A tragic symbol

DECADE IN REVIEW

December 27, 2009

A woman with a modest rowhouse and a clear view of the drug activity that endangered and cheapened the streets of her Oliver neighborhood thought that if she reported it to the police, if she did something, it would help. Deep in the night on Oct. 15, 2002, a young man with a long criminal record retaliated by pouring gasoline on her house and lighting a fire that killed Angela Dawson, along with her husband and five children.

The tragedy saddened the city deeply, but frustrated it more. Here was Baltimore, finally pushing down its homicide rate, with a new young mayor urging his jaded constituency to BELIEVE - yet someone who believed enough to take action was painfully vulnerable.

Civic leaders rebuilt the Dawsons' home into a youth center as one police commissioner after another took office with tough talk and new crime-fighting strategies. Still, drug dealers barely blinked, instead making videos encouraging folks to "stop snitching" - with an unspoken but obvious "or else."

East Baltimore neighbors, interviewed years after the Dawson fire, could have been speaking from any of Baltimore's virtual war zones when asked about police drug-quashing tactics. The drug trade hadn't disappeared, they replied. It just "went around the corner."

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