Struggling against violence as victims fall

May 10, 2001|By Michael Olesker

STEVEN MITCHELL remembers prosecuting a guy, six years ago, for attempted murder. The guy was 13 years old. He got two years behind bars, during which time Mitchell went to visit him for reasons both legal and humanitarian. How does such a catastrophe happen to someone so young?

Mitchell is still trying to figure this out. The other day, having moved in the Baltimore state's attorney's office from juvenile to adult crimes, Mitchell looked at his caseload. He noticed a familiar name: the 13-year-old kid's. Only, this being six years later, the kid is now 19. And this time the charge is narcotics.

So it goes in a city that cringes from the actions of its children. It is noteworthy that, in the week that Edward Norris marks his one-year anniversary as Baltimore police commissioner, Steven Mitchell had scheduled, strictly by chance, a Stop the Violence rally at Mondawmin Mall for this evening.

It has been postponed, but there will be time for another in June. There will always be time for another. For years, the Rev. Willie Ray championed these street rallies, which he called Stop the Killing, which were full of good intentions but whose effects can be measured in the homicide rate - one of the nation's worst.

Mitchell, who is president-elect of the Monumental City Bar Association, has been involved in such anti-violence demonstrations for about a decade. Yesterday, he remembered his first. He was standing there with a local radio jock, who looked at the crowd and said forlornly, "If we're here 10 years from now, we'll still have to do these things."

"Sure enough," Mitchell said yesterday, "it's 10 years later, and we're still doing them. And, 10 years from now, we'll still have to do them."

This kind of language is bleak and depressing at any time. In a week in which Edward Norris, marking his first year on the job, assures us that life in the city is getting safer, it is language to make the heart sink without a trace.

The truth about Norris is this: He is the city's best-equipped police commissioner in years. He is assured without showing arrogance. He is smart. He understands the city's political-racial dynamics, and is not paralyzed by them. He knows the needs of his officers. He has a mayor who has given him money, and manpower, and assured him that nothing is more important to the future of the town than the work done by Norris' department.

And the results, after one year, give some sense of hope. Violent crime is reportedly down by 19 percent. Even with the recent spate of violence - 11 homicides since April 29 - homicides are down.

But, while City Hall can boast that we're no longer killing 300 of each other a year, the number will surely reach at least 250, a horrifying number reflective of the continuously thriving narcotics trade and the continuing allure for those who believe they have no other investment in the life of their community.

"Some of it," Mitchell was saying now, "comes down to family. That 13-year-old, for example. At that age, somebody had to come to court with him. That's the law. Now he's 19, and he comes to court, and he has no one with him. The pattern is clear. When there's a strong family, the kids do better. When there's not, we have the cycle of violence. Like the 2-year-old boy."

He meant Carlos Woods, shot in the head on the front steps of his rowhouse April 27 by somebody in a passing car aiming elsewhere. The boy fights for his life at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Meanwhile, he has a father who awaits trial on a murder charge and a grandfather in a wheelchair from an incident involving drugs.

"That kid," Mitchell said, "is not so different from other kids. He's just victimized a little earlier than most of them. But it's like standing in the middle of this tornado, and you try to catch what you can and save them. He's just a metaphor for the rest of it."

Scheduled to headline the next Stop the Violence rally is the heavyweight boxing champion, Hasim Rahman. Before he channeled his energies into the ring, Rahman was a tough West Baltimore street kid.

"He's exactly the right guy to talk to these kids," Mitchell said. "He's been there. When I told him what we needed, he jumped on it right away."

Mitchell said Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jamie Sharper has also agreed to attend. It's nice to see modern professional athletes, normally the most self-absorbed human beings, extending a hand to those in need. It's nice to see a police commissioner, one year into the job, who seems to be making this a safer city.

But, so many years into the city's excessive violence, and so many years into a juvenile culture that holds everyone hostage, Steven Mitchell's initial assessment echoes hauntingly: Ten years from now, will we still be holding rallies that attempt to stop the unceasing violence?

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