Jamal struts when he walks.

It’s a proud strut, because Jamal packs respect.

He’s got a nine. That’s a nine-millimeter, a Glock 17 with a 19-shot clip and enough firepower to stop anybody who messes with him.

“Down here, if you ain’t packin’, you ain’t nobody.” He says it with pride as he pats the gun in his belt.

In Southeast Washington, where Jamal was born, where he has lived all of his short life, and where he expects to die, packing a nine is seen as the only way to extend your life much beyond puberty.

Jamal has watched his friends die, six of them in the last three years, all dead before they reached their 16th birthday. They died violently, two in shootouts, three in drive-bys and one at the hands of an anxious D.C. cop. When Jamal goes down, it will be with a nine his hand.

Like his friends, Jamal lives by boosting cars, selling hot parts, and dealing a little on the side. He got kicked out of school last year and doesn’t plan to go back.

“School’s for losers. I ain’t gonna make no big score in school. The street’s where it’s at.”

The streets are also where people in Jamal’s neighborhood and in his line of work die.

“Hey, ain’t nobody gonna live forever. I gots to get mine while I can.”

So he’s working the street, with that proud strut, the nine in his belt, ready to take on the world.

A D.C. police car drives by. Jamal ignores them.

“Cops are a joke. They sit on their fat asses and drive their cars. They afraid to get out of their cars ’cause they might get hurt.”

Once Jamal thought about making it in basketball. He was pretty good, but a rival gang member with a baseball stopped that.

“Knee ain’t worked right since.”

His older brother was raking in the high grades and heading for a college scholarship when a misdirected bullet from a drive-by put an end to that dream. Jamal shrugs off his brother’s death.

“Everybody dies. Some sooner than others. I ever find out who done my brother, I’ll take ’em out, but I ain’t gonna worry about it unless I find out.”

George Wilbon works the street for one of D.C.’s few operating social service programs and says Jamal’s attitude isn’t all that unusual.

“Kids down here are fatalistic and realistic,” Wilbon says. “They know they won’t survive unless they get out. Problem is, they don’t know how to get out. Jamal will be dead by 18.”

Wilbon says he tried to talk some sense into Jamal, but turned his attention instead to others who, he feels, might listen.

“I don’t have time to waste on losers who won’t learn,” he says. “There’s too many kids down here and damn little time to try and work with them. If I save one or two a year, I figure I’m ahead of the game.”

Wilbon was wrong. Jamal wasn’t dead by 18.

He died two weeks ago. . .five days shy of his 16th birthday. He got in an argument with a man and started to pull out his nine.

But the man pulled his first and shot Jamal in the face four times. He was dead before he hit the ground. A half dozen people witnessed the shooting and watched the man get into his car and drive away.

Wilbon was wrong, but Jamal was right.

He died with his nine in his hand.

–Doug Thompson
Washington, DC