In West Baltimore, waging a fight despite odds, memory

January 04, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE 2800 block of Harlem Ave. yesterday, the Rev. Willie Ray stood in the morning sunlight and pronounced this a promising new day in West Baltimore. He did this against all odds and all memory, including his own. On Saturday, New Year's Day, Ray opened his morning newspaper and read the appalling homicide figures for 2004. Yesterday, he read about the first three appalling homicides of 2005. Some promise; some morning.

On Dukeland Street around the corner from Ray, battered buildings were covered with graffiti warnings, spray-painted in large, blood-red letters: "Gang Bang is Real." "If You Don't Gang Bang, Close Your Mouth." "Death Before Dishonor."

All are signposts of a culture that has come undone. Standing outside the narrow rowhouse that serves as Ray's community base - his Stop the Violence Coalition quarters - he gestured toward nearby churches, eight of them within two blocks, so many houses of worship for a neighborhood that so often seems not to have a prayer.

"What we're trying to do," Ray said, "is get each church to adopt one corner and use it as mission ground. We get each minister to look at a corner and say, `This is my church.' We do it here, and we spread the concept across the whole city."

If only, if only.

For the last 35 years, Ray has been ministering to a kind of outlaw flock: prison inmates and druggies years ago, gangbangers and druggies now. For maybe the last 20 years, he's been leading candlelight street vigils, Stop the Killing rallies. For much of the last year, he's been organizing this One Church, One Corner initiative.

In a city where 278 were killed last year, it is a variation on an endless theme: trying to hold back the tide with a bucket and a spoon. As The Sun's Ryan Davis reported on New Year's Day, Baltimore suffered its deadliest year since 1999, even as homicide totals dropped in major cities such as New York and Chicago. Chicago had one killing for every 6,500 people; New York, one killing for every 14,550 people.

Baltimore, one killing for every 2,350 people.

But they are certain kinds of people. Of Baltimore's homicide suspects, 88 percent already had criminal records. And their victims, too, were generally no choirboys: an average of 8.2 previous arrests. Of the 278 victims, 246 were black, as were 128 of the 147 known suspects.

"One generation after another," Ray said now. "Drug dealers killing drug dealers."

He walked past an open cardboard box sitting on Harlem Avenue. The box held a few final pieces of secondhand clothing Ray handed out over the holidays. Inside his rowhouse headquarters, he had a couple of couches protected by plastic slipcovers. In a chilly unfinished basement were three computers. On the second floor, an office and a meditation room.

"A safe house," Ray called it. Young people from the neighborhood can come here for a little sanctuary. It is customary in these matters to blame "the streets." This is shorthand. It stands for the collection of drug trafficking, shooting, abandoned housing, trash lying in gutters.

But it stands, too, for all those kids growing up without parents paying attention, where the older street-corner types become the surrogate role models and guiding hands.

"This is my 36th year in the ministry," Ray said. "I've watched three generations go down the drain. You go into the prisons and see it: three generations of the same family, and they're all behind bars. You get on a bus, the average conversation is some guy saying, `I just got home, I just finished my bit in prison.' It's been going on 35 years, where it's been cool to get a rap sheet. It signals you've arrived, you're in the loop. In this mentality, it's better to be Peanut King than Martin Luther King."

Peanut King was a heroin dealer who is now doing prison time. The streets are filled with his occupational offspring, who awake each morning in bleak circumstances, who leave their scruffy apartments for decaying streets, who are furious at the dreary isolation imposed on them and see drug dealing as their one shot at economic salvation.

Ray grew up in a West Baltimore where the last white families and the first middle-class black families hadn't yet fled for suburbia. They were the final remnants of a kind of neighborhood stability.

"When you don't have educated people and stable families, chaos sets in," he said. "My own nieces and nephews are college-graduated home owners. They live in the suburbs. They don't want to hear about the inner city. They don't want their families exposed to thug mentality. They're interested in personal preservation.

"But our leadership has been the same way. I'm talking about clergy. There's been an unspoken taboo, a class thing, about associating with our most troubled population. But it's our kids who are killing each other. That's why we've got to get this One Church, One Corner thing going."

Now Ray held up a photocopy of a New York Times article. The headline read: "Baltimoreans Mounting Drive to Fight Violence." It's about a 16-year-old high school basketball star shot to death "for no apparent reason," and a 20-year old mother of two shot on her back porch by a stray bullet from a nearby shootout, and an 83-year-old school bus driver shot by two teenagers.

The article is about efforts - by Ray and others - to stop such awful things. But the piece is dated Oct. 6, 1985. Soon it will be 20 years old. So Ray stood there on Harlem Avenue yesterday and called it a new day. In a brand-new year, he seeks a fresh start. But he is an optimist, trying to defy all odds, and all memory.

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