In a television interview, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts offered reassurance that the city's stubbornly high murder rate is not a cause for concern among "everyday citizens." Instead, Mr. Batts has explained, more than 80 percent of the murders are gang member on gang member, drug-dealer on drug-dealer.
The chief's remarks may be factually accurate, but they also reinforce a view that underlies the response to inner city violence in too many American cities — the idea that violent crime and murder is unworthy of our outrage so long as the victims are gang members or participants in the drug trade. Commissioner Batts' comments appear to go a step further — they suggest that we should temper our concern about the city's murder rate precisely because of who the hundreds of victims are and because of their assumed criminal conduct.
But the value of human life should not be contingent on the poor or good life choices made by an individual crime victim. Without question, those who join gangs or feel compelled to join the world of illegal drug sales have made poor choices, and they must surely understand that the world of which they are a part devalues individual lives in service of a culture of retribution, loyalty and greed. They must take responsibility for the choices they make. But we are not free from partial or indirect responsibility for their decisions. The absence of steady, well-paying jobs and of quality education that properly prepares young people for meaningful work; the lack of affordable housing; the proliferation of city policies that have led to the concentration of poverty in pockets all over Baltimore; and the lack of support afforded to working families in the form of safe, accessible public transportation and economic development all rest at the doorstep of the "everyday citizens" of Baltimore. Any effort to distance ourselves from the tragedy of 235 lost lives of mostly young people is misplaced.
And yes race and class are not irrelevant to this calculation. Indeed Chief Batts was explicit in describing the city's murder victims as predominantly "African American men involved in the drug trade." This may be true. But too often our city's outrage about violent crime has peaked when victims are middle-class and white. When Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn was tragically murdered in Charles Village in 2011, our whole city was outraged at this awful murder, and it appropriately received regular and consistent treatment in local media. Pitcairn's murder even contributed to the voters' decision to oust our state's attorney of 15 years in favor of a new face and approach in the prosecutor's office. But the murder of African American victims during that same year — even the murders of "innocent" African American victims — failed to garner the same collective outrage and mobilization as the Pitcairn killing. Chief Batts' comments play into this unfortunate history in our city.
In the end, the fact that many of Baltimore's murder victims are involved in the drug trade should not provide us with any comfort. The death of each of these victims has cut off the potential of those individuals to change their lives and to become productive family and community members. Youth by its very nature includes the capacity for change and the opportunity for transformation. Murder ends that promise.
And we are naive and gravely mistaken if we believe that our city can become safe while this kind of violence consumes the lives of so many families in our city.
To successfully fight violent crime in our city, Chief Batts will need to harness a sense of shared outrage, urgency and responsibility from among everyone in our city. Without question, he cannot do it alone. Our mayor has the bully pulpit and should use it to rally Baltimore residents in collective outrage at the death of so many young people. Civic and faith leaders, parents and even young people must take a public stand in support of policies that help families and young people.
Ironically, the first homicide in Baltimore in 2013 was committed against the ultimate innocent victim — a 7-month old baby, who died on New Year's Day from abuse. But most Baltimoreans know no more about this child than they do about the year's final murder victim No. 235, a 22-year-old who was shot in the head in Federal Hill. For most of us, these victims are too often just numbers, and not flesh and blood human beings.
Chief Batts came to Baltimore with an excellent track record of policing in California and rightfully enjoys the confidence of many citizen and civil rights groups in Baltimore. His tenure is still in its early days, and he should be given the time to implement new policies that will address violent crime. But the chief should also take the lead in reminding Baltimoreans that the death of hundreds of Baltimore's citizens — whoever they are — diminishes us all.
Sherrilyn Ifill is the president of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.