Trust is essential if city is to win its fight against crime

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

July 30, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

One man claimed to be divine.

"This is my church, these are my people," he roared during last night's NAACP's anti-crime summit at Mount Sinai Baptist Church.

Someone shouted at him to respect the Lord's house.

"This is my [expletive] church," answered the divine one.

When officials cut the volume on the man's microphone, he rushed toward the podium where the mayor and other city officials were seated. Plainclothes police officers and NAACP officials surrounded the man, pleading with him to behave. The mayor shook his hand. The man shouted some more, then eventually quieted down and went away.

Another speaker claimed to have "conclusive proof" that the private company just hired to operate nine city schools engages in hypnotism and mind control.

"This is a fraud, these people are your enemies," he shouted, waving his arm at the dignitaries seated at the front of the church. "I've got information that can expose many of these individuals personally."

George Buntin Jr., executive director of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, reminded the gathering that his organization had called the meeting to search for solutions to violent crime.

A man seated in the pews promptly leaped to his feet.

"My dog got shot protecting the neighborhood," he screamed angrily. "He got shot by police officers. That's the real violent crime."

Another person took the microphone.

"I've dealt drugs," he said. "I've pimped women. I've robbed banks. I've been in and out of every institution in this state.

"Now I've ascended to a higher spiritual plane. That's the solution. The NAACP is morally, spiritually bankrupt."

An NAACP official walked over and took the microphone from his hand.

And so it went at a rancorous forum called in the hopes of finding a way to curb the senseless shootings that are rocking the city. The NAACP had convened the meeting out of a sense of desperation, suggesting the violence may have gotten so out of control that martial law could be the only solution.

Arthur Murphy, president of the local branch, said officials had suggested martial law primarily as a way of focusing the community's attention to the crisis.

But a short while later, Buntin said the organization feels the streets must be made safe by whatever means available.

"We call upon the mayor and the governor -- give us resources," he said. "Give us extra police officers. If that doesn't work, give us the state police. If that doesn't work, give us the National Guard."

He was interrupted by shouts of, "Shut up fool!" and "Sit down!" and "You don't know what you're asking for, Buntin."

Indeed, members of the audience heckled NAACP officials all night. They heckled their local ministers, the mayor, police commissioner, representatives from the Nation of Islam -- and each other.

It was a loud, long, and often lunatic meeting -- a disheartening night, chock full of confrontations and accusations.

The more speakers called for the community to come together as the first step toward addressing the violence, the more divisive the subsequent speakers became.

The more speakers called for mutual respect, the less respect they received. Pleas to remain focused on solutions were drowned out by wilder and wilder theories about the conspirators behind the problems.

And yet, despite all of that, I cannot say the forum was a waste of time.

Officials saw that Baltimore's mean streets are rolling with anger and distrust.

They saw that while everyone is concerned about crime, many people have lost faith in the institutions traditionally established to respond to those concerns -- the police, the church, the NAACP -- even their neighbors.

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke finally got a chance to speak, he talked about the "silent majority in the pews tonight who are serious about coming together."

In fact, the majority of the people at Mount Sinai Baptist Church -- including a smattering of Koreans -- did sit quietly in the pews, looking pained.

But it would be a mistake to assume the "silent majority" is any less angry, frustrated or disillusioned than their more outspoken neighbors.

Last night, Mount Sinai Baptist echoed to the shouts of powerlessness, impotence, rage. Maybe the men and women in charge of our city needed to hear this firsthand.

The mayor spoke of a movement to take back the streets that would spread "from this church, block by block."

But the very first step of that movement must be to convince citizens -- his constituency -- that City Hall, the police and every other institution on their side in this fight, is worthy of their trust.

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