After the brawl: Verbal assault on the train
This is one in a series of pieces based on reporting by seven Washington Post staff writers who spent Tuesday night in Washington's East End, taking in the scene in the aftermath of last Friday's brawl in the Metro system, talking to the teens who have taken to hanging out in the city's new tourism and entertainment district, as well as to police, residents, tourists, and business owners. Reporter Kevin Sieff spent the evening with young people as they headed from Seventh Street NW back home via Metro:
Alton Barrett, 41, is chilling, slumped against a brick pillar outside the Metro station, not doing much of anything — an insouciance he has refined at Gallery Place since 1985. He wears a black hoodie, black Nationals cap and black headphones. Ask what has changed about this part of downtown Washington near 7th and H streets NW, and he’ll tell you about the movie theater with velour seats that used to show “nasty movies” for 25 cents. It’s gone now, replaced with an Urban Outfitters.
He’ll tell you that the cheap drinks have gotten expensive, that the Chinatown arch makes the place feel a lot less like Chinatown the way it used to be. Oh, and the kids. He’ll tell you how a few of them used to come down here to chill, but how more and more of them keep showing up, disturbing his quiet corner. They steal phones and wallets, he says, and they fight with each other, mostly on the weekend. He knows the crews: the gay kids and the Muslim kids and the hoodrats and the rich kids from the suburbs. “I’ve seen them fight against each other. ..... All sorts of fights: gay against Muslim, black against white, black against black.”
Aubrey Coachman has spent the last five hours guarding Chipotle’s soda fountain. He’s got his back to the machine, looking in the reflection of the restaurant’s window for kids trying to put lemonade in free water cups. So far, he has only caught three people trying to steal drinks. “I can’t believe this is how they want me to spent my time,” Coachman said. He’s done the math: in five hours, he’s saved Chipotle just over a dollar. “This is ridiculous.”
Ridiculous, Coachman says, not only because of the inanity of the task, but because in this neighborhood, even on a Tuesday, his time would be better spent doing actual security work. That’s what he thought he was getting paid for, especially in the wake of a huge fight in the restaurant in February, when 30 people threw chairs in the air and wreaked havoc on the place.
Not long after that brawl, the restaurant hired Coachman.
He seems to know everyone who comes to Gallery Place — those who do nothing but walk the strip on 7th Street between H and F. He’s divided the teenagers into two groups: perennials and annuals. The perennials are here year-round, even in the dead of winter. The annuals only show up in summer.
“That one right there,” Coachman says from his Chipotle stool, pointing to a boy who looks about 15, wearing a white cap. “He’s a classic perennial, goofing all the time. He never leaves this place.”
Coachman spends a lot of time listening. He’s gleaned quite a bit about the scene. He claims some of the worst troublemakers belong to a gay gang called “Check It.” He says they snatch iPhones and wallets from unsuspecting tourists.
“Muslim brothers is everywhere, why shouldn’t I hang out here?” says a man slouching against a wall next to the Gallery Place Metro station. He doesn’t want to give his name, but says he comes here almost every day to pray with his friends on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery. Prayer is over, though, and now, like the rest of this growing, stagnant crowd, he’s doing very little aside from watching people pass by. And those people are watching him, an incongruity amidst the neon lights, dressed in a long white Thawb, or robe, and red prayer cap. He’s one element in the diverse crowd. He watches tall black men dressed in short cocktail dresses strut by. He gets quiet as soon as they appear.
Nationals fans clad in red pour off the Green line at Gallery Place, creating a massive bottleneck at the bottom of an out-0f-service escalator. The crowd headed outbound to Branch Avenue, by comparison, is much smaller. They turn to watch the herd trudging toward the exit.
When the train arrives, a group of six women in baggy shorts and oversized collared polos enter the same car. One starts doing pull-ups on the train’s metal bar. Another uses the car as a runway, marching down the aisle, shouting “check me out.” Other passengers — Nationals fans, people heading home from a late night at work, couples returning from the Gallery Place movies — smile and laugh. Then the scene gets tense. One of the women, who doesn’t want to be identified but appears to be in her 30s, starts mocking a 58-year-old woman named Carol, who is studying a physiology textbook in the middle of the car.
“You look like my teacher, Mrs. Wright,” she says. “You can’t fail me anymore!” The crowd laughs, a little more reluctantly this time. Then the barrage of insults starts. The woman leans over and puts her nose in Carol’s hair. “You smell like cat piss, you stupid bitch,” the woman says. Carol looks down at her textbook, trying to ignore the assault as the rest of the crowd looks on.
“It’s because of you that I’m gay,” the woman says. “It’s because of you that my children are mentally retarded.” The woman gives her friends high-fives after each insult, and they laugh along with her. A family in Nationals uniforms moves to another side of the car. “Don’t hate me because I’m loud and gay,” the woman says.
Then five Guardian Angels arrive. They stand on one end of the car, arms crossed, saying nothing. The woman in the baggy shorts looks at the youngest member of the group, who appears to be in his teens. “What are you, 12?” she screams. “What are you gonna do, skateboard?” The Guardian Angels say nothing.
“Ha!” the woman exclaims, a few feet from the Angels, who are clad in white shirts and red berets. “These Angels ain’t guarding [expletive].”
Carol closes her textbook. “I thought once the Angels got here, things would calm down,” she would say later. “I thought they would step in, or call Metro police or something. But they just stood there.”
After a few minutes, the Guardian Angels leave the Metro car, and the woman continues to viciously mock Carol. “I have no idea why she chose me,” Carol said later. “It made no sense.”
Christina Taylor, on her way home from work near Fort Washington, watched the verbal attack intensify. She’s been making the same commute for eight years. “Sometimes this ride can be real rough,” Taylor said. “Where’s the security when we need it?”
Carol and and the rest of her group get off in Suitland. One of the women tells Carol, “I’m sorry, it’s just that we’ve been drinking.” She puts her arm around Carol as they approach the escalator. Rain starts to fall outside of the station. Carol walks toward a cab.
“You know, I wasn’t scared by what happened in there,” she says. “I was embarrassed that everyone, especially the Caucasians, had to see one black woman insulting another black woman like that. Still, even if that woman didn’t mean any harm, what if things had escalated? The Angels were there, but they didn’t do anything. Where was the security?”
| August 11, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories: Build-A-Story, Local Life, coffee house newsroom
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