At rally, fear turns into anger

BUILD criticizes mayor during gathering at home where 6 in family died

October 21, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

A crowd of several hundred city residents, activists and ministers gathered outside a charred East Baltimore home yesterday afternoon to remember the mother and five children who died in an arson attack there last week and to ask Mayor Martin O'Malley to meet with them about their growing safety concerns.

Prayers, grief and descriptions of a frightened neighborhood flowed throughout back-to-back rallies, the first organized by area Methodist churches and the second by Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. At the BUILD rally, anger extended beyond the man charged in the fire to O'Malley - who, pastors associated with the organization said, won't discuss the city's crime problems with those affected.

"If they're having a party in Fells Point, you'll see him there playing his banjo, but a family was murdered here in Oliver, and we haven't seen him yet," said the Rev. Calvin Keene, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church and a native of the neighborhood.

FOR THE RECORD - The original published version fo this story incorrectly identified the ages of Keith and Kevin Dawson and of Juan Ortiz. This archived version has been corrected.

O'Malley spokesman Tony White responded yesterday evening: "BUILD appears to have achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the first group to try to use this tragedy to promote its own agenda."

Angela Maria Dawson, 36, and her children, Keith and Kevin Dawson, 9; Carnell Dawson Jr., 10; Juan Ortiz, 12; and LaWanda Ortiz, 14, died in the fire early Wednesday morning.

Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, leaped from a second-story window to escape the blaze and remains in an area hospital in critical condition, suffering from second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body.

Darrell L. Brooks, 21, was charged with arson and six counts of murder Thursday. Police and neighbors said the Dawsons had angered Brooks by reporting neighborhood drug dealing to police. The family's house at East Preston and Eden had also been firebombed two weeks before the fatal blaze.

Yesterday, balloons streamed from the railing outside the home and a tent covered scores of stuffed animals left to memorialize the family. People dropped money for Carnell Dawson into empty water jugs nearby.

O'Malley visited the arson scene the day of the crime and has responded emotionally to the fire, even storming to a local radio station after a talk-show host accused him of a passive response to the incident. Once there, the mayor delivered an on-air diatribe against whoever set the fire and the talk-show hosts.

Yesterday afternoon, about the time that the second rally was taking place, O'Malley was downtown at the Ravens football game. In a halftime ceremony, the mayor joined former Baltimore Colts and relatives of Johnny Unitas as they unveiled a statue and paid tribute to the late quarterback.

The city plans to hold its own memorial at the burned-out home at 5 p.m. today.

But such public outbursts aren't enough, said members of BUILD. They criticized the mayor for so far refusing to meet with them about safety concerns in the neighborhood where the fire happened, known as East Oliver. BUILD members said they first asked for such a meeting Thursday evening.

"A crisis calls for a big mayor, not a small one," said BUILD spokesman Rob English. "He needs to use his talents, charisma and passion for the city, not against it."

Many city residents who attended the rally agreed.

"I have my own children, and something like this touches my heart, so I'm here," said George Lloyd Davis Jr. of East Baltimore. "But the mayor is a father, and he's not here. What does that say? It's sad. It's sad."

Davis' was among the loudest voices when Keene led a "Where's O'Malley?" chant.

White, the mayor's spokesman, said he was unaware of BUILD's request to see the mayor but said that unless the organization has significantly changed its proposed initiatives, he couldn't foresee such a meeting.

"If there's any finger-pointing, it should be at the drug dealers," he said.

O'Malley has clashed with BUILD in the past. The organization has accused the mayor of breaking a promise to give $2 million a year to its after-school program, Child First Authority. O'Malley said the city had its own plans for an after-school program that would work better than past efforts.

BUILD claims to have thousands of members in the city and has earned respect as a lobbying force and get-out-the-vote machine. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke often worked with the group, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have courted the group's support for their gubernatorial campaigns.

English said East Oliver has been a core area for BUILD and said four of the children killed in the fire attended Child First after-school programs.

"We take this personally," he said.

The Methodist ministers who preceded the BUILD rally were less focused on the mayor as they spoke against the violence.

"This is terrorism, and it's not 6,000 miles away in Baghdad, it's here," said Bishop Felton Edwin May of the Baltimore-Washington United Methodist Conference. "Drugs are a weapon of mass destruction in our neighborhoods."

May then led a raucous chant of "Thou shalt not kill," shouted by people holding signs with the same message in stark red print.

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