Child's Story Sad, Too Familiar


July 12, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The sad part is, there is nothing unusual about this story.

A little girl is hit in the head on a Southwest Baltimore street by a bullet meant for someone else.

A teenager with a lengthy criminal record is arrested and charged as an adult with attempted murder.

As Raven Wyatt's anguished family huddles over her hospital bed, hoping that the 5-year-old recovers, an outraged community demands to know how the 17-year-old suspect, Lamont Davis, seems to have slithered through the juvenile system relatively unscathed for years.

It's an old story.

Mayor Sheila Dixon tried to elicit answers at a meeting last week, demanding that state juvenile officials explain why the youth was sent home instead of to jail on a robbery charge, only to cut off his monitoring anklet and, according to police, take a gun to a street fight.

But hesitant officials eased her into a private room. Did they tell the mayor more or different than they've told us, and if so, don't we deserve to know, too? Did the mayor really expect answers, or did she press the question in front of reporters to appear strong?

"No one wants to accept responsibility," Joseph Armstead, the city's NAACP vice president, told me while waiting for a community walk to start Wednesday near where Raven was shot in Carrollton Ridge. "That boy should not have been on the street."

The critically injured Raven and her pink sandals left behind on Pulaski Street have become the new symbol of Baltimore violence, the latest rallying cry for a beleaguered and tired community, a new reason to trot out the old cliches of banding together, taking back our neighborhoods and becoming involved.

We have a lot of practice and not a lot of results. The names blur over the years. Tiffany Smith, 6. Tauris Johnson, 10. James Smith, 3. Carlos Woods, 2. Sheana Counts, 13. A horribly incomplete list of children gunned down by stray bullets. Sheana was killed 10 years ago while getting a cup of ice just blocks from where Raven was struck, and charges against the suspect were dropped when the intended target told prosecutors that police had arrested the wrong gunman.

"Insufficient evidence," is the official reason listed by prosecutors for the unavenged death of a child.

That was Carrollton Ridge a decade ago, when the state named the community a "hot spot" and poured in money to stem the violence. That designation and the funds are long gone - another promise, another program, another community abandoned and left to wither.

Now we have a new name to add to the list, and a new suspect, but the story and the questions are the same. We're left with a familiar tale of neglect and indifference that Wednesday's community walk was designed to overcome.

It attracted more than 100 people, so many that it resembled a flood of bodies as it moved from street to street, past vacant lots with weeds taller than the mayor, houses abandoned so long that trees have grown inside, their branches pushing through second-story windows.

The walk had been scheduled a year ago.

"This is not an event as a result of this tragedy," community leader Steve Herlth told those gathered.

But a walk without a tragedy and the attention it brings usually gets about seven people from Carrollton Ridge and handfuls of others from neighboring communities. The shooting of a little girl attracts the mayor, the police commissioner, the fire chief, the rec and parks director, the health director, the head of public works, and all their aides and spokespeople who took notes, addressed complaints, and signed up kids and their parents for programs.

The mayor, police commissioner and all the district commanders go on walks that don't get publicized, but this was one of the biggest ever, and it worked the way they all should, with residents taking over the streets instead of just walking on them.

"It's the good coming out in the neighborhood," said police Maj. Anthony Brown, who commands the Southwestern District.

The mayor rode a kid's bike up the street, trailed by a wall of people, her two slow-moving Chevrolet Suburbans, the cops behind the wheels flashing the red and blue lights in the grille, and three police cars. Walkers called out their communities: Brooklyn, Riverside, Northeast Citizens Patrol, Irvington, Violetville, South Baltimore, Morrell Park, Union Square.

Some may see these community walks as a public relations stunt, but they do serve a purpose. They're a show, yes, but a show of force that says somebody cares, at least at that moment. Dixon told the crowd that she was angry after a prayer vigil for Raven because she felt a sense of apathy in the community. She told me she felt better after the march, after personally enlisting kids into city programs. But she knows it's what happens after the walk that matters most.

"We can't just have it today," Dixon told participants. "We have to be consistent. These children deserve the best. It is our responsibility to make that happen."

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