SUBSCRIBE

Lewis Museum installation gives graphic testament to toll of gun violence

They're just small, beige cardboard rectangles tied to a chain link fence, two of the most innocuous, everyday objects imaginable.

They almost look like price tags — and in a way, that's exactly what they are. In this case, though, the cost is a human life, as each toe tag bears the name of a victim of gun violence:

Kelvin Davis. Tyrone Wells. Pebo. Day Day. Malcolm Lassiter.

On a recent day, the sight was enough to tear open Kathleen Cooper's heart.

"Behind every toe tag, there is a broken parent, cousin or friend," Cooper, a youth mentor with the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, told a group of kids who attended a daylong summit on teen violence at the museum. For her, to name the victims of gun violence she knows would be to leave someone out.

"There have been so many," she said. "Behind every makeshift shrine there is someone who is grieving. I have seen the effects that guns have had on our generation. We live in a world that has become desensitized to needless violence."

But she added: "These names also give me strength. Even though I've lost people, we have to go on living our lives and dreaming our dreams. We owe that to the people who didn't make it."

The fence, which is on display at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture through Jan. 8, is backed by a wall the color of blood. A piece of yellow crime scene tape is draped over the links. The museum staff has placed in front of the fence the poignant tributes commonly found at scenes where people have been killed: teddy bears, white candles, bouquets of flowers, a heart-shaped stuffed pillow.

Baltimore ranks as one of America's most lethal cities. One in three people shot in Baltimore dies, a recent Baltimore Sun investigation into gun violence across the country found. That dubious distinction is shared by Washington and New Orleans.

Meanwhile, homicides have spiked. In Baltimore, more than 260 people have been killed so far this year, 85 percent by shooting. Last year, 344 people were killed, 300 by gunfire.

Part art installation and part roadside memorial, the fence accompanies the museum exhibit "Kin Killin' Kin." In the two weeks that it has been on view, it has elicited a visceral response from visitors who are invited to attach to the fence the names of their family members, friends and acquaintances who have been shooting victims.

Tay, a.k.a. "40." JoJo. Josh. Jolley. Marquis. Don the Bon.

Charles Bethea came up with the idea for the fence in 2013, when he was chief curator of Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History. The DuSable was about to host a "Kin Killin' Kin," a provocative touring art exhibit by Ohio-based artist James Pate. Bethea, who now has a similar job at the Lewis, later arranged for Pate's exhibit to come to Baltimore.

Pate tackles the crisis of urban homicides through a series of charcoal drawings that portray young African-American men committing violent acts. Instead of street clothes, Pate's subjects wear Ku Klux Klan-style robes. The artist has said his series was inspired by conversations in the community comparing the consequences of gang- and drug-related shootings to the devastation wrought by the Klan.

As he put it when the exhibit opened: "Through this work, I'm throwing a tantrum."

Bethea thought that inviting visitors to memorialize the victims of gun violence on toe tags would drive home the immense toll exacted on the local population. In Chicago, the fence wrapped around all four walls of the gallery.

"Initially, we bought two boxes of toe tags that each came in quantities of 500," Bethea said of the Chicago exhibit. "But during the course of the exhibition we began to run out. We had to buy a third box and then a fourth. By the time the exhibit closed, we could not see the fence for the toe tags that covered it."

The fence at the Lewis is smaller, roughly 4 feet high by 12 feet wide. Many of the metal links remain uncovered. But more toe tags go up every day.

Justis. Jamal Ross. Alonzo Gladden. Razor. Michael Bates.

In her 37 years, Kalicia Butler-Hutchins has crossed paths with so many victims of gun violence that she has lost count. But it was the shooting she witnessed as a girl in Philadelphia in 1988 that hit her the hardest.

"A bunch of us kids were playing in the street," she said. "Hopscotch, Double Dutch jump rope, a basketball game called 'King.' Before you know it, a drug dealer is running from cops and down the block. Before you know it, there is an exchange of bullets and a little girl is dead."

As an adult, Butler-Hutchins moved to St. Mary's County, hoping to shield her 13-year-old daughter, Ronnie Butler, from the emotional wounds that she herself had experienced.

But not long ago, Ronnie came home from school and found a family member in tears, saying that a 10-year-old relative had been shot and killed in Baltimore by street gang members.

So on Saturday, Ronnie added a toe tag to the fence, with a heart drawn in black marker next to his nickname:

Lil' Man.

The Lewis isn't content merely to depict victims of gun violence.

The museum staff is also trying to devise ways to combat it, such as a recent summit on teen violence. The daylong event brought about 120 teens from across the state to help them deal with gun-induced trauma and to brainstorm possible solutions. There were workshops on conflict resolution and on using art to vent feelings and advance social change.

"You have to express yourself," said 13-year-old Danielle Wade of Lexington Park in St. Mary's County, who attended the summit. "You have to use your voice to represent all the people killed by guns and violence. They should not have died. They should have lived longer."

As museum volunteer Martha Syed listened to one presentation to the teens, she couldn't help wondering if anything could have prevented the death of her sister's son.

"He stole from his drug dealer," she said. "He was shot seven times. When he died, it took from my sister almost all the strength she had left."

Syed isn't sure if she wants to add his toe tag to the wall. She'll have to think about it, but if she ever does, the tag will say:

My nephew.

During one session, moderator Ashley "Epiphany" Hodges of the Speak Life Tour asked the young participants how many of them know someone who has been shot. About half of the two dozen kids in the room raised their hands.

Hodges gestured to one of Pate's artworks depicting African-American men in white, pointed hoods aiming guns at each other's heads.

"They're hanging on the block and doing things that they think matter," she said. She paused for a moment, and then angrily flicked at one toe tag inscribed with one name.

"It all leads," Hodges said, "to hanging on a fence."

Travis Durant. Bell. Michael Keitt. Corey (a.k.a Bolo). Hes. Niambi Kumasi. Uriah Ware, age 17.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad