People march on North Avenue during a 300 Man March to speak out… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
We are coming up on the first anniversary of Baltimore's 300 Men March, when far more than that number of men — perhaps double that number — walked the length of North Avenue and back on a Friday night to protest last summer's spike in killings.
It was a quickly organized event in response to a particularly sickening period in the life of the city. More than 40 people had been shot in the first couple of weeks of summer, 20 of them in a single weekend.
Even with all that — lots of blood on the streets, and lots of urgency in response to it — organizers were surprised by the size of the march. It was arranged in about 10 days and promoted entirely through word of mouth and social media. Munir Bahar, one of the organizers, thinks 600 men walked in some part of the 10-mile march last July 5.
As the group crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, a woman was heard to yell, "Keep it going, men!"
And that's the challenge the group faces this year as it prepares to return to North Avenue on July 11.
The first event was spontaneous and spirited and exciting, and the local news media found the images of it appealing, so there was plenty of news coverage.
But now comes the hard sweat of civic activism, sustaining an effort to get a message, repeatedly, into the minds of young black men who are so frequently the perpetrators and victims of violence in this town.
It's really the greatest challenge for anyone — police, prosecutors, probation officers, social workers, community leaders — engaged in trying to end Baltimore's epoch of violence.
"Keep it going, men."
Last year, by the time the 300 Men March hit North Avenue, there had been 120 homicides in the city, two on the morning of the march.
This year, there were 97 homicides between Jan. 1 and June 30, according to police. That's the lowest total for the first half of the year since 1983, when there were 94 killings before July.
The city had 150,000 more residents in 1983, a fact that always adds sobering perspective to Baltimore's never-ending struggles with violent crime. We remain, per capita, one of the most violent cities in the country.
And so, upon hearing the news about another drop in the number of homicides, most Baltimoreans allow themselves just a few minutes of optimism. We know the positive trends can be blown away in a couple of weekends of gun violence. It's happened before.
Still, maybe something profound is happening. Maybe some law enforcement strategies are starting to pay off. Maybe we will actually live to see Baltimore break from the cycle of violence that has haunted it for more than three decades.
"It's good, but it's not great," Bahar says of the drop in city homicides. "Killing is still part of the regular culture of the city, and we've got to get it out of the culture. It's going to take time. Last year we had an uptick in violence, and we came out to the street and said, 'We've got to do something,' and that was good. But our work surely isn't done.
"Folks are a little quiet right now. But we've go to keep it up. Until the culture changes, our work isn't done."
Bahar has walked the walk. He organized a series of mini-marches throughout the year, taking as many as 40 men at a time to street corners to speak to young men believed to be at risk of getting into trouble. At the least, Bahar's group provides a show of positive masculine force in a neighborhood where there is little.
He says the men he's trained for these encounters, ranging in age from 19 to 64, have marched through Belair-Edison in Northeast Baltimore each of the last four Fridays.
And while the group is still called the 300 Men March, women are involved — up to 80 of them last year, Bahar says, hopefully more this time.
So far, he says, none of the female volunteers has complained about the very male name of the group.
"Women have been very supportive," Bahar says. "Women have been holding it down for a long time, especially in the black community, in the absence of men. They realize that men have to get it together — we have to talk to each other, men to men — and that's what we're about."
It's hard to tell if the 300 Men March and Bahar's mini-marches have made a difference in the city over the last year. He can't say if his group has stopped a single killing yet.
"But I can say this," Bahar says. "I can say that men who were never involved in anything like this are now involved. They are now out on the street, and they are involved."
More are welcome to the second march on North Avenue next Friday. You can register at 300menmarch.com.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.