'I find myself more frightened than I have ever been'

December 16, 1990|By Jerry Bembry

I remember the month and year -- December 1982 -- only because it was a day that Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson faced each other in their much anticipated and only college basketball game. The second half was about to start that Saturday afternoon, and I was just getting comfortable in front of the television set when five shots rang out at the front door of our apartment.

I cautiously went to the front door and -- through the peephole -- saw a man lying bleeding in the hallway. I nonchalantly picked up the phone, told police someone had been shot outside my door and then returned to watch what turned out to be a very exciting basketball game.

No, I'm not a callous person without any respect for human life. It just wasn't shocking, having grown up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, where such acts of violence were commonplace.

I witnessed countless shootings -- including one murder outside my bedroom window -- and once was even shot at. But I find myself more frightened with the indiscriminate and violent murders of today -- especially of young black men -- than I have ever been in my life. Back then, a violent crime happened in my neighborhood maybe five or six times a year; in some urban areas now, the rate sometimes reaches five or six times a day.

Hundreds of miles removed from that neighborhood, and living in an area that is considerably better than I've ever lived in before, I find myself wondering too much about the little things that are costing people -- particularly young black men -- their lives. To die for looking at someone the wrong way, for dancing with someone's wife or simply because someone felt like taking a life -- all incidents that I have read about this year -- are reasons why not too long ago I picked up an extra life insurance policy that I have no intention of canceling.

Murder is the leading cause of death among young black men, according to a report issued this month by the Centers for Disease Control.

"In some areas of the country," said Dr. Robert Froehlke, the principal author of the CDC report, "it is now more likely for a black male between his 15th and 25th birthday to die from homicide than it was for a United States soldier to be killed on a tour of duty in Vietnam."

That CDC study was based on statistics from 1988. Who knows what the numbers will bear out for 1989 and 1990, which, as of last week, had already seen record homicide rates set in 13 U.S. cities. (There won't be a racial breakdown of Baltimore homicides until the end of the year, but of the 281 murders committed so far this year, more than 80 percent of victims are believed to have been black, one homicide detective said.)

Unfortunately, the problem of violence in black communities is only going to get worse. In some cases -- including where I grew up in Brooklyn, where the neighborhood alone had more than 100 murders in a single year -- money would probably be better spent bulldozing buildings and starting over rather than spending it on combat in an already lost war. Even if police were to clear the Murphy Homes and other high-rise projects in this country of all the drugs and violent crime associated with them, it's guaranteed that the problem would arise again in a matter of days.

What really needs to be done is to dismiss the cavalier attitude -- one that, as a youth, I used to share to some extent -- toward the violent deaths of blacks. Just read the papers: With the exception of the recent tragedy involving Jay Bias -- shot to death after walking away from a man who accused the victim of flirting with his wife -- shooting deaths of black people are routinely shooed away to the briefs column of the newspaper or not even reported at all.

It seems that only when a white person is killed violently is it considered a crime that shocks a community and spurs outrage. If a difference is to come about in the black community, that same community passion is going to have to come out every time they wheel the bodies of our blacks youths away in body bags.

I sincerely believe that if the violence that is gripping the black community was prevalent throughout mainstream America, the problem would be more closely addressed. It's the same as drugs: Only after black communities were already ravaged and the problem began to surface in "suburbia" was it thought to be big enough for the government to stage a full-scale "war."

Until that "crossover" happens with the violence, parents will continue to grieve over their dying children, and black families in areas hard hit by crime will have to make do with their life of constant fear.

Meanwhile, funeral home operators, particularly in black communities, will continue to thrive in their businesses.

Many of the bodies that are passing through the March Funeral Home -- which grossed $6.6 million in 1989 -- are of young black males. And as the business continues to increase, owner William March, a longtime Baltimorean, is left constantly shaking his head in disbelief.

"It makes you feel very bad, it's appalling, and it's just wasted life," said Mr. March, blaming much of the problem on drugs. "It's a shame what's going on. Something needs to be done about this."

Jerry Bembry is a sportswriter for The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.