about, and this does result in both mental and physical impact on their very lives.”

Sugarmann says that there is increasing survey data showing that African Americans think guns are effective self-defense tools, but VPC statistics show they are not.


Charnice Milton’s father, Ken McClenton, doesn’t agree.

“The only thing that’s going to stop the murders in the District of Columbia is that citizens have the right to defend themselves. If [criminals] go against someone with equal armament, they won’t go against them,” McClenton says. “You have a right to defend yourself, and you need to make certain that right is never taken from you by a state with the best intentions. … My daughter would probably have preferred to have an even playing field against the individual who took her life.”


McClenton adds that there’s a tolerance for murder in D.C., and an apathy in resolving it. He says that the faith community needs to get involved, and the millions being spent on public schools and job-training programs aren’t stopping the murders.

“There’s a moral crisis in our community,” McClenton says, “where you are able to take the life of someone without considering its value. We have reached the depth of our degradation.”


Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.

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