The 12th annual Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters cookout and amateur boxing tournament, scheduled to take place at the end of August at Upshur Park in Northwest, will mark the beginning of a six-month moratorium on murders in the District, as agreed upon by event organizers and participants pledging to spread that message throughout their communities.
Thus continues a longtime tradition, initially propelled by several grassroots anti-violence activists in the wake of Mayor Marion Barry’s transition out of public office in 1998.
Al-Malik Farrakhan, key coordinator of those efforts, recalled that moment in history as one marked both by constant violence and a burning desire for peace among what he described as some of D.C.’s most organized gangs.
“The youth of the city wanted to honor Mayor Barry and one of the ways of doing that was a six-month moratorium on killings,” said Farrakhan, founder of anti-violence nonprofit Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters.
By the turn of the century, the District experienced 242 homicides, half of which the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) recorded in 1990. From that point on, annual homicide figures slightly fluctuated until 2005 when it dropped below 200.
“Mayor Barry wrote a letter thanking us for that,” Farrakhan continued. “[At the time], there was a bunch of killing. I was in a wheelchair. It was rough, [but] the youth were more conscious. You had Chuck D and Sister Souljah, and all them spitting. When Big G [of Backyard Band] made ‘Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers’ it pumped us up even more.”
In 1995, three years before its first citywide moratorium, the 50 original members of Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters, then called Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers, brokered a peace deal under the guidance of Farrakhan and Barry. The young men at the table, representing five District neighborhoods, would later organize rallies against police brutality and drugs under the Cease Fire banner.
In the years following, Cease Fire continued to facilitate similar truces, including 41 days of peace between Salvadoran street crews in D.C. Jail with the help of Luis Cardona and the National Coalition of Barrios Unidos in 2003.
Local officials, including one-time MPD Chief Charles Ramsey and former D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange cited Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters’ moratoriums and mediation outside of the purview of police as pivotal in decreasing local violence.
In the decades since, government-funded anti violence organizations have followed suit. This has especially been the case with the passage of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act in 2016. That legislation created the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement through which the Pathways Program equips D.C.’s most violent offenders with job-related skills. A year before NEAR’s passage, the District experienced an uptick in homicides not seen since 2008.
Farrakhan, a native Washingtonian, founded Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters in the late 1980s during a 21-year prison stint. Upon his release in the early 1990s, he accompanied Minister Anthony Muhammad, then a clergyperson at D.C. Jail, on trips throughout the District’s most violent neighborhoods over the course of four months while confined to a wheelchair. His citywide tour of solidarity would end around his old stomping grounds of 14th Street in Northwest.
In that area, Farrakhan worked alongside a man named Dog Father to galvanize support among the adults and youth. Years later, from the Cease Fire headquarters on 14th Street, between Decatur and Crittenden streets, Farrakhan fostered youths’ desire for entrepreneurship, hosted public forums and GED classes and allowed go-go bands to perform when their underage members couldn’t enter adult venues.
Some Cease Fire alumni, including a woman who remains anonymous, said the organization’s success lies in awakening youth to their true selves and revealing the lies taught to them by society.
“Mr. Malik saw something in me that I didn’t see. I learned about how we dislike people but don’t remember why,” the 30-something hailing from the 14th Street community told The Informer.
“Through the peace summits and meetings, we came together,” she continued. “We talked about our differences. [They were] just misunderstandings that had to do with neighborhoods and streets we didn’t own. We lost family members over street names that don’t reflect our legacy. We changed our thinking thanks to Cease Fire and its bond that can never be broken.”