A State of Emergency: We Can End the Violence
On May 30, 2020, Ala’junaye Davis, sixteen year African American honor student, was shot and killed in the early morning on the 2100 block of Wilkens Avenue. Forty minutes later, Stephen Pendergarst, a 31 year old African American man, was killed. I was saddened and enraged to read yet another story about young people being killed in our city. Ala’junaye reminded me of my own daughter.
While life gradually returns to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic, Baltimore is still plagued by a homicide epidemic. For the past five years, over 300 people have been shot and killed in Baltimore each year. Last year was the second deadliest year on record. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying stay-at-home orders and closure of businesses, Baltimore's homicide rate is outpacing last year’s homicide rate. So far, as noted in the Baltimore Sun, 135 people were killed in Baltimore this year. At this same time last year, 128 were killed. The violence continues to loom over the city like a dark cloud. Clearly, the political establishment has failed us. The education system has failed us. By turning a blind eye and clinging to the stop snitching code, we have failed ourselves.
Sadly, many of us have become desensitized to violence. Thousands of people are not marching on City Hall demanding an end to the violence. Instead of voting for change, we vote for the same recycled politicians expecting new results. There is no overwhelming sense of urgency. We have come to accept the violence as normal. Many believe that the violence is a permanent fixture in Baltimore’s landscape. For them, the thought of ending the violence is viewed as an unattainable fantasy or dream. However, many of us refuse to accept this violence as normal. We must treat this crisis as a state of emergency.
There are sincere community groups that are trying to stop the violence. However, with all due respect, we need far more than vigils, social media posts, signs and sage. We must intervene before our young people get trapped into a life of crime and violence. We must wage a war on poverty with the same intensity as the War of Drugs. Aside from tough-on-crime policies targeting and locking about repeat violent criminals who terrorize our community, we need to enact effective comprehensive legislation that will finally address the root causes of the problem. Some of those causes are poverty, inadequate education, youth unemployment, drugs, and absence of positive role models and the lack of opportunity.
Modeled after a program that substantially reduced the violence in Oakland, California, the legislation would do four things. First, the legislation should identify at-risk youth that likely to become victims of violence or perpetrators of violence. Second, the legislation should establish lines of communication with those at-risk youth. Third, the legislation should provide at-risk youth with the lifesaving services that they need to survive such as trauma counseling, mentor programs, college preparation programs, college scholarships, vocation programs, and jobs. We can increase youth employment by expanding Youth Works into a year around program. Under the legislation, at-risk youth would connected with existing programs. Where necessary, the legislation would create new programs or expand existing programs as well. When our young people have quality education, employment and opportunities to thrive and prosper, they are less likely to be engaged in criminal activity.
Finally, the legislation should call for increased funding to effective anti-violence groups. For instance, community groups were able to reduce the violence in Cherry Hill down to virtually zero murders last year. They were able to reduce the violence by intervening and diffusing conflict in the neighborhood. If such programs had more funding, we would be able to see a substantial reduction in the violence. Similar to what Newark Mayor Ras Baraka did, our next mayor, in conjunction with African American Men Engagement, the Nation of Islam and credible grassroots community groups, should organize a peace summit with rival gangs and groups to end the violence. If nations at war can negotiate peace, surely local gangs can as well. If we have the will, we can end the violence in our city.