A re­turn to ’90s car­nage in Bal­ti­more

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Kevin Shird Kevin Shird is au­thor of the mem­oir “Lessons of Re­demp­tion” and a youth ad­vo­cate. His email is [email protected]­hoo.com.

The sky­rock­et­ing deaths in Bal­ti­more look eerily fa­mil­iar to those of us who sur­vived the car­nage of young black men in the ’90s.

Back then, I was the laid-back guy in the crew, but my friends thought I was play­ing a dan­ger­ous game. In­stead of wear­ing my bul­let­proof vest ev­ery day in the streets of Bal­ti­more, most of the time, I kept it in the trunk of my car. I hated it. It was bulky and un­com­fort­able, and I thought it was un­nec­es­sary. My friends would con­stantly tell me that I was be­ing stupid and fool­ish. But the way I looked at it back then, I was a tough guy, so I didn’t re­ally need it — right?

I started sell­ing dime bags of heroin in the ’80s as a teenager. By 1990, the drug-rav­aged city was record­ing 300-plus homicides. But it wasn’t un­til my friend Mooch was shot and killed in the park­ing lot of Mon­dawmin Mall that I changed my tune. Every­one was shocked when he died, and soon af­ter­ward, I fig­ured, if some­one could get a guy as pop­u­lar as Mooch, then surely I could be touched. The ru­mor in the streets was that this was an as­sas­si­na­tion brought on by a mean­ing­less per­sonal grudge. But no­body re­ally knew the an­swer to who killed our friend from Lex­ing­ton Ter­race. It was just an­other sense­less death of a black man on the streets.

This was one of many high-pro­file homicides in Bal­ti­more that year. It was a tense time. The heroin trade was flour­ish­ing, and dead bod­ies were dropping from the west side to the east. None of us wanted to ad­mit it, but we were all con­cerned about be­ing shot and dy­ing in the street. Nev­er­the­less, the fear of be­ing killed still wasn’t enough to per­suade us to run away from the prof­its gen­er­ated by the un­der­ground drug econ­omy.

The same ap­pears true to­day. A Sun story last week­end re­vealed Bal­ti­more, which recorded 344 homicides last year, to be one of Amer­ica’s dead­li­est cities. Trig­ger pullers fire their weapons mul­ti­ple times, aim­ing for the head to get around any body ar­mor that might be worn. And a street code that once made in­no­cent by­standers off lim­its is largely ig­nored to­day by shoot­ers who grew up in the shadow of city vi­o­lence and sim­ply in­cor­po­rated it into their world views. They don’t know any­thing but the game and the de­spon­dency of streets.

When you don’t feel hope for a promis­ing fu­ture, you don’t have a rea­son to pre­pare for to­mor­row. When your friends are be­ing shot and killed in the streets, there’s not much rea­son for you to think be­yond to­day. I call it the “I’m next syn­drome.” Most days you don’t be­lieve there will even be a to­mor­row, so there’s no mo­ti­va­tion to make a plan for the fu­ture; you’re al­ways think­ing to your­self, “I’m next.”

And so, life be­comes a sur­vival of the fittest — to kill or be killed.

It pains me to­day to turn on the evening news just to hear more sto­ries about homicides and death. Of­fi­cials are pro­ject­ing 300 mur­ders in Bal­ti­more this year, hold­ing the ’90s num­bers steady af­ter years of de­cline. It’s got­ten to the point where the el­derly res­i­dents of our city don’t even want to leave their homes dur­ing the week­end, be­cause that’s usu­ally when gun­fire erupts with a vengeance.

Even­tu­ally, I got off the streets and out of the life through ed­u­ca­tion. I ac­tu­ally took col­lege cour­ses while in fed­eral prison, fo­cus­ing on busi­ness man­age­ment. I took classes like busi­ness law, mar­ket­ing and English 101, and I read any­thing I could get my hands on — from books on Mid­dle East­ern lead­ers to those on black his­tory heroes like W.E.B. DuBois, Jesse Owens and Rosa Parks. Ul­ti­mately I found that many of the skills I learned while in­volved in the un­der­ground drug cul­ture in Bal­ti­more — in­clud­ing sales, man­age­ment and lead­er­ship — were trans­fer­able.

When I re­turned to the com­mu­nity, I re­turned with soft skills needed to re­build my life. Soon, I was no longer looked at as a li­a­bil­ity drain­ing the com­mu­nity of re­sources but an as­set to help and guide others in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion. Even with the lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties in our city, I cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties for my­self by work­ing hard and not quit­ting, de­spite some mis­takes along the way. One of my very first jobs fol­low­ing prison was work­ing for a nonprofit and help­ing for­merly in­car­cer­ated men and women find jobs; this work opened many doors, al­low­ing me to work on pol­icy is­sues af­fect­ing the com­mu­nity. In the last 10 years I’ve worked on sev­eral com­mit­tees and ini­tia­tives de­signed to curb vi­o­lence and sub­stance use in Bal­ti­more and na­tion­ally. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there are no sim­ple so­lu­tions. Easy ac­cess to guns and drugs and grow­ing up amid vi­o­lence tends to breed more of the same.

Since 2014 I’ve been a mem­ber of a work­ing group for the Cle­mency Project, a White House ini­tia­tive through which Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has been able to re­lease from fed­eral prison 673 non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers who were pre­vi­ously serv­ing lengthy sen­tences. Our work group meets quar­terly in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., at the of­fices of the NAACP Le­gal De­fense Fund and makes rec­om­men­da­tions about the re­sources that are nec­es­sary to help re­turn­ing cit­i­zens make a suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion back into the com­mu­nity. Such ef­forts will go a long way to­ward help­ing peo­ple re­sist the lure of drug money.

There are many or­ga­ni­za­tions and advocacy groups work­ing tire­lessly to re­form the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and cre­ate “fair sen­tenc­ing” for us all and bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties for city kids. But while that work is be­ing ac­com­plished, those of us liv­ing in com­mu­ni­ties where homi­cide is a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence have to do a bet­ter job of lov­ing one an­other and our­selves just long enough not to com­mit an­other mur­der.

We have to be bet­ter than the city we grew up in so that the city will be bet­ter for our chil­dren.

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