Social 'process of decay' cited in boy's shooting

October 13, 1994|By Frank P.L. Somerville and Brad Snyder | Frank P.L. Somerville and Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writers

Monday night's slaying of 13-year-old Vernon Holmes in East Baltimore by a man frustrated by vandalism raises broader issues than "Thou shalt not kill," says an Episcopal priest ministering in the inner city.

"So many young people in particular don't have any respect for other people, for their elders especially," the Rev. Eddie M. Blue said yesterday. "What we are looking at is a process of decay in our society."

Father Blue's comments were typical of reactions from members of the clergy and others seeking solutions to the problem of violent American neighborhoods -- and the reaction by vigilantes.

Violent urban crime -- and the frustrations it triggers among residents -- is growing in both amount and severity, says the Baltimore City Child Care Resource Center. And that can create a vicious cycle, prompting businesses to flee and leaving neighborhoods "even more impoverished, isolated and susceptible to further deterioration. The most vulnerable victims, course, are young children."

Yesterday, some Baltimoreans blamed the Holmes youth for antagonizing Nathaniel Hurt, 61, who is charged with first-degree murder in the incident. The shooting came in retaliation for a rock-throwing incident by the victim and other youths, police have said.

"I probably would have done the same thing that [Mr. Hurt] did," James Rogers, 73, said outside Lexington Market. "I wouldn't shoot him to kill him. You can't trust these kids now. I probably would have shot him to hurt him, to maim him, to teach him a lesson."

But unlike some Baltimoreans who readily identified with Mr. Hurt, the clergy who commented on the case did not justify the shooting.

Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Carroll County said, "Nothing can excuse the death of another human being. Killing somebody is the quintessential evil deed. Even though we can understand the pressures, the utter frustration that may have led to the shooting, that's the old Wild West. We've come a long way from that.

"The relaxed attitudes toward rules of behavior, the failure to honor father and mother, the lack of respect for school teachers and the community -- these are separate issues."

Others interviewed on the streets said death is no price to pay for damaging a car.

"I disagree with taking a life," said Elder Edward Arrington, an assistant pastor at the Tree of Life Bible Church. "I don't think anything is worth that."

Mr. Arrington, 71, lives in the Claremont Homes retirement community. A block away, in May, a 29-year-old man allegedly shot and killed a teen-ager who bumped into his truck and triggered the alarm.

Vernon Holmes' death came less than a week before the annual "Children's Sabbath," when many sermons will deal with "children in violence-stricken communities." The event, sponsored nationally by the Children's Defense Fund, is being celebrated this weekend.

Father Blue, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in West Baltimore, said he will probably refer to Monday's killing in his sermon. He said the events leading up to the slaying are broad -- "everything from materialism -- kids wanting things that they cannot have -- to children not being parented, not being taught things like respect for the property of others."

Justine Perezo, director of training for the child care resource center, said, "Our children are learning violence when they see adults responding with violence."

A study that forms the basis for the work of the center, she said, has determined that families living in most inner-city communities of Baltimore "are victimized psychologically, economically and socially by the violence around them."

And what Father Blue called the decay of society extends to the homeless. Tonya Mayor, who said she lives on the street, has AIDS and is addicted to drugs, was interviewed outside Lafayette Market in West Baltimore. She has seen many teen-agers wielding rocks and bottles and provoking adults to the brink of violence, she said.

"It pushes people a whole lot," said Ms. Mayor, 27. "I'm sorry the kid got shot, but a person can only be pushed to a certain extent. The kids out there today, they act like they have no parents. They will make a person kill them."

She said she almost saw it happen early Tuesday morning on Pennsylvania Avenue when five or six youths threw bottles that broke the windshield of an oncoming car. A man jumped out of the car brandishing a gun.

"He said, 'I'm going to kill one of you SOB's,'" Ms. Mayor recalled. "I said, mister, it ain't even worth it.'" She said the man calmed down and thought better of pulling the trigger.

The result was different Monday in the 800 block of East North Avenue, where Vernon Holmes died.

Such incidents can be avoided if residents let the police handle them, said Otis L. Sistrunk, the commander of the Eastern District. "Officers can take the children to their parents," he said. "It prevents the harassment from continuing."

But sometimes tempers explode before the police arrive.

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