Brian Winder: One man against the darkness

July 18, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

ANGUISHED ORATORY at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen recently was meant to comfort the children of slain Baltimore police Officer Brian D. Winder.

He was a man who believed that family and kids were just about all that matter. He wanted to defend the people he grew up with. He had a wry sense of humor. He loved to dance.

Some day, his children will read the eulogies and be proud. But on the day of his funeral, 7-year-old Brandon Winder spoke for the city as his father's flag-draped casket was lifted into the brilliant sunlight outside the church.

"I want him back," he said.

Surely, we all do.

It's a further sadness that a man such as this could be introduced to his city only in death, only in the violence that drives us all into lives of fear and discouragement. Here was a man who fought every day to make sure some other kid's father came home, who wanted to keep kids from growing up to sell poison and to kill without remorse.

He wasn't the only one on the front line. Thousands of his brothers and sisters were there at the funeral promising to care for his children. And everyone on that front line in Baltimore isn't a policeman. Our history tells us that much.

Angela Dawson, who was killed in October 2002 with her husband and five children, was such a person. She would not tolerate the toxic life around her. She would not move. She would not cower in fear. We want her back, too, safe and defiant. We know there are other Angela Dawsons out there, more Brian Winders. We just need to keep them alive.

When he spoke during the service, Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark wondered how men who had grown up in the same culture, brothers in the struggle against slavery, against Jim Crow, against discrimination, could be willing to end a life. There was fury and hurt beneath the question.

Recent comments by the comedian Bill Cosby have seemed to illuminate a dialogue in the black community on individual responsibility. In truth, that dialogue has been under way even if a bit muted and somewhat leaderless. The actions of Angela Dawson and Brian Winder are examples.

City officials say recent turnouts for "Believe" campaign rallies - 1,000 people or more - are proof, largely hidden, that people are demonstrating new concern for their neighborhoods, their children, their quality of life.

Clayton Guyton, who cobbled together his own re-entry program in East Baltimore, tries to help ex-offenders find their way to a different life. Rada Moss of the Enterprise Foundation and Tomi Hiers of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s department of corrections are working closely on the west side of the city with a few hundred of the thousands of ex-offenders who come back to communities such as Edmondson Village, where Officer Winder worked. New drug treatment programs sponsored by various organizations, including the Abell Foundation, are showing signs of effectiveness.

These programs are designed to improve lives, protect communities and slow the recidivism rate - the appalling reincarceration rate of young, mostly black men. They leave prison with no skills, no support systems, no resources sufficient to keep them out of the old destructive habits. Officer Winder was killed by a man who had offended repeatedly.

It may seem a frivolous concept, but just believing that life can be different, as Mayor Martin O'Malley insists, will help. Just talk to former addicts who say they never thought they could be free of drugs.

Outside the cathedral before Officer Winder's funeral, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said people have to start thinking about the community as if it's their community to save and not something an abstract "system" can control.

"I think that everybody's safety is threatened, not because of the system, but because of individuals who are ruthless in their pursuit of criminal activity," she said. "The system cannot take responsibility for individual responsibility. As a community, we have to all say that we're going to do better. And that means that individuals have to begin to police themselves, their streets, their families."

We can't get Brian Winder back, but we can do more to save our neighborhoods and our kids.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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