After the flowers

January 04, 2003

IN THE DAYS that followed the holocaust on East Preston Street - as he held his own newborn son - Mayor Martin O'Malley repeatedly asked himself:

What could have been done? How could we have saved Angela Dawson, her husband and five children?

"Everything and nothing," he told a throng of mourners standing in front of the charred death chamber a few days after the fire.

The choice remains for this city as it enters a new year.

We could always have done more in a poor neighborhood threatened by the drug trade, the mayor was saying. But what housing assistance, mentoring, drug treatment or attentive police patrolling would have mattered against pure evil or madness?

The answer, a minister said that night, comes down to us from Angela Dawson. She had done what her courageous heart demanded. She ordered a drug salesman from her street, calling the police and confronting the menace personally.

Speaking after the mayor that night, Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and now head of the NAACP, put her affirmation in the starkest terms:

"Over my dead body," she had said. And so it was.

What would follow? Everything or nothing? What will make us worthy of the Dawsons' sacrifice? Memory, for one thing.

Then we have to believe that our best approximation of "everything" can prevail over the evil of "nothing." The mayor and the city announced an official counterattack, words on paper that could not match the ferocity of the provocation: 50 more drug treatment slots, housing rehabilitation in the Dawsons' neighborhood and various memorials from teddy bears to proposals for the burned-out house. It was all important - much closer to everything than nothing.

The solutions lie in the courage needed to go on with daily ministering to family, to children and to faith. The mayor calls it "Baltimore Believe" - belief in a future free of drugs and violence, filled with promise.

In the face of despair and intolerable pain, the city needs time and patience to heal. The problem is monstrous and demanding of our best instincts.

At the rally, renowned surgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson urged the city not to shun the alleged killer. The firebomber, too, was once a child of promise.

That reality drives Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who organized a citywide summit on violence late last summer. He joined Mayor O'Malley on the "everything" side of the equation. Right now, he says, the nothing side is winning: Test scores are up in some schools, but there's a huge truancy rate; arrests for involvement in drug selling are up among 12-year-olds; murders among young people are up.

"We're being out-recruited," the councilman says. "They're in touch with the drug dealers. Let's put them in touch with people who can do something positive for them. It can't be something they hear about. They have to see it."

He and Ray Lewis, the football player, took 200 kids to a concert recently. Mr. Harris and others arranged for 200 kids to visit the aquarium.

We can't all organize grand outings. We're not all stars or public officials. But every day we can do what parents and grandparents, mentors and friends all over the city are doing: Draw the children closer.

"After the flowers have wilted," Mr. Mfume said, we have to care for children "who don't have rooms to clean up, whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser, whose monsters are real."

We have to use the pain, cherish the love and honor the defiance offered to us from the ashes by Angela Dawson.

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