A lovely moment wrung from a city weary of violence

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 07, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The one-man band was sitting at the foot of Broadway with a fiddle in his hands and cymbals on his feet and a big violin case in front of him for people to fill with their money.

"Thank you, thank you," he'd say after each song, though nobody in this huge crowd seemed to be listening.

It didn't matter, exactly. The one-man band, with his sad, weather-beaten face and his half-crazed whispers to himself, was a kind of personification of the city of Baltimore, making music as fast as it could last weekend at the Fells Point Festival and hoping the rhythms and the good cheer would make people briefly forget all our troubles.

The man who faces the troubles is Kurt L. Schmoke. While the one-man band played on, the mayor of Baltimore was doing something brave, or foolish, or both. In a Sunday piece headlined "It's Time to Get Real About Guns and Drugs" in the Washington Post's Outlook Section, Schmoke was making his clearest statement in five years about the need to change course on crime.

"Drug-related violence is worse than ever," the mayor wrote. "Clearly, we can't simply prosecute our way out of crime. If we want to silence the guns, we have to radically rethink not only our drug policy, but our ideas about the sacrosanct Second Amendment."

Yesterday, this city's homicide count was 268, up by a dozen over last year's ruinous pace. The morning paper told of a 15-year old walking into Douglass High School with a sawed-off rifle and a handgun. The cops routinely arrest drug dealers, only to find they've been replaced by new dealers overnight.

And the other day, there was a veteran law-enforcement guy, who's been on the front lines for two decades here, with a profound sense of weariness to his voice.

"In the corridors where police talk to each other," he said, "the word is that the war is over. And we lost. The best we can hope for now is to reach the kids, and hope that the current generation burns itself out. But we're looking at another 12 or 15 years of this kind of violence, which ends only if we reach the kids."

Only, nobody's certain this will happen, not with current laws. And so we had Schmoke, who was shouted down five years ago for suggesting the decriminalizing of drugs, repeating his call, knowing that neither his city nor any other can continue as we are.

Thus, last weekend at the Fells Point Festival, there was a strangeness in the air.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

The phrase kept coming up everywhere you went, only it had a different sound to it than in years past. Once, it expressed acknowledgment of a truism: The city did have its special charm, and everybody took comfort in it. But now the inflection in people's voices sounded like awe. It said: How do you like this? In spite of everything, we're still capable of something this good. In spite of these murders, in spite of junkies and street bullies and the various parasites, this is sometimes still a wonderful city.

But it's our last big gathering before winter arrives, and our last moment to brush aside the things that are killing us.

Thus we have the mayor talking of "medicalization" -- health professionals giving drugs to addicts, needle-exchange programs, closed military bases used for drug treatment, 70 percent of federal drug money going for treatment and 30 percent to law enforcement, which is the opposite of current figures.

"I don't know," City Council President Mary Pat Clarke was saying on Monday. "I have all the respect for people talking about breaking through the economic factor" -- taking the profit out of drugs -- "and my husband listens to the mayor and he gets behind him, and we have our arguments over it.

"My problem is simple: The mayor's talking about things he can't change. We're local. Get a national law, or come on home and get rid of the drugs. We're looking at Washington, D.C., getting ready for a real drug war. What happens to their drug traffickers? Do they come here? That's a real worry."

That's why Schmoke is still urging a new approach, and hoping somebody in power will pay attention. It's why a lot of cops are saying the war can't be won under current conditions. And it's why we meet at a place like Fells Point, where a one-man band is playing as fast as he can, to try to make us forget our troubles for just a fleeting moment.

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