40 men, 35 miles, 20 hours and one goal: reducing homicides

'300 Men' march for 20 hours from Baltimore to DC

Striding backwards at the head of about 40 men and boys who had walked 29 miles from Baltimore and had more than a half-dozen to go under the scorching summer sun Monday morning, Munir Bahar focused his gaze on the line of five boys at the front.

They had linked their arms around each other's shoulders in an expression of solidarity to propel them forward through the pain.

Each was a member of Bahar's Youth COR, which is tapping young people to serve as community ambassadors in the wake of the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray in April and the unprecedented spate of homicides across the city since.

"I'm proud of y'all," Bahar, 34, shouted at the young men. "We're almost there!"

The boys walked on, one foot in front of the other, their normally youthful strides thrown off as they compensated for tender toes and aching calves.

Their journey from Baltimore to Washington was part of an effort by Bahar and his 300 Men March organization to shine a national spotlight on the group's anti-violence work at a time when the killing in Baltimore is spiraling out of control. The city has seen more than 200 homicides this year, with a spike in recent months that has pushed the count far ahead of last year's pace.

"We're just trying to show love," said Eric Baker, 19. "Love is action. It can actually have a huge impact."

The 300 Men March puts men who share an "enough is enough" mindset on the streets for regular walks through some of Baltimore's most violent neighborhoods.

As Bahar sees it, with the right resources, the model could be scaled up across the city.

Bahar intended the 35-mile march from Baltimore to Washington on Sunday and Monday to draw attention to the program and the "Emergency Operating Plan" he has created as a pitch to potential donors.

He said the resources in Baltimore — millions of dollars have been channeled to nonprofits since the looting, rioting and arson in April — often come slowly, after donors dawdle over details or waste time scheduling meetings or dinners to discuss contributions.

"As long as we have bodies dropping, young people killing each other, we've got to do more," he said on U.S. 1 in College Park. "We ain't volunteering our way out of the homicide rate. It's gonna take an army."

The group left Baltimore about 6:45 p.m. Sunday. They marched through the night with few breaks — and none that took them off U.S. 1, the group's winding nighttime path. The way was made safe for men dressed mostly in black by a procession of county and local police escorts.

The marchers, almost all of whom made it to the end, didn't arrive at their ultimate destination, the National Mall just south of the Capitol, until 2 p.m. Monday.

The finishers described the nearly 20-hour march as both grueling and gratifying. It was also a showcase of the tiered leadership style that Bahar and one of his biggest supporters, City Councilman Brandon Scott, said makes the 300 Men March model dynamic enough to put a real dent in Baltimore's homicide epidemic — by pulling troubled or vulnerable kids from under the influence of the streets before they become victims or offenders.

"Use this walk as a tool for yourself," Bahar told the group during an early stop in Elkridge. "If you take this walk and you don't change in some type of way, you have missed 70 percent of this."

That 70 percent was about each marcher finding "the personal power to be more impactful in your community," he said. "All of us have the capacity to be the leader that we need to be in our community."

The other 30 percent, he said, was making a statement. Doing both, he said, would require focus through the journey.

"This ain't a homeboy session, this ain't a rap session or anything else," he said. "We should be talking about getting this murder rate down."

There was some of that discussion, but also many other conversations to break up the silence during middle-of-the-night marching, when the white line of the highway shoulder and the trance-inducing flashing lights of the police escorts grew monotonous.

The boys and men chatted as they do when together in a city where boys often lack advice from their own fathers, leaders said. They talked about why people who act tough on social media are really "weak," as Bahar put it. And about how "silly" it is — Scott's word — to pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of basketball shoes.

In Laurel, marchers rested their feet on a grassy hill across from a 7-Eleven. Kalev Tshamba, 65, said those sorts of interactions are what make the 300 Men March so important.

Young boys "need to be around men," he said. "They need to see men. It takes a man to make a man."

Tshamba, a Vietnam veteran who used a cane but walked much of the 35 miles with a purposeful stride, grew up in Baltimore and lives on North Avenue, just blocks from where the worst of the April rioting unfolded.

He said young men in the city are too quick to pull out a gun. In his day, he said, there was a code to fighting.

"I'm old-school. After boxers fight, they shake hands," Tshamba said. Young kids today, he said, "think if you fight, you gotta kill somebody."

Baker, a theology student at Loyola University Maryland, said he was drawn to the group because of the mentoring and the stress on accountability in the community, not just pointing fingers.

This was particularly true, he said, after the death of Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody.

Gray's death inspired protests against police brutality. On the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots. Baker felt an important message was being lost.

"In my heart, I couldn't just go out and protest against police without saying anything about the bigger problem: us killing each other on the regular in my city," he said.

As the marchers neared the Capitol on Monday afternoon, many were exhausted. But as they arrived on the mall, a drum band was playing and mothers, wives, and girlfriends stood waiting with signs.

Despite having limped much of the last part of the march, some of the members of the group ran forward, and some started dancing.

The march garnered substantial attention on social media, and news reporters arrived in search of a story that had been playing out for hours and miles between Baltimore and Washington.

Bahar was ready, saying his group doesn't blame anyone for Baltimore's woes but is calling for more accountability, that people should put their money where their mouths are, and that "today is the day we declare ourselves the enemy of the culture of gun violence."

After the gathering, Bahar, Scott and others met with officials from My Brother's Keeper, the initiative launched by President Barack Obama to "address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential."

"It was good," Scott said afterward. "They appreciate what we're doing, and they're going to try to help us highlight what we're doing."

The teens at the heart of the march, including the ones who'd locked arms during that tough moment toward the end, said they are living testaments to the good 300 Men March can do.

"It helps the youth like myself to actually stay off the streets and not get in trouble and bring positive stuff back into the community," said Joe Dziecichowicz, 16.

"It's teaching us leadership, how to be men, how to spread the message of nonviolence and be successful," said Cam'Ron Murel, 16.

"We got to lead by example, and we got to be the change that we want to see," said Terrance Taylor, 17. "It just reflected how you can fix your mind mentally to do something you thought you couldn't do."

krector@baltsun.com

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