Curtis Mozie’s office is filled with ghosts.
The first thing Mozie, 47, sees every day when he walks into his apartment in a square, brick building on P Street is a wall full of 8×11 sheets of paper, each memorializing a different D.C. resident, most of them from the Shaw neighborhood, almost all of them young, black, and male. Each paper includes a name and a brief description of the deceased.
Taken altogether, the wall creates a grisly collage of the way young black men die in the nation’s capital. Jumped outside of a club over some beef involving a girl. Launched through the windshield of a stolen car after it crashed. Stabbed. Most often: shot and killed.
“Du-wan. R.I.P. Shot and killed while standing in the O Street Market. They walked in and opened fire, wounding nine people.”
“Delonte Marshall. 5-26-86 — 4-24-07. Shot and killed two years after his brother Lee was murdered on the same block at Saratoga Ave NE.”
“He was there when his friend Tonio was shot and killed. Before his death, he told me what he saw scared him.”
By the tally in Mozie’s self-published memoir, he knew 86 people who were murdered over the last three decades. Another 71 were shot but survived, some of them paralyzed for life.
Mozie is an amateur videographer and community activist who, over more than two decades and thousands of hours of film, has documented the Shaw neighborhood in Northwest D.C. while working to quell gang violence.
His apartment, which he calls the “safe house,” has long been a place where teenagers can escape the pressures of the streets. Mozie turns his camera lens on them, and they vent their hopes and fears.
“When kids would come here, they would tell me about their problems, open up and tell me about what was going on and how they feel about life,” Mozie said. “Then, before you know it, these same people started getting murdered.”
What began as an amateur documentary project became something else entirely. Mozie realized he had footage of those same people stretching back to their childhoods.
“I got some of these kids before they were even born,” he said.
So he started editing memorial videos for grieving families, going through his huge stack of tapes in his closet and finding footage of the deceased. He has DVDs of the memorial videos he’s created hanging on the wall. I counted 38 of them. “There’s way more than that,” Mozie said.
A memorial shrine was set up against the other wall, with framed pictures and additional DVDS.
Family members and old friends stop by the safe house to remember the dead. Some come by just to talk, and Mozie picks up the camera again.
When things pop off, Mozie gets calls on his cell phone. He grabs his camera and runs to the scene, often arriving before emergency responders. Sometimes he goes straight to the hospital. In the summer, Mozie said, he gets three to five calls a week.
The video he captures is stomach churning: men being loaded into ambulances, wailing family members at hospitals and funerals, candlelight vigils.
He calls his project the “Tales of the Tape,” a reference to the yellow tape police use at crime scenes. Sometimes, when kids come in and talk to Mozie’s video camera, they wonder if they’ll become a tale of the tape. Sometimes they do.
It used to be different.
“I can recall the first time that I picked up a video camera and began filming events as they transpired—you know, your basic everyday life activities: young men playing pick-up basketball, rapping and singing at parties, and just hanging out on street corners getting into petty fist fights,” Mozie wrote in his memoir. “But somehow, as the years went by, things started to change for the worse.”
Mozie is tall and gaunt, his hair pulled back into medium-length braids.
He was born in Philadelphia. His family moved to Shaw—a traditionally working-class black neighborhood—when he was about nine-years old.
As a kid, he became a lifelong fan of the Washington Bullets, D.C.’s NBA franchise. (The team changed its name to the Wizards in 1997 in response to the alarming number of shootings.) Mozie became a ball boy for the team. His brother Dana would go on to pen the Bullets’ popular jingle, “You Da Man.”
Mozie first picked up his brother’s Sony Betamax video camera in 1981. He walked around the neighborhood filming things like street corner dance contests or Mohammed Ali coming to town to promote his Champ Gourmet Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Then came the crack cocaine wave of the 80s when D.C. was known as the “murder capital of the world” and notorious drug kingpin Rayful Edmond ruled the streets.
“Dealing with the drugs was one thing, but when these guys began to realize the amount of money that could be made selling crack, all hell broke loose,” Mozie wrote.
“Nightly shootings began as the crews began to fight over the territories between them and the rival street crews. From 1987 to 1988, homicides jumped from 225 to 369, the first of four consecutive years of record slayings in the District.”
