Turning pain into purpose in Baltimore
For many of us, tuning out the consequences of seemingly out-of-control violence is as simple as turning off the news. For a growing number of us, however, that is not an option.
Just consider for a moment all the people who were touched by what happened earlier this month. Remember this headline: “Labor Day weekend sees 22 shot in Baltimore from Friday afternoon to Monday”? What about the days since, when there have been more shootings and close to two dozen deaths?
Take Dwight R. B. Cook, who directs operations at the Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University. When he heard about Dameon Rone, 41, being stabbed to death Sept. 9 at 1800 E. 29th Street, his first thought was: “That’s the same block my son got killed.” Close. His son, D’Roderick Cook, 28, was shot to death three years ago on Easter Sunday morning at 1608 E. 29th Street.
The madness has come to St. Peter Claver Church, a center of spiritual and communal life in West Baltimore. At a monthly community meeting last week, Ray Kelly, a church member and leader in the community advocacy group No Boundaries Coalition, announced: “Sadly we had a shooting on the church grounds at 3:30 in the morning yesterday. A 16-year-old kid got shot in the hand in front of the grotto.” Hours later, and possibly related, another young man was killed “just behind the church on Presstman and Carey,” he told the few dozen people gathered to craft a community response to the Justice Department’s report on the Baltimore City Police Department.
Mr. Kelly looks back on 2014, when there were “only” 21 homicides in the Western police district as “very good.” That’s because in 2015, there were 66. As of Sunday evening, there have been 38, putting the district on track for a total of 53 this year.
The citywide numbers — more than 1,000 homicides since January 2013 — do not begin to register the paralyzing pain and suffocating sorrow of those left behind from violence. As my friend Vincent Dion Stringer wrote in a poem that became the lyrics for an orchestral work called “A Mother’s Lament”: “So many names unknown / So many sons lost / So many hearts broken / So many lights dimmed.” Some have turned pain into purpose. This marks the 165th week that Tawanda Jones has led West Wednesday demonstrations since her brother, Tyrone West, died in police custody after a struggle during a questionable arrest in Northeast Baltimore in 2013. She is still demanding answers and an overhaul of the Police Department.
Kathryn Cooper Nicholas formed Sisters Saving the City after her son Andre was killed by a mentally disturbed acquaintance in 2014; she concentrates much of her efforts on working with young people in Park Heights. At Andre’s funeral, a young man came up to her to express his sense of profound loss, telling her how much of an impact he son had made. “If I didn’t have Andre to talk to, I would have shot a lot of people by now,” she recalls him saying. NowMs. Nicholas regularly talks to him, as well as to other young men she says worry about when it will be their time to die.
Alice Oaks lost both of her sons six years apart, and because of an impenetrable don’t-snitch culture, their deaths remain unsolved. She joined Survivors Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) “to help a child, any child” and to ensure that she does not lose her seven grandchildren to the streets.
The women remain hopeful as they go to one community forum or public hearing after another. But Ms. Oaks, who only turns on the news when she figures it’s time for the weather, knows that most of us will be momentarily interested in their stories and then will go on with our lives.
Daphne Alston, who started Mothers of Murdered Sons (MOMS) after her son Tarik was shot to death in Harford County in 2008, wants to see less wringing of hands and more direct action. Teens and young adults, she notes, are hardly likely to show up for our community forums.
“You have to go to where they are,” she says. “They’re in the streets. Sometimes you might have to change [meeting times] from 2 o’clock in the afternoon and go out there at 10 minutes to 10 at night.”
For sure, that takes more courage than watching the news at 10 or 11 for the latest death toll.