When we surrender part of city to crime, we give it all away

June 03, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Many residents of Oakenshawe, a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in northern Baltimore, stood up at a meeting the other night to say that murder wouldn't be tolerated in their community.

It seemed like a reasonable complaint.

In Oakenshawe, a community of fewer than 500 households near Guilford, there have been two homicides in a period of two weeks. People are scared. And they're angry. Why wouldn't they be?

In a community already concerned by the crime that is often a condition of city living, death is suddenly an unexpected factor of city life.

That's the point where you know things have gone much too far.

At a community meeting held to address the situation, the police showed up and so did some politicians. A lot of media showed. It's a big story when murder hits Oakenshawe. It's a big story because murder, a city commonplace, usually happens in some other part of town.

In those other parts of town, murder rarely meets the standard definition of news -- that which will make the reader or viewer take notice. It's news only when a little kid is murdered or when the crime is particularly horrifying rather than simply routinely horrifying.

In the areas where the well-armed drug merchants rule and most of the killing occurs, the victims tend to get lost in a blur of siren-backed images on the 11 o'clock news.

But in Oakenshawe, all this is new. There, the victims have names and families and stories. We in the media tell the story of their lives and how those lives ended. Everyone, not simply friends and neighbors, is outraged.

Which is how it should be. Except that's not always how it is.

The truth about the crime epidemic in this country is that most of us are not sufficiently outraged unless the crime happens to us or to someone who could be us.

Nobody likes the fact that there are open-air drug markets in certain areas of Baltimore. But we tolerate them. We don't move with sufficient force to shut them down, even though the gangsters who run them hold entire neighborhoods hostage. We become inured to the violence they cause.

Until the violence spills over into our neighborhoods.

Nobody likes the fact that kids are in jeopardy every day in certain areas of Baltimore where gunfire is as predictable as nightfall.

But we tolerate that fact, too. We don't stand up and say about somebody else's kids what we would of our own, "This can't happen anymore." Instead, we allow kids to go to schools that resemble armed camps and wonder why the educational system is in crisis.

At the Oakenshawe community meeting, a woman asked a question of the police that would break your heart.

"What," she wondered, "could Dr. McClain have done to prevent his death?"

The question she didn't ask -- because she didn't have to -- was this: "What could I do to save my own life in a similar situation?"

William H. McClain, a retired Hopkins professor who was well known and loved in the neighborhood, was attacked outside his door. He hit his head in a fall and died. The police said there was nothing he could have done to save himself.

That's not good enough, of course. And the people of Oakenshawe want to do more. They talked at their meeting of citizen patrols and of possibly hiring a security force. But what rang clear was the sense that conditions can improve. Some people will decide to move out, of course. Many more will choose to stay and protect what is theirs.

Those who stay will share some essential qualities -- hope and belief.

In other parts of the city, hope and belief come much harder. The dream is of escape.

Baltimore Councilman Carl Stokes talks of the despair that is the everyday reality of some of his constituents forced to live in danger zones.

"They've given up on elected officials, on the police department, on media coverage, on their neighbors," Stokes says. "What they say to me is, 'I need to get out of this neighborhood.' Not that this is my neighborhood and the hoodlums should get out. It's 'I need to get out of my neighborhood.' "

We need to pay attention to these people, too. The truth is, until everyone is safe, nobody is safe.

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