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Rodricks: In Belair-Edison, the big man keeps fighting

Residents like Tony Dawson are vital to city's crime-fighting strategy

Dan Rodricks

4:02 PM EDT, September 22, 2012

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Around sunset Thursday, the big man — taller, broader, bolder and more passionate than anyone around him — called out from the middle of the crowd at the edge of Herring Run Park, and in that moment he stole the show from the politicians who had turned out for a "solidarity walk" through Belair-Edison.

"We cannot zip our lips, pull down our blinds and close our doors," the big man said, his double-barrel voice booming over the traffic behind him on Belair Road. "Crime will come to you if you keep your lips zipped, your doors closed and your blinds pulled."

This was Tony Dawson, ladies and gentlemen, something of a legend in Northeast Baltimore, a human pillar, a community strong-man, someone you'd be glad to have on your side in a fight. Someone you'd be glad to have as mayor.

The blue T-shirt over his big shoulders bore the logo of the Belair-Edison Community Association. Dawson, 54, had been the association's president for five years, but he evidently did not retire from civic activism. Here he was, imploring the people around him — black, white, middle-aged, and older and younger — to get busy with keeping their neighborhood safe. Sign up for the "good neighbor walk," he asked them, holding up postcards with information about the Belair-Edison crime watch.

"We are all in this together," Dawson said. "If we don't claim this community, the elements we don't want to claim this community will."

Maybe you've heard this sort of stuff before. I certainly have, especially after high-profile crimes. But there was something about Dawson — his stature, his strong voice — that made him stand out. He wasn't looking to steal anyone's thunder. He was looking for volunteers.

So, if you were sickened by the news from Northeast Baltimore — the heartbreaking death of Peter Marvit, a 51-year-old research scientist shot in front of his home as he returned from choral practice Monday night — or if you found yourself feeling jaded and no longer capable of outrage after so many years of senseless violence in the city, Dawson's moment would have made you feel better about the city.

He's not giving up the fight for Belair-Edison.

Dawson had just joined the mayor, other local politicians, police officers and more than 100 citizens in a "solidarity walk" through the neighborhood where Marvit had been shot. The shooting occurred on Chesterfield Avenue, which runs along Herring Run Park. Belair-Edison has seen plenty of violence, and just a couple of years ago the Northeastern police district tied for second, behind the long-violent Eastern, in homicides.

But Chesterfield Avenue, many on Thursday night's walk said, had not seen anything like the Marvit killing. Deadly violence usually does not occur "this far up," they said, meaning, not as far north on Belair Road as Chesterfield.

Crime in this sprawling city is sometimes measured in inches on a map — a block here, a block there making all the difference. It's Baltimore at the margins, the borders between stable and unstable, where the "cancer of crime" — Dawson's phrase — spreads and infests communities of working-class families, black and white.

Baltimoreans live with the understanding, and the fear, that someone with a gun — in the Marvit case, reportedly a teenager — might show up on the sidewalk one night. The police can't be everywhere, which is why Baltimoreans are asked to do more, to be vigilant, to make the phone call.

"I got involved to show people who look like me that it's OK to get involved and do this stuff," said Dawson, a retired correctional officer. "I did this to show people who look like me that it's cool to get involved and do this stuff."

Would it have prevented Marvit's death on Chesterfield Avenue? There's no way to know. There are still too many young men with guns in the city; there's still too much drug abuse, too much poverty, too many desperate people at the margins.

But where would the city be without the likes of Dawson and all those other people — black, white, middle-aged, and older and younger — who walked along Chesterfield Avenue Thursday night?

Those of us with the long memories of violence in Baltimore remember when there were far more homicides and shootings than there are today. The city has made decent progress, particularly under the command of the Baltimore-born-and-raised police commissioner who just retired, Fred Bealefeld. His replacement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's most important appointment, arrives from California next week.

Maybe Anthony Batts will pick right up where Bealefeld left off. He'd be smart to embrace the strategies that worked under Bealefeld. He'd be smart to take a walk around the block with Tony Dawson, too.