The Shaw neighborhood never quite recovered from the 1968 riots. Now it was being torn apart all over again.
“I got tired of seeing people complaining, but what are you doing about it?” Mozie said. “So I grabbed my camera, and I started going outside and documenting life and death.”
The dispatcher’s voice came over the police cruiser’s radio.
“All units, I have a report of a shooting, a report of a shooting, in the 1400 block of 12th Street Northwest. Caller states that a man has been shot in the head on the second floor of an apartment building. Any units to respond to that location?”
It was the beginning of the 1990s. Mozie was riding in a scout car as a reserve officer for the Metropolitan Police Department. He arrived at the scene to find a man who’d been shot in the eye with a large-caliber handgun.
Mozie had gone through the police academy and wanted to work his way up to a full-time MPD officer. He told me he wanted to be the kind of cop that helped old ladies across the street.
But, because of his close ties in the neighborhood and his video work, he was suspected inside the department of being a crooked cop.
“I love our officers, but at that time what I was doing was hard to understand,” Mozie said.
Others have documented D.C.’s gangs and guns, but it’s doubtful any have had Mozie’s level of access. Mozie’s camera has captured gang members waving handguns and dry-firing revolvers. In one video clip, a man fires an AK-47 into the air, right on the streets of the nation’s capital.
Suspicions only grew when Mozie refused to help officers from the vice squad identify small-time drug dealers on his block. Mozie lived in an apartment with his family at the time. He wrote that he didn’t want someone putting a bullet through his window because he was a snitch.
Mozie resigned from the police force after was he was shot in the leg trying to arrest a man who appeared to be smoking crack. He took up a job at a television repair shop.
A few months later Mozie’s former colleagues dropped by to put him in handcuffs and haul him to police station. A woman who had been carjacked at gunpoint had identified Mozie in a photo lineup. He says the woman might have had a helpful suggestion from the officers.
He pled not guilty and, at the urging of the federal prosecutor, was held without bail. In his memoir, Mozie recalls being issued his blue prison jumpsuit, sans underwear.
“That was some crazy sh*t,” he wrote, asterisks in the original. “Here I am in jail without any f**king underwear on.”
After a few weeks, the U.S. attorney’s office dropped all charges against him.
Drug-related violence subsided through the ‘90s, but the shootings did not. The proliferation of illegal guns in the District despite the city’s notoriously strict gun laws led to shootings over petty arguments and wounded pride. Two loosely organized gangs in Shaw around 5th and 7th streets engaged in a seemingly endless cycle of revenge shootings.
According to the tally in the back of his memoir, 10 of Mozie’s safe house friends died in 1995, including his friend Scooter, who had helped Mozie pick out the very camera that would film his funeral.
“I kind of try not to think of the total numbers. I try to keep that out of my mind as much as I can. It’s a lot of people. These ain’t strangers,” Mozie told me, gesturing at the wall in his office. “It’s not like working for a cemetery. I knew these people. I knew what kind of food they liked, what sports they played.”
Mozie describes having nightmares, sleep paralysis, spells of sleepwalking, and some symptoms reminiscent of PTSD in his book. He takes sleeping pills and sometimes leaves the lights on at night.
Mozie was on the verge of abandoning his video project in 1997 when he got a chance to meet one of his basketball heroes, former Bullets player Chris Webber. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” Mozie recalled Webber telling him. “If you believe in a dream, keep at it.”
Webber would later visit the safe house and see Mozie’s work for himself.
“It’s crazy that you knew these people,” Mozie records Webber saying as he looked over the memorial wall in the safe house. “Ain’t nobody else doing this.” Webber made a substantial contribution to Mozie, allowing him to buy new cameras editing equipment.
From then on, Mozie’s nickname in the neighborhood has been C-Webb.
One night around 1999, Mozie awoke from a nightmare in which all the faces of his old friends began appearing in front of him. He walked over to his closet and began looking through his stack of VHS tapes. As he shuffled through them, he came across at least 15 names of old friends.
That was the night Mozie first began making memorial videos.
“As I was sitting there editing the tapes, I was recording the most important video scenes of me and my friends, either dancing together or outside on the block rapping on the corner,” Mozie wrote.
