Stepping in front of the gun

Sunny, a 22-year-old violence interpreter on Good Hope Road in Southeast D.C, leaning on a fence during an interview with the Des in April, 2021.
Sunny is a violence interpreter on Good Hope Road in Southeast D.C. He interviewed with the Des in April 2021.

Stepping in front of the gun

On the frontlines of the rise in homicides: an interview with a D.C. violence interrupter who works to stop murders and fights on the city’s notorious Good Hope Road

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

It’s a normal day for Sunny, a 22-year-old violence interrupter on Good Hope Road in Southeast D.C. He’s snapping Instagram photos for a friend, taking phones passed to him with calls from D.C’s jail, answering questions while dapping up cousins and friends alike. He’ll spend most of his day outside on the block in the middle of a constant barrage of swirling people.

But this is his job: to stay completely checked into his neighborhood and community to make it safer and healthier. He is supposed to see things before they happen and stop them. It’s a big task in D.C.’s historic Anacostia, a predominantly Black neighborhood that thrums with life and music but that is also notorious for its violence. Southeast D.C. is an area of the city that has seen disinvestment over decades. It continues to lack resources as the rest of D.C. falls to gentrification. Both Ward 7 and 8 continually log the highest murder rates in the city.

This year, 70 people have been killed in D.C. as of May 15, over 30 percent more than the same time last year. Formerly deadliest city in America, D.C. saw a plummet in killings in the last two decades, but the districts’ murders are back on the rise.

As a violence interrupter, Sunny is part of the effort to staunch the killing. He regularly jumps in between pointed guns and fighting people but he also puts on cookouts and regularly connects people to the resources they need. It’s a dangerous job: violence interrupters have been shot and killed. But it’s also effective.

From the neighborhood and often formerly incarcerated, violence interrupters work on the most violent blocks and street corners in cities across the country to stop violence before it escalates to fights and shootings. These men and women DO NOT work with the police. Instead, they develop close relationships with youth and their community to intervene in conflicts before they turn violent or deadly. As pressure grows to address safety without police, the use of violence interrupters is gaining new traction as a way to save lives from gun violence and incarceration.

In the nation’s Capital, violence interrupters work under the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. Two separate groups work in Northwest, east and Southeast neighborhoods. The Des sat down in April with Sunny who works on the infamous Good Hope Road in Southeast. Sunny, who grew up in an area of D.C. called “Choppa City” or Historic Anacostia, started working for J&J Monitoring and the Far Southeast Collaborative in 2019 as a violence interrupter.

He completed extensive training to work in the position, but his biggest qualification comes from where he grew up. “I was born and raised around this neighborhood. So I actually know everything, and I know everybody, and they also got love for me and respect too,” he says. 

“We went through a hundred trainings in 2019 before the pandemic. I went through training and I learned skills that I never knew.” He added, “I’ve been a peacemaker before this training, I didn’t need training to do this, but I definitely needed them to do the mediation.”

In the de-escalation training, he learned skills that allow him to build bonds and trust with youth. He also learned engagement skills. “When I am one-on-one with you, I’m talking to you about your lifestyle: ‘Okay, are you living at home? Do you need any case management?’ I refer them to case management.”

“Basically, me being engaged and me just being a part of their life for them to understand that I’m here. They don’t want nobody to just walk into their life and then walk right out,” Sunny said. 

In cities like D.C. where few days this year have gone without a stabbing or shooting death, it’s hard to see the violence stopping. But to Sunny it’s simple: give the youth something to do other than be on the streets.

“I got the sauce on how to stop the violence.” He said people are always commenting on the people involved in the violence and judging them which doesn’t stop the violence. “But guess what, y’all have to provide for these people who have an impact on violence.” 

“Not giving me invoices or money for cookouts. These people need steady jobs, these people need homes that they are safe in and sometimes [they just need] love.”

“I’m talking about youth from age nine and even men that still ain’t got it together at the age of 35. You got men looking up to young’ins that’s 24, and they’ve been out here all their life”

Sunny says Choppa city needs a recreation center that’s open even during virtual school and pandemics. “A place to show your talent, a place for you to work on your talent and a place for you to feel safe after school.” 

Without a productive space to go, violence is created. “When there ain’t no recreations and nowhere in the community, there ain’t nothing else to do,” he says. 

The violence is nuanced and chaotic and complicated. To outsiders, it doesn’t make sense. It can start between neighborhoods, families or friends. But Sunny understands it, he witnesses it everyday.

“It could be little things that start the violence. People that don’t ever step foot in these communities will never know what started [or] what triggered it. It could be over a burger. So you need people that can relate like me. I’m relatable to these people. They don’t want nobody they can’t relate to changing their lifestyles because now they can make you an enemy. They gonna think you’re trying to tell me how to live instead of trying to build a bond and help them.”

Sunny’s job is to pay special attention to the youth who are watching the older teenagers and young adults. “Them the most important ones. Because once they get fifteen to sixteen, they ready to carry that pistol.”

Being a violence interrupter on the front lines is dangerous. A few weeks before Sunny talked with The Des, he jumped in front of two guns in just one week. “I hopped in front of two guns, twice. I could have lost my life, but I didn’t want to see them lose their life either.

“But they weren’t gonna shoot in front of me. They weren’t about to shoot me. Even though their emotions could have ‘bahhh’ and I still could have gotten hit. God put me in front of both of them guns,” Sunny says. 

“Me jumping in front of those guns wasn’t for my job, I swear. That was for them, I was trying to save them because one person will get killed and one of them throw their life away.”

22-year-old violence interpreter, Sunny, leaning on a fence on Good Hope Road in Southeast D.C. during an interview with the Des in 2021.
Sunny interviewed with the Des in 2021.