Diamond Thorne, away in Atlantic City, N.J., felt compelled to return to the District of Columbia to be a part of the 5th Annual Cease Fire Don't Smoke the Brothers and Sisters picnic, a gathering she hadn't missed to this point.
Thorne, 52, attended the family day celebration on Saturday, August 25 with her 30-year-old niece and one-year-old great nephew.
"This is a very important event. I come every year and wouldn't miss it. I had to come back," said Thorne, a local real estate agent. "I know that people toward the end of April begin to look forward to this. It's a peaceful, happy, joyful event. I have a baby here and my dad who's 76 just left. People enjoy the entertainment, the food and each other. People from all walks of life are here."
This year's picnic, held at the Upshur Recreation Center and playground in Northwest, attracted a crowd of more than a thousand people who streamed in and out of the venue all day.
Family in all its manifestations was evident everywhere. Old friends shared hearty embraces, banter and conversation; folks posed for pictures with people they hadn't seen in a while; children ran through the crowd from one place to another, the peals of laughter punctuated the air; families and friends shared tables, licking their fingers while eating the meals provided by Al-Malik Farrakhan and a crew of volunteers without whom the picnic would not have been a success.
Dirul Pasha stood on an embankment watching all going on around him with a sense of satisfaction.
Pasha is a close friend and co-worker of Farrakhan's who he credits with helping him straighten out his life when he emerged from prison in 2007.
"I see this as a very beautiful ... I want to say gathering but it's more than a gathering – it's people from all over D.C.," he said. "This is a beautiful event. I was afraid it was going to rain but the rain will subside until this is over."
The rain threatened all day and gray, angry looking clouds hung heavy over the playground, but the occasional rainfall did nothing to deter a crowd determined to have a good time. People chatted amicably, laughed easily and enjoyed each other's company.
"I think it's great for black people to come together peacefully," said businessman Jacques Chevalier. "I love seeing black people come together."
Chevalier lauded Farrakhan.
"Some people are for the masses, not for people with assets," he quipped.
Farrakhan, 64, founded Cease Fire in 1995 when violence among and between young people in the District had spiraled out of control. Every day, newspaper headlines and television news trumpeted the tragic stories of teens and young adult black men involved in shootouts, murders and maimings because of women, neighborhood beefs, issues of respect, the struggle over turf, drug battles and the like. Cease Fire crisscrossed the city, swooping into hotspots trying to defuse the violence.
"There were killings and bullets flying like hell in these neighborhoods," Farrakhan recalled. "We went into places where the police were afraid to go with no bullet proof vests. We took all gangsters and told them, 'Cease fire.'"
In between eating, exhorting and educating the crowd and introducing acts, scores of people greeted Farrakhan, hugged and kissed him, talked trash, encouraged him and gave him much love for his contributions to keeping the peace in District neighborhoods.
Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser, 40, praised Farrakhan and the picnic.
"This is super important," she said. "A lot of people look forward to this every year. It's good clean fun. Cease Fire is doing a great job."
Fellow Council member Vincent Orange – who Farrakhan said has provided Cease Fire with $3 million over the years to help run the non-profit and pay for an assortment of programs – agreed.
"This is extremely important to come out, interact, and show that we can come out in peace," he said following remarks to the crowd. "We have to support community events like this by supplying permits, waiving fees and getting more elected officials out here. Visibility is very important and us [elected officials] doing the right thing."
Amateur boxers faced each other in a makeshift ring later in the evening, while rappers, singers and musicians such as Lamont Carey, Jett Black and EU and Sugar Bear excited the crowd with people circling the front of the tent when these musicians performed. The percussive sounds of Go-Go and the soothing melodies of Rhythm and Blues drew people to the tent where groups performed.
In between the music, Farrakhan handed out Peacemaker Awards, a succession of speakers discussed the problems returning citizens contend with, called on young people to secure an education and eschew violence and insisted that everyone vote in the November general elections. In several areas of the park and playground, voter registration volunteers signed people up to vote in November.
"I encourage you to vote," said Xango Sawyer, a strident defender of the rights of ex-offenders. "We're 60,000 strong. Vote so we can put people in who represent our interests. We don't have jobs or the services we need so it's very important to do this."
Farrakhan elaborated, using Orange and the city council as an example.
"With this election bit, we can't [allow] them to pimp us anymore. We're putting Europeans in office over qualified blacks because we don't like him [Orange]. You may not like him, but he's the best on the council besides Marion Barry."
Farrakhan said the picnic, coordinated with Universal Madness and Umar Sports and Learning Center, is an extension of Cease Fire's work on the streets. He said he's thankful to be able to offer this event to a community he loves.
"It's for the people, it's for the people ..." he intoned.