It was a little more than seven hours to midnight on New Year’s Eve when Arrington Lassiter asked a question that brought a group of 9 laughing and playing girls to an abrupt mute.
“135 people killed in D.C. this year. Did y’all know that?” Lassiter, a choreographer at the Northeast Performing Arts Center asked. The girls had no reply.
When they reconvened sitting in a corner and sharing chairs, one of the girls said aloud that she knew one of the victims– 16-year-old Breyona McMillian. McMillian’s name was one of the 135 names to be read aloud a half hour later while the center held their 26th annual vigil and remembrance rally.
“We’re hoping every year will be our last,” Carrington Lassiter said. Carrington Lassiter is the executive director of the center. The vigil began 26 years ago by Rita Jackson, who died last January, and the vigil was celebrated in her honor.
Lassiter said he wanted those attending the vigil to leave with a feeling of hope– and trust in the programs that are available, like the Northeast Performing Arts Center, which is also an outreach program. Lassiter said he wants people to know they are there to help.
“What I want is for people to just put the guns down, keep a safe mind, keep a clear, vivid mind,” he said. “Put your anger somewhere else. You can put it all into your art.”
Carrington Lassiter said the vigil serves to memorialize the victims who, at the stroke of midnight are no longer counted as current victims.
“When the ball drops at midnight, the victim count goes back to zero,” he said.
Using art as a way to understand stories is what Aaron Watkins, the choreographer at the center, teaches the group of girls who would later perform to do. This year’s song was titled “My world needs you right now.”
“They come here and they tell me that they have friends that have died and I tell them everything’s going to be fine– the only thing you can do is dance it out,” Watkins said. “In dance you can hear the music, you can’t sing, so your body has to tell the story. So we tell the story through dance.”
Residents attending the vigil were joined by members of the Metropolitan Police Department, including Assistant Chief Diane Groomes and Acting Captain of the Homicide Branch Anthony Haythe. The group convened in a circle while some performed songs and others prayers. After the girls performed, alumni of the center read the names of each homicide victim, holding remembrance candles.
“The center is so needed to save lives and give hope and continue as a safe space,” Groomes told the crowd. “Losing one life is just too many and the impact it has and we wish that we didn’t have to have a homicide [branch] or respond to a homicide…”
D.C. finished the year with 137 homicides, down from a high of 162 the previous year. Prior to the vigil, Haythe touted the decrease, but said they wish every year for lower and lower numbers.
“If we get good citizens of the District of Columbia, as we have been getting, coming forward with information on older homicides, we investigate those,” Haythe told the crowd. “I don’t want anyone out here to think that that after 12 o’clock tonight your loved ones are forgotten…we continue.”