On Tuesday, Baltimore reached a grim milestone: The city recorded its 200th homicide of 2015, far outpacing the 214 killings in all of 2014. Of this year’s homicides, 177 were committed with a firearm.
Police attribute the rise in gun violence this year to the chaos that has engulfed the city following the riots and demonstrations over the death of Freddie Gray, who died in April due to injuries sustained in the back of a police van. For two weeks, demonstrators took to the streets to vent their anger over the death of the 25-year-old, and the National Guard was called in. The following month was, at the time, the city’s deadliest since the early 1970s, with 43 homicides. (That total was eclipsed just two months later, as the city saw 45 killings in July.) “The criminal element is taking advantage of the crisis,” Lt. Gene Ryan, president of Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, said.
But Baltimore has long been marked by gun violence: There have been an average of 184 gun murders per year in the city since 2007. Most of the shootings are concentrated in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. For example, the geographical region known as the Western District — which is beset by high rates of foreclosures and drug use — accounts for a quarter of the city’s gun violence, according to police figures. In Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore community where Gray was arrested, more than 50 percent of residents are unemployed, the Justice Policy Institute reports, and the median household income is $24,006 — or about half the national average, according to census figures.
As part of a weekly series, The Trace shares the stories of Americans living in the midst of the nation’s urban gun violence epidemic.
The ex-convict battling decades of urban neglect
Warren Savage, 56, was a member of a Baltimore street gang and served 15 years in prison. He now owns an upholstery business and serves as an assistant pastor at Simmons Memorial Baptist Church.
I was born and raised in the projects in the Westport area of Baltimore. I come from dysfunction. I was born to a mother of six children with four or five different fathers — we never knew who our real father was. The way we saw the world was reinforced by the ideas of the adults around us, who were involved in antisocial behavior. So when people say, “Those children don’t have any home training,” well, the only point of reference we had in terms of our civility and morality was the adults. What do you do when your daddy says it’s alright to murder a man? What do you do when your mother tells you to go out and sell drugs?
My own cousin shot me and left me for dead over money involving a bad drug deal. He conspired against me for a dollar. He died a violent death, like they all do. I’ve lost 50 people in a 30-year period to gun violence.
Most men like myself grew up in this kind of cultural incubator of self-destruction. So now we see a generation of no rules, that places no value on life, who don’t mind dying, who walk around with keepsakes of their predecessors and friends that say, “I’ll mourn you ‘till I join you.”
You never know something is wrong until you step outside your circle and someone tells you it’s wrong. You also have the glorification of not only gang violence, but what they call street credibility: the insanity of being able to brag about the fact that you’ve been shot, the fact that you’ve gone to state and federal prison — it’s almost like a badge of honor. It’s amazing how the culture has been reduced to antisocial behavior and then applauded. It’s like that song: “You’re nobody until somebody shoots you.”
Drugs play a large part of the systemic violence that we’ve been seeing. Also, the black community does not address mental illness as a health problem. So you have kids who walk around with psychological issues, and these are the men who have their hands on a gun.
Kids in Baltimore today have nowhere to be children. When I was coming up, we had recreation centers and summer camp. We had the ability to redirect that youthful energy. In the last 20 years, they have spent that money on gentrification. Well, that progression came with a price. Now everybody’s scrambling to try to remedy a problem they have neglected. Every corner in the city is occupied by young men and women who have nowhere else to go.
Baltimore is broken down into the haves and the have nots. Freddie exposed the impotence of all of the institutions in the city and laid bare their neglect of this segment of a population that’s been hurting for a very long time. Freddie Gray himself, unfortunately, was just a recent victim of police violence and brutality that has gone unreported, and it was the match that lit this kind of powder keg.
The academic with more questions than answers
Baltimore was one of the cities hit the hardest by the crack epidemic in the early 1990s. Martin O’Malley was the mayor, and the homicide rate plunged. But now we’re back up to the same rate. And I don’t know why.
The idea that we can regulate guns piecemeal — city by city and state by state — that’s a hard road. As long as we’re surrounded by jurisdictions that have lax gun laws, guns will flood Baltimore. It’s absurd that the gun-rights people say “Look at the murder rate in cities. Obviously gun control doesn’t work.” But, c’mon, we’re surrounded by states with loose gun laws. How are we supposed to fight that?
We had riots after the death of Freddie Gray. The rioting was two blocks from where I worked, and there were no guns involved. I didn’t hear any gunshots. The major media outlets did the city a disservice when it depicted the riots as violent. I know that the more dramatic photos sell. But plenty of my art students drove right into the riots and took photographs, and they had no problem.
Since the riots, we’ve read about the police backing off because they’re worried that they will get in trouble for aggressive policing. But I don’t think it can all be chalked up to police reticence. After the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the murder rate in New York City didn’t explode.
This spike in gun violence is now seen in cities across the country: New Orleans, Milwaukee, Houston, and of course, Chicago. But not all of them have the police and race issues we have in Baltimore. The logical explanation is that drug gangs are fighting over turf. Ninety percent of the murder victims and murderers in Baltimore reportedly have criminal records, which means they’re already wrapped up in the drug trade. But again, nobody really knows for sure.
Baltimore is two cities: white Baltimore and black Baltimore. If you’re white, it hasn’t changed. If you’re black, that is where the surge in violence is happening. Baltimore has always been like that. A white Johns Hopkins medical student was killed several years ago and it made the front page. Of course, when poor black people in Baltimore are killed, it doesn’t make the front page.
The religious leader scared about what comes next
Bishop Wolfgang Herz-Lane, 61, oversees 175 Evangelical Lutheran churches in Delaware and Maryland from his office in downtown Baltimore.
What’s going on in Baltimore now is very disturbing: 200 homicides in just eight months. Just two years ago, we celebrated the fact that we had fallen below 200 for the whole year. Then last year it was 211. It’s scary to think about what it will be at the end of the year if this pace continues.
I’m convinced some of the underlying causes of this have to do with urban poverty and the political disengagement of the community in our urban areas. Also the school system, unemployment rate, and incarceration rate of people of color. And the proliferation of guns in people’s hands.
I live in the northeast of Baltimore, which is an integrated, middle-class neighborhood. My office is in the business district downtown. The core of the city seems really healthy, but on the periphery, that’s where the poor neighborhoods are. When I drive through those neighborhoods every day on the way to work, I see boarded-up houses, people hanging around the corners, lots of trash in the street.
One of the urban myths is that people who live in poor neighborhoods are weird and strange and will kill you. I know that’s not true. Ninety-nine percent of them work harder than you and I do to make ends meet. They fear the police, because their experience with the police is not what yours or mine is.
That disconnection between the police and the community helps fuel gun violence. The gangs take the place of community policing, and become the force that regulates the neighborhood. It becomes a social construct for the kids that are in it, because they don’t get the feeling of belonging, and they don’t get love in some other places, so they end up in a gang where they are at least respected. Of course, they don’t get that respect in a gang, but they think they will.
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