City's ills should make you want to scream, not shoot

This Just In...

July 31, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

I HAVE A friend who lived in Oakenshawe, between Guilford and Charles Village, on the north side of Baltimore. He's an artsy guy, hip and urbane, a lover of city life. "I am tired," he announced one day, about a decade ago. "I am sick and tired of getting my bikes stolen."

It wasn't exactly a story of bullets and body bags, but, among the middle class in this town, a common moan.

My friend was exasperated. The high property taxes and car insurance rates, the lack of leadership in city government at the time, the trash along the streets he frequented -- and all of that compounded by more than his share of break-ins. Some days he was downright ornery.

What did he do?

Did he buy a Smith & Wesson, slip some Skoal under his gums and hunker down in the back yard at night with a handgun and ammo clips, waiting for the next burglar?

No.

He just moved to Cockeysville. Bought a house on a cul-de-sac.

He did because he could.

I don't know if William Banks had the means to move to Cockeysville, but as of last Sunday, about 1 p.m., he was still holding his ground, living in the 100 block of N. Decker St., a few blocks from Patterson Park in Southeast Baltimore, in a neighborhood on the bubble to go either way one day.

I was not depressed by a visit there yesterday. There's a lot of good work going on around Patterson Park, and someone just finished a renovation on Banks' street, which struck me as relatively clean and stable. There were some sorry sights here and there, but you still got the feeling of homeownership and pride in the area. (Check out the plastic flowers wrapped around the railings on the front steps of eight rowhouses a couple of blocks away.)

Banks is accused of doing something that you might have expected in a far more hellish place.

"I am tired," he told Baltimore police officers after they arrested him in the shooting and wounding of 11-year-old Dominque Byrd, 15-year-old Williams James and 18-year-old Barry Bolling. "I am tired. That's all I asked was for them to give me space or move off my steps."

The facts about what led to the shooting are not clear. Banks' version is that he was trying to leave his rowhouse on North Decker Street, but the kids refused to move and one of them dissed him with profanity. Another version has Banks stepping across the sidewalk, turning and firing his handgun several times, without uttering a word.

Either way, it's lucky no one was killed.

And I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with that.

Pardon me for sounding cynical. I listen to too much AM talk radio. Sometimes my brain morphs into that of the angry talk-radio caller who thinks we don't use the death penalty enough in this country, and if we had more teen-agers being shot for dissing old guys America would be in a lot better shape than it is now, and, by the way, the other night on the news I saw a woman in the inner city hosing down her kids on the sidewalk to cool them off and -- what's up with that? -- there's a drought on. Thanks for taking my call, Rush.

Pardon my interlude.

I will now return to our regularly scheduled column to say that I'm old-school: I think a couple of teen-agers resting their sorry butts on an old guy's stoop do not deserve to be shot by the old guy. Even if said teen-agers have a long history of baggy pants, of making too much noise and dropping profanity bombs all hours of day and night in front of old ladies and small children, of taking up space on sidewalks and leaving trash on stoops. Even if said teens are seen selling drugs on the corner -- we're still not allowed to fire at will in this country.

So good thing the state's attorney's office asked that Banks be held without bail. If the teens were bothering Banks, he should have dialed 911.

All of which, of course, is easy for me to say.

William Banks is easy to condemn, but most of the people likely reading this column today haven't a clue about how he felt as he lived on North Decker Street from day to day.

We know what he meant by, "I'm tired," but only from a distance, and on some wistful level.

We're tired, too. We're tired of Baltimore's epoch of violence, the decline of neighborhoods, a generation or two of seemingly apathetic parents (or no parents), the long struggle to improve schools and the future of students. We're tired of all that noise next door -- the police sirens, helicopters, crying children and aimless teen-agers and drug-addicted middle-aged men and women at all hours of night.

We might not know all that personally, but we know it's there, keeping Baltimore from a genuine breakthrough in quality of life. And some days you just want to scream that it all stops.

Over there on North Decker, a scream turned into a gun.

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