“Then there were the good video clips of me and my deceased friends up in the safe house dancing to the go-go beats as everyone was there having fun, which were days that will never come again.”
Mozie has no professional video or editing experience. He’s self-taught. He holds down a day job at a local rec center.
Over the years, though, his work has been featured in the Washington Post, “Nightline,” NPR, and number of local news channels. The Post called his work “community journalism in its rawest form.” He’s also screened 30-minute selections of his footage for schools, police departments, politicians, and the rapper Nas.
The acknowledgments section of Mozie’s memoir runs five pages, thanking everyone from U.S. Attorney Ron Machen to Ted Koppel to a long list of local government officials.
“I have had the pleasure of knowing, working with and supporting Curtis for many years to help stop the violence and turn the curve on violent crime in the District of Columbia,” D.C. Ward 2 councilmember Jack Evans said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon. “His overwhelming passion and commitment to youth, their families, and residents of this city is commendable and without contestation.”
These days, half-finished condo buildings and upscale supermarkets tower over the old brick rowhouses and corner stores in Shaw. Construction crews line up at hot dog stands on their lunch break and cadge cigarettes from each other.
The neighborhood has gentrified over the last decade as young, white professionals move in. Rooms that landlords used to struggle to rent out for $500 a month are going for more than twice as much now.
I met Mozie outside his building. As we walked upstairs, he chatted with one of his neighbors in Spanish. The door to his apartment was festooned in yellow police tape. A sign declared it “C-Webb’s safe house.”
Inside, one of Mozie’s R.I.P. videos was on the computer at his editing station, a soft ballad playing over footage of another lost friend.
Murder rates in D.C. have dropped steadily over the years, but Mozie’s workload doesn’t seem much lighter.
“It’s changed some,” Mozie said. “Instead of a shooting every day, it’s a shooting or stabbing every other day.”
Mozie used the funds given to him by Webber to start a local basketball league in 2007, the Tales of the Tape Summer Basketball League.
In the league’s second year, Chris Taylor, 19 and his team’s best shooting guard, was shot in the face over a game of craps.
Dalontray Williams, 19, nicknamed Apple, died in 2012 after being stabbed in a fight outside of a dollar store in Shaw. He ran to the rec center and collapsed.
“I performed CPR,” Mozie said. “Brought him back twice, but the ambulance took so long to get there. He had passed by the time it did.”
Police determined Williams’ death was “justified by citizen,” and it was not included in the city’s annual tally of homicides. There were 92 homicides in the District of Columbia in 2012. Seventy-four of the victims were black.
In one of Mozie’s tapes from 2009, a young man named David Robinson, nicknamed Day-Day, sits in the safe house. “You ever thought about C-Webb, ‘Tale of the Tape’ stuff, that you might be a story?” Mozie asks.
Robinson lifts his shirt to reveal a long row of surgical staples running up his abdomen. “Yeah,” he said. “I was thinking about that a lot. I need to do something, definitely.”
Robinson had been shot in the gut outside of a go-go concert just hours after attending a funeral for Brandon Scott, 21, another casualty in the rivalry between the 7th Street and 5th Street crews.
Robinson cleaned up, started working toward his GED, and got a steady job. He was robbed at gunpoint for Nikes in 2012; instead of handing them over, he drew his pistol. He was shot and killed, leaving behind a newborn son.
When I asked Mozie what about his work gave him satisfaction, he said it was moments like giving Robinson’s mother a DVD of her son.
“I was able to capture her son,” Mozie said. “Now, she’s going to be able to show that to her grandchild when he gets older. Now he can not only know who his daddy is, he’s going to be able to see his father talk and smile and dance and have a good time. That’s priceless. Priceless.”
The week I interviewed Mozie, Awele Olisemeka, 24, died of multiple skull fractures after being assaulted the previous weekend. Robert Spencer, 21, was shot and killed in Southwest D.C. Timothy Benjamin, 58, was found lying on his back on Georgia Avenue, stabbed to death.
In the District of Columbia, there have been 83 homicides so far in 2013, including the 12 victims of the Navy Yard shooting in September.
“A lot of people say that ain’t happening, not a couple miles from the White House, but the tape don’t lie,” Mozie said. “Tape don’t lie.”