When Munir Bahar, the 32-year-old chief organizer of the 300 Men March, told me he used a dirt bike show to lure people into the street to hear his anti-violence speech, I winced. The operation of dirt bikes on city streets is illegal. They are widely considered a menace by people who live in Baltimore's rowhouse neighborhoods. Homeowners frequently call the police to complain about dirt bikes.
But one man's noisy nuisance is another's rapscallion pleasure or, in Bahar's thinking, a way to draw a crowd.
So Friday night, when Bahar and about 60 other men carried their message against gun violence into the East Baltimore neighborhoods most damaged by it, they deployed a couple of dirt bikes.
"I couldn't afford to bring Lil Wayne out to Madison and Kenwood, you know," Bahar says, "so the police allowed us to bring out a couple of dirt bikes."
Their riders did stunts in the street. Bahar estimates that about 200 people gathered to watch the 20-minute show, then stayed to hear his anti-violence message.
"We blocked off the street, and everybody came out of their houses," he says. "We had some police out there standing side by side with the young brothers. ... You had 200 people in the street listening to a speech about stopping the violence. I don't know that that has ever happened before."
Friday night's peaceful sortie was the second Bahar-organized action since the surge in violence began this summer.
On July 5, hundreds of Baltimoreans — twice as many as expected — marched along North Avenue, five miles east and five miles west. Bahar and others who took part in the first 300 Men March believe it attracted 600.
The second event, staged in East Baltimore, brought out about 60 men — the One-Fifth 300 Men March. That doesn't necessarily represent a drop-off in enthusiasm for the cause. Bahar was neither expecting nor pushing for big numbers the second time out. Instead, he wanted men who were committed to a stop-and-engage mission in what has been one of the most violent parts of town.
This is how he described what he wanted: "A large group of black men walking through the hot spots of East Baltimore, without a police escort, to tell the young men on the corners they have to stop the violence."
And that's what he got, with a few exceptions.
"I called him up and asked if he could use a 63-year-old white guy," says Phil Leaf, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. "I wanted to make sure he could use me on the street, that he wanted me walking around with the others."
Bahar accepted Leaf — as long as he attended an orientation session at COR, Bahar's fitness center on Washington Boulevard. (It stands for "Committed Organized Responsible," and it appears to have become the motto of the 300 Men March.)
Leaf, who for years has been engaged in efforts to stem violence among young men, was impressed.
"I've been on these walks before, when there was a lot of praying and singing," he says. "This was different.
"First of all, there was a lot of talk among the men on the march, about why they were there, where they were from. These were men who had a common interest and didn't want to sit around and do nothing. ...
"The second thing that struck me was how interested the people on the sidewalks — it was Friday night, and a lot of people were sitting out and playing cards or eating late — how interested they were in what the men were doing. The men got ovations as they appeared on some streets. People were enormously respectful and responsive.
"Frequently, the men on the march knew the ones on the corners. This is Smaltimore, after all."
Bahar says, "We stopped at liquor stores and corners and talked to guys. All 60 [on the march] were engaged in a conversation at some point in the evening. We passed out 800 leaflets. We reached out to a lot of people, even if only for a minute."
"The message was, essentially, 'Beefs shouldn't turn into shootings,' " says Leaf. "These were not meant to be street-corner interventions, but just the first step in getting that message out. They want people to know there are many who care about this and they'll be back, and in the meantime, here's something to think about."
Leaf offered Bahar the help of his center at Hopkins. But he might not need it. So far, the 300 Men March is one of those precious organic developments — good men responding to a municipal emergency, taking their responsibilities as citizens seriously.
"Friday was a great morale booster, for the men on the march and the people in the neighborhoods," Bahar says. "Sixty men went out there and showed a commitment to continue to do this kind of work, and we got nothing but love in return."