Families demand end to killings

Relatives of victims in Baltimore homicides march for change

`It's not getting better'

October 03, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The Stop the Violence march and rally held downtown yesterday might have been mistaken for a family reunion - participants recognized each other from past events, caught up on the latest news and compared pictures of their children.

Except this wasn't the kind of reunion anyone wants to be a part of. The members in attendance were drawn by the worst kind of misfortune. And the photos being compared, portraits in gilded frames and printed on T-shirts, all shared one thing in common: The children depicted were dead, victims of persistent violence that shows no signs of easing.

"We shouldn't be carrying our children's pictures in our hands or carrying them on our T-shirts. We should be holding our children in our arms," said Antoinette Ricks. Her 16-year-old son, Marshall Giles Jr., was shot in the head by a friend six weeks ago, police say.

"It's an outrage," Ricks said. Killing "has become a style, a fad."

It was the 15th straight year that family members of those slain in Baltimore have gathered to console each other and to protest the city's persistently high murder count at a rally organized by Steven T. Mitchell, an assistant state's attorney and founder of Take Back the City, an anti-violence group.

In a nod to the event having reached the 15-year milestone, organizers decided to do something different this year. Instead of just gathering downtown, the approximately 80 protesters marched for a mile through a part of town home to its share of crime - starting at the city school system headquarters at North Avenue, heading down Greenmount Avenue and ending at War Memorial Plaza at City Hall.

Mitchell said he hoped the march along the stone wall of Green Mount Cemetery, past empty storefronts and curling around the state penitentiary might do a better job of spreading the group's call to curb deadly violence.

Despite the rally's change in approach, the event felt all too familiar to many of its participants. Many said they have been calling for more action against violence for years, to little effect. After dropping toward 250 in the past few years, the city's annual homicide count is on pace to near the mark of 300 again this year, with 221 killings recorded as of Friday. Of those, 29 were juveniles, an increase over recent years.

"It's getting worse," said Rhonda Brooks, whose son, Dante Brooks, was killed at 16 in 1998. At the time, she said, it seemed to her "there wasn't that many kids getting killed. Now one's getting killed every week. It's heartbreaking to see it's not getting better."

Delores Fletcher, whose son Michael Rogers was killed in June at age 36 - after, she said, he had found work with a cabinetmaker and "straightened his life up" - said the violence was getting so bad that her 7-year-old grandson, Alonzo Harper, says he "doesn't want to grow up because he's afraid he'll be shot."

The marchers had no shortage of explanations for the killings. They accused police and city authorities of not being aggressive enough in fighting violence, saying they were sure more action would be taken if those being killed were not predominantly black.

"It needs to stop. The city needs to do something," said Connie Mitchell, whose son Darrell DeShawn Mitchell was shot and killed at age 16 last year on Harford Road. "If 10 white kids got killed in Baltimore this year, they would shut this city down."

Many marchers said their slain relatives had put themselves at risk by hanging out with the wrong crowd and tangling with the law. But they attributed this partly to a lack of better options in the city, and they rejected the notion that the victims' behavior made their violent ends any less wrong or worthy of attention.

"Whatever your son was, he was your baby, and he didn't deserve to die like a dog on the street," Georgia Moore told the crowd at War Memorial Plaza. Her son, a courthouse guard, was killed in 1993 in a case of mistaken identity, she said.

Solutions to the problem were in scarcer supply. Funeral home owner Erich March said from the rally stage that decriminalizing drugs was the only way to try to reduce the drug-related killing which, he said, gives him too much unwanted business. "It is not natural that I put 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds in caskets," he said.

Mitchell, the rally organizer, said his group plans to call for a summit this winter among 30 civic leaders. "There are a lot more good people than there are bad people. We are letting a minority dominate," he said. "It's time for us to take over."

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy called for a "compassionate intolerance" of crime in the city's most troubled neighborhoods, while state Del. Jill P. Carter, the only other elected official in attendance, called for faster progress in addressing contributing factors such as abandoned buildings.

With so few clear options at hand, the families were left to simply offer each other assurance. Those whose losses were farther in the past consoled those who had experienced a more recent killing. When Ricks broke down during her remarks from the podium, she was embraced by several other mothers, including Moore.

"I'd like to tell the brand-new mothers who just lost their loved ones in the last couple weeks, keep on hanging on," Moore said. "We understand. We walk in your shoes."

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