On a mission to halt epidemic of killings

A graveyard visit helps a crusader drive home his point: Young men can change their lives and reduce homicides

December 12, 2005|By SUMATHI REDDY | SUMATHI REDDY,SUN REPORTER

The young men shuffle out of the van, a mass of puffy black jackets spilling onto a vast expanse of green grass and worn gravestones.

Walker Gladden III calls them to attention. "Our young people are dying," says Gladden, 31, his baritone voice filling the otherwise empty Baltimore Cemetery. "Young men are being killed just about every single day."

Young men like them.

"We can't stop death," Gladden says, his voice rising as a siren sounds in the distance. "But we ain't gotta meet it through someone pulling the trigger."

Gladden wants to declare Baltimore's homicides a public health epidemic, a designation he hopes could bring the city more resources, though the practical effect might be nothing more than renewed attention to the problem.

He is a former dropout, drug dealer and inmate who wants to turn around a generation of lost men. Now a youth coordinator, Gladden comes to the sprawling cemetery on North Avenue to pound his message into the young men he meets with twice a week at Rose Street Community Center in East Baltimore.

"We need to understand that most of the young people are between 17 and 24," he says of the city's homicide victims. "Let me restate that, between 14 and 24."

Just like them.

Nearly all the young men visiting the cemetery have experienced violent death firsthand, a reality they talk about with a sense of detachment and numbness.

Friends and family members have been shot, sometimes right in front of them. Or they were on the other end of the gun, pulling the trigger. And yet the siren call of the streets continues to beckon.

"You're making a conscious, clear choice to change your life," Gladden tells the group gathered near the headstones. "That will change the homicides, saying you don't want to be a part of the streets."

The young men file back to the van, ending their silence. This is an hour of the two every week they give to Gladden, their attention undivided, as he talks to them.

Gladden is an intimidating man, loud, bold and honest. But underneath his bearish exterior is kindness.

"We love you," Gladden tells his group almost every time.

They trust him. They know he came from where they come from.

Street life is a reality that Gladden knows well. He started selling drugs at age 12, a rite of passage in the East Baltimore neighborhood in which he grew up. He dropped out of school by 14 and was in and out of prison, serving sentences for drugs, burglary and armed robbery, among other charges. After being released about six years ago, Gladden made his way to the Rose Street Community Center, an East Baltimore storefront that helps former offenders with housing, food and other services.

He wanted help. And he got it.

Since then, Gladden has made it his mission to help the young men around him.

Epidemic of killings

To him, Baltimore is in a state of crisis. That nearly 300 people are killed every year - mostly young black men - is a reality he refuses to accept. And so he persists in a campaign that often seems futile.

He went to the headquarters of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He went to Boston to talk to the officials who have helped reduce homicides there. He wrote letters to local officials and professors at the Johns Hopkins University, organized panels and participated in a local art exhibit.

His persistence impressed Rodney Hammond, director of the division of violence prevention at the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

"He struck me as a very passionate individual who is determined to address problems of youth violence in his community," Hammond said.

In most urban centers across the country, the number of homicides has fallen from the high levels of the mid-1980s and early '90s.

In Baltimore, that did not happen until more recently, when homicides finally fell below 300 - to 261 - in 2000. After dropping for three straight years, the numbers have increased over the past two, reaching 278 last year. The city has seen 258 killings so far this year.

The label "epidemic" does not necessarily come with resources for more programs, says Philip Leaf, director of the Center for Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Leaf says the label might draw attention in a city with a sudden spike in homicides. But in Baltimore, which has been afflicted by the problem for decades, it would mean little.

Rather, the problem - caused largely by loosely organized drug crews competing for turf - might best be attacked through programs that help people finish school and find jobs, Leaf says. Programs like the one Gladden is involved with.

"Gladden's doing great stuff," says Leaf. "He's a hero. He's helped mobilize people."

Gladden says more must be done and that public officials must be held accountable.

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