Growing up in Park Heights during the crack-ridden 1990s, Brandon Scott used to wash cars at his uncle's shop, where some of the customers were drug dealers — and unlikely sources of advice for the high school track star who would grow up to become a city councilman.
"I had one guy tell me as I was going off to St. Mary's [College], 'If I had a chance to do it again, I would have taken that football scholarship. Forget about this money,'" he remembers.
The following year, the man was shot dead.
There is ruefulness in Scott's voice as he relates the story, but also a certain clear-eyed lack of sentiment, the kind of platitude you tend to hear when politicians talk about crime.
"I felt sad, but it would be a different sadness than if someone called me up and told me a 5-year-old in the neighborhood got shot," Scott said. "When you grow up where I grew up, when I grew up, how I grew up, you understand that when you're in a certain line of work, there are hazards to the job."
Even at 29, the youngest on the City Council, Scott has outlived that man, and countless others he knew growing up.
The recent rash of shootings and homicides that has gotten Baltimore's summer off to a bloody start has city officials scrambling to respond, both to quell the violence and to speak to and for a city with seemingly just two modes when it comes to crime: apathy and alarm.
Scott's perspective comes from a personal place.
"I hadn't had the feeling in my gut, of the violence like when I was a child, until the last couple weeks," he said. "We have to get ahold of it now."
As a kid in Park Heights, among the most violent areas of the city during the '80s and '90s crack epidemic, Scott remembers a time when someone was casually shot in front of him, payback for a fight the day before in which the gunman had been "pile-driven" into the pavement.
But he also knows that not everyone in the neighborhood was a drug dealer, or shooting up the streets. He has friends who grew up to become firefighters and police officers, lawyers and schoolteachers.
At least in his case, the difference was family and community. His parents, still married to this day, his extended family and his neighbors all kept close watch. Both his parents coached Little League. There always seemed to be a friend staying at his or his cousins' houses, such as a friend whose mother had sold his video game set to get money for drugs.
"That was the difference," Scott said, "the family structure.
"These young men who didn't have fathers in their lives, who didn't have positive role models in their lives, who didn't have someone to teach them what it really means to be a man, that's why we have so much of this going on."
Scott has lived for about five years in Northeast Baltimore, an area he became familiar with when, as a high school student at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, he and his track and cross country teammates ran through its neighborhoods.
He considers himself lucky that an injury denied him the athletic scholarship he was anticipating, and he went instead to the small liberal arts college in Southern Maryland, where he majored in political science. After graduation, he came home and eventually took a job as a community representative for then-City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and, in 2011, was elected to represent the 2nd District.
The wave of violence that swept through the city recently landed nearly on his doorstep last Sunday, when three men were reportedly shot in Scott's Frankford neighborhood. (Police would later discover that the crime had occurred elsewhere.)
Nonetheless, Scott was distraught. A big sports fan, he had just been crowing on his Twitter account about the Orioles' sweep of the Yankees, and a clinic that O's stars Adam Jones, Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy had given in the neighborhood, when he learned of the shootings.
"A neighborhood that was full of happy kids at orioles clinic is now full of neighbors with anxiety after shooting," he tweeted. "We must do better."
Scott said that even before the most recent spate of violence, he's driven and walked around town with the still-new police commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, sharing some local wisdom. Still, he says, this isn't something that can be fixed from his office, or Batts', for that matter.
"This is not just a police or government or City Hall problem," he said. "It's a family and a community problem."
Scott supported a friend who organized a men's march against violence Friday night.
"We have to step up and hold ourselves to a higher level of accountability," he said. "I want us to be accountable to us first, before anyone else."
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