Another rally, more calls for action - and the toll just rises

October 03, 2004|By Dan Rodricks

I ASSURED Kim Armstrong, whose 16-year-old son was shot to death Monday in Baltimore, that a majority of people care about what happened - as much as strangers can care about a mother's terrible loss. But even those who care have gone numb. Just yesterday, this newspaper quoted a consultant saying so: "Baltimore is a city that has gone numb." And that's exactly how many citizens of Harm 'n' Charm City have felt for a long time.

We hear these horrific stories, catch them in short glimpses on television maybe, and the most we can do now is shake our heads, a little. We feel sadness for someone like Kim Armstrong, who tried to save her son from the streets, but soon there's the next day and the next victim, and after a while the numbness sets in.

Yesterday, there was another of those rallies to stop the violence - sponsored by Take Back the City - and only a small crowd of people, most of them relatives of the young and the dead, turned out for it. Patricia Jessamy, one of only two elected officials who attended, said she'd heard more outrage over a racehorse beaten by a jockey than for the hundreds of young people who've died violently during her years as state's attorney.

Kim Armstrong's son, Eric Villines, was one of them, and his death achieved the rare status of front-page news: His mother, co-chairwoman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, had given up her job to stay home and work with her son, to keep him out of trouble. Despite his mother's efforts, Eric Villines became the 29th juvenile to be killed in Baltimore this year.

"A lot more people need to be called out to stand against this violence," Kim Armstrong said, after making arrangements for the funeral Thursday evening. "People need to be outraged. Not enough are."

I'll give her that: Some people have lost all sense of outrage, or they've run out of empathy.

Or we've grown numb because the homicide numbers have been so high for so long - and no one seems to know what to do about it.

The problems are so deeply rooted, so complex, that you'd need an army of social workers, tutors and mentors, addictions counselors and doctors to occupy Baltimore's worst neighborhoods for the next decade. You'd need to draft people from all social, academic and medical disciplines into an expensive, comprehensive, long-term project - something on the scale of an army operation - with the goal of snapping this epoch of violence.

But, of course, we haven't done that.

We haven't come close.

In the 1990s, this drug-infested city's homicide numbers went off the charts. We could have mounted an army to do something then, but we built a baseball stadium instead. Then we built a football stadium. We could have made a deal for Baltimore's future - developing hotels, restaurants and waterfront condos at the same time we fixed the broken schools and the broken juvenile justice system. We could have had a war on drugs that included treatment for the old junkies who keep the narcotics commerce alive.

We've never gotten it quite right.

We've been too late with some efforts, too short on others.

And now the annual homicide numbers have picked up the pace toward 300 again.

Yesterday, one of the city's true leaders, a funeral director who has placed dozens of dead teenagers in caskets, suggested the answer was to decriminalize drugs. He shouted this over a loudspeaker in Baltimore's sprawling and mostly empty War Memorial Plaza, and his voice echoed off City Hall, where all the windows were closed and the offices dark.

That was angry desperation in Erich March's voice, and we've heard it before: Let's legalize heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Let's take the profit out of illegal drugs. Let's get treatment for addicts.

Do that, and maybe young men stop killing each other.

Do that - something grand and radical like that - and maybe this numbing rate of homicides starts to diminish, instead of grow.

We've heard it before.

We've heard the minister at the microphone, shouting for God to please save this city.

Here we were again - another Take Back the City event, this time in the big plaza in front of City Hall, with a temporary stage too large for the event, a small crowd of people holding photographs of relatives and friends - mostly young men - gunned down in the city in the past decade.

One of the photos was of Rashad "Ra Ra" McDonald, born Oct. 2, 1978, shot to death on the parking lot of a Pimlico supermarket Feb. 26, 2002. Ra Ra's death warranted three paragraphs in this newspaper.

That's another problem - not enough news coverage, not enough outrage. You hear that a lot from the relatives of the dead.

Kim Armstrong, newly among their ranks, understands that a lot of people have grown numb or indifferent about the homicide numbers because many young men who die in Baltimore have criminal records. And if they're killing each other, so what?

"Yes, I know people think like that," she says. "But people don't understand, they don't see what young people out here go through. Children today are facing a lot more difficulties than we did. We have children raising themselves, raising other children, schools crumbling, kids going to school and getting the message, `You ain't ----, and you're never going to be ----.' And then they get locked up, and they get the same message."

And we have to keep children from getting on this path, she says. I think it will take an army.

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