Nice people die, and the president talks about trees

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 04, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the morning that the brand new arithmetic of murder appeared in this newspaper, Ernestine Graham stood on her front porch on Liberty Heights Avenue and nodded toward the house where two friends of hers no longer live.

"Nice people," she said softly, hugging her arms around herself despite the morning's humidity. She meant Dawn and Peter Burrus, who had been her next-door neighbors until hours earlier, when they became the city's freshest homicide victims of 1993.

Ernestine Graham said she'd had an inkling of trouble. She said she'd heard something go boom in the night. But she couldn't be sure, she said, because sometimes Peter Burrus wore these big, heavy shoes that made a loud noise when he came clomping down the stairs.

"We heard this boom-boom-boom," she said now, in a voice now barely a whisper. "We didn't have no idea it was somebody getting killed."

In the city of Baltimore, there is now someone getting killed at a rate of virtually one a day. Mere numbers tend to make these things seem bloodless, but consider these: With 172 murders in the first six months, we run far ahead of last year's record 335.

Thus, on Friday, we had Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sending a letter urging the president of the United States to convene a national summit on violent crime. Good luck. On this same day, Bill Clinton was absorbed in timber. The cities self-destruct, and the White House referees the battle between forests and logging industry jobs.

Before Clinton, we had Ronald Reagan giving us trickle-down economics, in which all have-nots were utterly isolated, and then George Bush taking all credit for the end of the Cold War, after which those remaining in cities assumed great amounts of money no longer needed for missiles would be spent on urban America.

Do we feel duped yet? A year ago, Kurt Schmoke talked of his friend Clinton as the one presidential contender who understood cities. Since Election Day, does anyone remember an entire paragraph out of Clinton's mouth about cities? Six months ago, Rep. Kweisi Mfume was thrilled he would finally have the ear of a president who would listen. But we now have Mfume saying he cannot deal with this Clinton.

And, on the day the mayor of Baltimore tells his good friend in the White House that his city is drowning in its own blood, we have Bill Clinton of Arkansas talking to those who worry about the chopping down of trees.

"Nice people," Ernestine Graham said of her former neighbors. She stood there on Liberty Heights Avenue, where a remarkable thing happened: Cars slowed. The drivers saw police cars and TV cameras, and so they gawked for a moment.

Many were white, and therefore don't tend to slow their cars in neighborhoods along Liberty Heights, which have been overwhelmingly black for the better part of three decades now.

That such neighborhoods are miracles resulting from the civil rights struggle occurs to few who are white. They are largely middle-class neighborhoods, with people working productive jobs and sending their children to school every day, but no matter.

In this country, we still divide people by race before we do it by economics. We look at the murder rate and point fingers: In the first five months in this city, 127 of the 140 murder victims were black, and almost all the suspects are black.

It becomes a simple matter to read such figures, and to declare the mathematically obvious, and thereby miss the entire point: Crime isn't about race, it's about money. The permanent underclass is mainly black. The ones without hope, the ones seeing no future, are mostly black.

From Reagan and Bush, seeing no votes in cities and therefore playing the politics of cruelty, cities came to expect no help. From Clinton, we heard otherwise.

And now, on Liberty Heights Avenue, Ernestine Graham talked of the people who are no longer her neighbors.

She was there when Peter Burrus' sister found him with a bag over his head and a knife still in his chest, and the bag was filled with blood and Burrus' sister came running out of the house with this hoarse cry coming out of her throat.

Ernestine Graham said her neighbors were nice people. She said it's a quiet neighborhood. She said it, but a lot of white people will not believe her. They read the statistics on murder and black people and throw everyone together.

That's the way many think in America. It's why a succession of presidents gave up on the cities. But we were told that Bill Clinton was different, that he understood not only the nature of cities but the great truths about race.

Maybe soon we'll find out if it's true.

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