Dawsons likely had faith long before `Believe' started

This Just In...

January 10, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

WE KNOW WHAT Angela Dawson said - that no drug dealer or other lowlife would run her family out of their rowhouse in East Baltimore. Her husband, Carnell Dawson, had the same attitude. I never had a chance to speak to the Dawsons, and it's too late for that now. But the official police account speaks to their defiance and determination: Even after their house was firebombed the first time, on Oct. 3, they would not leave.

Let's go over this quickly.

After the first attack, the Dawsons refused relocation through the witness protection program of the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Police increased patrols near the family's house on Preston Street.

Four days after the attack, a detective asked if the family had received any more threats in retaliation for Angela Dawson's 911 calls about drug dealers on her corner. (They had not.)

The detective made another visit two days later. A sergeant and two officers from the Police Department's community affairs division went to the house to talk to Angela Dawson about getting help.

Five days later, Carnell Dawson told a police lieutenant he would not give up his house to the dope-heads.

And two days after that, on Oct. 16, the commander of the Eastern Police District stopped by about 1 a.m. to see if everything was OK. He saw nothing unusual.

About an hour later, the house was set ablaze, and we all know the horrible story of what happened to the Dawsons, one of the worst tragedies in memory.

So there it is.

Does this mean I'm buying the official account of what - if anything - the police did to protect the Dawsons after the first attack on their house? My skeptical nature is vigorous, but I'm inclined to believe what the police tell us here, and that the Dawsons were determined to stay put. No other version of the last two weeks of the Dawsons' lives has emerged to challenge it.

Does this mean I think the police did enough? It means I think the police did a lot.

Should the police have parked a manned squad car outside the Dawson home 24-7? Maybe. But for how long? Until when?

Now comes into Baltimore the famous lawyer Johnnie Cochran, carpetbag in hand, to make noise about suing the city because not enough was done to protect the Dawsons. And, further, Cochran says the city might have been responsible for their deaths because of the "Believe" campaign.

Because of "Believe."

You can see where Cochran's law firm is going: With those ubiquitous call-to-action, anti-drug billboards and bumper stickers, the city filled Angela Dawson's impressionable mind with the belief that if she spoke out against the dealer-killers in her city then a new day would dawn for Baltimore. But the city could not protect her, and therefore the city is responsible for her death and for the deaths of her husband and five children.

Might as well just say it, Johnnie - the city killed the Dawsons. Not the person who tossed gasoline into the house in the wee hours of Oct. 16. The city did it. A billboard did it. The mayor and the City Council and www.baltimorebelieve.com did it.

Johnnie Cochran never lets the opportunity for a settlement - and free publicity - slip away.

The mayor was being gracious when he said, "I don't blame the [surviving] Dawson family at all for wanting to retain counsel to see what their rights are." The old Martin O'Malley - of just a year or so ago - might have spouted off and said something unfortunate. He has been humbled by the deaths of the Dawsons and has honored them frequently with elegiac words.

Now a TV lawyer wants to blame him, in effect, for what happened.

I never met the Dawsons, but I'm going to speculate that, based on what we've learned about them since their deaths, no civic-spirited message on a billboard put a notion of vigilance and defiance into their heads. I thank God that in some of the roughest neighborhoods of this struggling town people still go to the phone and call the cops about gangs on corners and men with guns.

Baltimore has suffered too much loss, waste and abandonment in its neighborhoods, and every time I drive by the corner of Preston and Eden, where there should be a monument to the Dawsons, I see it as the place where a line was drawn, where a man and woman said that they would not let the bullies win, that they would not give up more ground to the lowlife criminals who keep feeding the poison into their city's veins.

I never met the Dawsons, but they must have been special people. I'm sure they believed in what "Believe" stands for long before the billboards went up.

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