As hundreds of men marching against violence Friday night along Baltimore's North Avenue passed Gina Williams' vehicle, she applauded.
"I'm glad to see some black men stand up for their community," said Williams, 59.
Last year amid a surge in violence in Baltimore, a group of men hatched an idea in a barbershop: Get 300 men to walk the streets in a demonstration not only against violence but the apathy that allows it to persist. They met and far exceeded their goal, attracting more than 600 men who trudged the length of North Avenue, from the west side through midtown to the east side and back.
The challenge, lead organizer Munir Bahar told participants at the time, was to keep their activism going. Organizers said they expected to build on their grass-roots success and had signed up several hundred to march again.
But this year's 300 Men March was held amid different circumstances: Instead of a spike in violence, police are reporting a substantial drop in shootings. Homicides are at one of the lowest levels of the past three decades, with 104 killed. A smaller crowd marched Friday, a number that may not have surpassed the event's title.
Still, organizers including Juan Nance, a 37-year-old schoolteacher, are sure their activism is making an impact in Baltimore. Nance said he'll remain committed.
"We're a town where people do a lot of talking, and very few do a lot of walking," he said. "The ones we do have [participating], they're the ones that are supposed to be here."
Father and son Randy and Travis Reynolds were among the participants. They live in East Baltimore and say violence remains too regular an occurrence.
"For me, it's about stepping out on faith and not being afraid of the violence," said Travis, 28. "For a lot of people, violence is a trend. This is about standing up and being different."
Omar Sharif, 40, of Northeast Baltimore saw last year's event on the news and vowed to take part if it was held again. "A lot of people wonder, 'What can I do' " about violence, Sharif said, wearing a ball cap and a 300 Men March T-shirt.
For all its fury, last summer's rash of violence paled in comparison to the carnage of past decades that saw hundreds more shootings. But Sharif said the level of violence is "still way higher than it should be. Our kids are still dying."
Philip J. Leaf, director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins University, said the city's crime rates remain high, particularly in comparison to other cities. This year's dip still has the city on track for nearly 200 killings. And the abandonment and neglect that took root in the inner city amid the sky-high crime still leave a mark.
"The shootings are only one part of the problem when people have been living in neighborhoods where social cohesion and support have been devastated," Leaf said. "That's taken a real toll on people, and there hasn't been a recovery period."
Still, the declines in violent crime rates offer hope, and the possibility that getting involved can make an impact.
"For a long time, the rates were very high, and I think people just thought there was nothing they could do. 'If those who are in charge of these things don't seem to be having an impact, what can I do?' " Leaf said.
"Now people are thinking, because there has been progress, 'How can we make more progress?'"
Zachary Gaines, 39, who brought four of his children — Xavier, 15; Isaiah, 10; Dyeon, 10; and Zachary IV, 8 — to the march, said he can see the difference the reduction in violence has brought.
"Our area has changed tremendously from when I was growing up. The violence has stopped, or at least slowed down. It's livable," he said.
Councilman Nick Mosby started organizing rallies in West Baltimore called "Enough is Enough" last year after a spate of deadly violence there. He had only planned to hold seven such rallies — to correspond to the seventh councilmanic district, which he represents — but the number of participants grew.
"We said, 'We can't stop this, we have to keep this going,' " Mosby said.
Mosby said the reductions in violence this year are nothing for the city to brag about. "We still need to come together and figure out how we can reduce it as much as possible," Mosby said.
Before the march began, Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell and Councilman Brandon Scott told the crowd that they can't look to anyone but themselves to solve the community's problems. Scott urged attendees to cut off people who aren't working to make a change, calling it "tough love."
Russell said lending a hand to wayward youth can make a difference in their lives. "They're all looking for love, but they're getting it in the wrong places," Russell said.
"It's your engaged presence, not just the police, that will turn this city around," he said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who noted that her 20-year-old cousin Joseph Haskins was gunned down last year in a home invasion robbery, denounced those city residents who merely complain on social media or comment boards.
"This is activism," she said, "what you're doing today."
"I'm so proud that each and every one of you is out here … for your family, your community. It's the only way Baltimore is going to change."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun