A new level of outrage brings hope after a violent stretch

Organizers, officials looking to channel and sustain community activity

July 08, 2013|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

An unusual thing happened as a series of shootings rocked Baltimore: People took notice, got organized and hit the streets to show their outrage.

In a city where the toll of violence is seldom met with palpable anger, a recent stretch that saw more than 40 shot and 16 killed touched off a series of anti-violence demonstrations that continued into Monday. Those behind the events included ministers and politicians, but also young professionals, fraternity members, a party promoter and longtime residents who are simply fed up.

"This tremendous stretch of crime has captured everyone's minds and has been an igniter to wake people up," said Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, a 34-year veteran who oversees the Police Department's community partnership division. "You get a huge swelling of people coming to the table. It will fall off, but you will have a stronger nucleus than it was before."

There are scores of community groups and activists who are regularly working to improve Baltimore, and many of those involved in the recent efforts say it is not their first time speaking out. But the recent violence has propelled activism to a level that has surprised even the most active advocates, who now wonder how the community can channel and maintain the energy.

On Monday, a group of ministers promised to take on a bigger role in violence prevention and activists held a peace rally and barbecue in East Baltimore. Recent days have seen a citywide prayer tour and calls for a 24-hour Baltimore "cease fire."

The most visible example of the increased passion came Friday night, when organizers said 600 men walked the length of North Avenue and back — about 10 miles — to protest violence. Among those who attended was 66-year-old Cornell Rigby of Northwest Baltimore, who said he came to the event after hearing about it on the radio.

"If we don't demonstrate, it's like saying [the gun violence] is OK, that society is accepting of it," said Rigby, who led call-and-response chants during the march. "We're redeeming ourselves, because we've been quiet too long."

Those involved in the efforts say many people don't pay attention to crime until an incident hits close to home. Others might want to get involved but have trouble figuring out how.

"It's just so challenging to figure out what to do," said the Rev. Scott Slater, of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, at a ceremony Monday in East Baltimore to dedicate a peace mural.

The Rev. Willie Ray has been trying to galvanize residents for decades, including an annual event that sought to get people to link hands along the length of North Avenue — but which sometimes drew only a handful of participants.

"It's a slow process, and you have to go with the flow," Ray said. "You find a few people that's going in your direction, and you roll with it."

At the corner of Broadway and North Avenue, where Marques Dent sold snow cones for three summers as a child, the former Air Force captain threw a peace rally on Monday afternoon complete with a DJ, grilled hot dogs and drinks.

"Baltimore's small," said Dent, who grew up in the area and started an IT job-training nonprofit when he got out of the Air Force in January. "It might not be my cousin, but it might be the cousin of someone I know. I have several friends who have been affected. They say, 'I'm tired of going to funerals.'"

Dent said the violence has shaken Baltimore because it seems to be on the uptick, with few answers as to why.

"People are upset — they're upset with our law enforcement, they're upset with our legislature, they're upset with our community leaders," he said. "People can't be dropping like flies just because it's hot outside."

Akintola Marke, who stopped by the rally at Broadway and North Avenue in front of the new Apples and Oranges grocery store, said he felt people still weren't paying enough attention.

"We're talking about people being murdered, but what are we doing to prevent it?" said Marke, 24, a recent Towson University graduate from the Atlanta suburbs. He said his interest in mentoring at-risk youth has grown with the "alarming rate" of shootings.

"It starts with us being the change that we want to see," he said.

Munir Bahar, a 32-year-old who owns a fitness facility on Washington Boulevard, has been inundated with phone calls and messages since Friday's North Avenue march drew a larger-than-expected turnout, including a guest appearance by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The event came together in about a week and exceeded the goal set in its title: the 300 Men March.

"A lot of people are asking 'What's next?' and I say, 'Ask yourself what's next,'" Bahar said. "I've been in the trenches a while — the problem is getting other men to get in and get in the trenches too."

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