Seeking power, the young court death KIDS & CRIME


November 29, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

For the photo on their first cassette, the aspiring Baltimore ra musicians needed an image that would appeal to a young, urban audience.

To them, the choice was as natural as the rattle of gunfire in the city night or the wail of ambulances carrying off its victims.

In the picture, taken last spring, Icy Ink points a silver-plated .45-caliber handgun. T-Nice sits on the ground, holding a 9mm handgun. MAC-10, who takes his nickname from another kind of gun, aims a .45 topped with a laser sight, glowing red. Fat Cat has a two-handed grip around a Calico 950 assault pistol.

"To have a gun is to have power," explains Tony Lee, also known as Double G, pictured on the cassette holding a portable phone. The lyrics spit out threats of violence in the angry voice of a gunman who doesn't care "who I hit or who I kill."

Today, the musical career of YBM -- the group's name stands for Young Black Mafia -- is on hold. The gun as marketing device has been overtaken by the gun as murderous reality.

Since the picture was taken, Fat Cat, a.k.a. Steve Oglesby, 22, has been charged with ordering the murder in May of a 16-year-old boy who owed him money. Michael Hope was gunned down as he stood at a phone booth near the Pimlico drug corner police say was controlled by Mr. Oglesby and some of his YBM companions.

The same month, MAC-10, whose real name is Jerome McCardell, 18, was himself shot and seriously injured in a drug-turf dispute near the same intersection, Park Heights and Woodland avenues. In October, T-Nice, whose real name is Tarika Hood, 21, was charged with the fatal shooting of another 21-year-old man on an east side drug corner, Greenmount Avenue and 20th Street.

YBM's story is not an isolated tale of a gang of self-promoting thugs. The music and the photo symbolize the way guns, for so long a macho talisman in American popular culture, have penetrated the minds and the lives of young Baltimoreans.

Themselves the product of the teen-age gun-and-drug world, the gunslingers of YBM are now the role models for younger kids who have sold drugs for them or bought the 4,000 cassettes Tony Lee says they have sold.

On streets where the narcotics trade rules, children as young as 11 or 12 see guns as fashion as well as protection, both everyday equipment and unrivaled status symbol. Firearm brand names are flaunted as casually as those of tennis shoes or sports cars.

Guns are embedded in youth culture, from rap groups such as YBM, to T-shirts emblazoned with handguns, to a small dictionary's worth of specialized slang: A gun is a piece, a jammie, a tool, a biscuit; to kill someone with one is to bust them, buck them, smoke them.

The peak age for homicide arrests in Baltimore is 20.

But by the time a person is arrested for a gun murder, he has usually been carrying guns and shooting them for several years. It is in the teen-age gun culture that the origins of the city's murder rate must be sought.

With 298 murders reported in Baltimore so far this year, two-thirds of them committed with handguns, the city is on its way to setting an all-time record in bloodshed.

Gunplay has made homicide by far the leading cause of death for young Baltimore males and transformed some neighborhoods into free-fire zones.

'You get happy'

Listen to Michael Taylor, a shy 16-year-old from McKean Avenue in West Baltimore whose mother gave him the nickname Oony" because she is a fan of Loony Tune cartoons:

"I was like, 10, the first time I held one. It was a .32, from a guy whose family had a lot of guns. I shot it in the air in a lot on an alley off Fulton Street.

"It was fun."

He rises from the sofa of a friend's house, extends his arms and locks his fingers in an imaginary two-handed grip. "Pow! Pow! Pow!" he exclaims, smiling. "You get happy when you get a gun."

Michael spent much of last summer in jail, charged with an attempted armed robbery he says he didn't commit. The charges were dropped when the witnesses refused to cooperate, and Michael says he's through with guns. But he talks about his past experiences with childish excitement.

"All the guns I've ever had?" He ponders, then lists carefully: ".32, Glock 9, 12-gauge, 10-gauge, pump shotgun, 30-30 rifle, German Luger, .357, .25." He stops, then remembers more: "That's right, one MAC-10. And a .22-long handgun."

Michael says he usually got the weapons from some older acquaintances who were dealing in illicit guns and let him borrow one from time to time.

He kept them hidden under an oil tank in the back yard of his house. "Not in my house. My mother would get mad," he explains.

To a kid with little going for him -- no school success, no hobbies, a single mother struggling to support the family on a $5-an-hour job -- a gun offered instant gratification, the illusion of importance and control.

Carrying a gun "became my nature," Michael says. "Sometimes you get nervous, that's true. Sometimes you carry it with pride. I'd say, 'I'm dirty.' They'd say, 'Drugs or money?' I'd say, 'I got my gun.' "

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