If not now, when?

October 18, 2002

WHAT DOES IT TAKE to mobilize a community in Baltimore?

Five dead kids? One dead mother? An apparent revenge killing so vile and coldblooded that it suggests a wholesale shredding of the most basic societal fabric?

Now we'll find out. The gruesome deaths of Angela Maria Dawson and her five young children challenge the will of this city to create a civilized environment for all its residents. They demand an end to Baltimore's tolerance for the perpetual cycle of mindless violence that terrorizes many city dwellers every day.

Words fail to console, explain or rationalize in the wake of this kind of act, a deliberately set inferno that silenced a family who dared to defy the drug dealers and other criminals who stalked their street.

But actions must avenge the victims -- the actions of criminal justice authorities who must punish their killers; the actions of community and political leaders who must step forward to help build civil and safe neighborhoods; and the actions of regular citizens who must finally stand and say "enough" to the culture of crime and denial that makes much of Baltimore unlivable.

It's easy from the outside to say Ms. Dawson and her family were killed for doing what was right. They didn't turn their heads or run away when criminals soured their neighborhood. They fought back and told authorities. They did everything that Baltimore's "Believe" campaign insists citizens must do to help reclaim city streets.

But the awful truth is that doing the right thing is probably what got the Dawsons killed in their own home.

That's because right is wrong, and wrong is right according the bizarre ethos that dominates too many Baltimore neighborhoods. Those who keep quiet and go along with criminals may be left alone. Those who resist may be killed.

This culture owes its existence to the woefully pitiful odds of criminals actually doing hard time for violent acts, and the shaken faith that citizens have in the system's ability to protect them. It thrives because those two forces feed off one another, and persevere despite the most sobering loss of life.

In the Washington suburbs, all manner of local and federal authorities are being rallied to stop a sniper whose murderous, two-week spree clearly shatters every notion of civility and community.

Can Baltimore muster an equally urgent response to a one-day massacre whose death toll is close to that of the sniper's and whose message is equally haunting? Will it?

Neighbors who failed to stand by the Dawsons in their fight against drug dealers (even after a previous firebombing of the family's house) can't continue to take a pass. Those who stood by the Dawsons must stiffen their resolve.

The neighborhood's political icons must also find new direction and determination. Are they doing enough at City Hall or in Annapolis to help gird the community's weakened foundation?

The Eastside Democratic Organization, the city's one remaining political machine, uses its influence all the time to affect political outcomes. How about throwing that muscle behind real community change?

This killing should mark a turning point in the Dawsons' neighborhood and those like it across the city.

What does it take to mobilize a community in Baltimore?

If not this, then nothing can.

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