An unusual thing happened as a series of shootings rocked Baltimore: People took notice, got organized and hit the streets to show their outrage.
In a city where the toll of violence is seldom met with palpable anger, a recent stretch that saw more than 40 shot and 16 killed touched off a series of anti-violence demonstrations that continued into Monday. Those behind the events included ministers and politicians, but also young professionals, fraternity members, a party promoter and longtime residents who are simply fed up.
"This tremendous stretch of crime has captured everyone's minds and has been an igniter to wake people up," said Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, a 34-year veteran who oversees the Police Department's community partnership division. "You get a huge swelling of people coming to the table. It will fall off, but you will have a stronger nucleus than it was before."
There are scores of community groups and activists who are regularly working to improve Baltimore, and many of those involved in the recent efforts say it is not their first time speaking out. But the recent violence has propelled activism to a level that has surprised even the most active advocates, who now wonder how the community can channel and maintain the energy.
On Monday, a group of ministers promised to take on a bigger role in violence prevention and activists held a peace rally and barbecue in East Baltimore. Recent days have seen a citywide prayer tour and calls for a 24-hour Baltimore "cease fire."
The most visible example of the increased passion came Friday night, when organizers said 600 men walked the length of North Avenue and back — about 10 miles — to protest violence. Among those who attended was 66-year-old Cornell Rigby of Northwest Baltimore, who said he came to the event after hearing about it on the radio.
"If we don't demonstrate, it's like saying [the gun violence] is OK, that society is accepting of it," said Rigby, who led call-and-response chants during the march. "We're redeeming ourselves, because we've been quiet too long."
Those involved in the efforts say many people don't pay attention to crime until an incident hits close to home. Others might want to get involved but have trouble figuring out how.
"It's just so challenging to figure out what to do," said the Rev. Scott Slater, of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, at a ceremony Monday in East Baltimore to dedicate a peace mural.
The Rev. Willie Ray has been trying to galvanize residents for decades, including an annual event that sought to get people to link hands along the length of North Avenue — but which sometimes drew only a handful of participants.
"It's a slow process, and you have to go with the flow," Ray said. "You find a few people that's going in your direction, and you roll with it."
At the corner of Broadway and North Avenue, where Marques Dent sold snow cones for three summers as a child, the former Air Force captain threw a peace rally on Monday afternoon complete with a DJ, grilled hot dogs and drinks.
"Baltimore's small," said Dent, who grew up in the area and started an IT job-training nonprofit when he got out of the Air Force in January. "It might not be my cousin, but it might be the cousin of someone I know. I have several friends who have been affected. They say, 'I'm tired of going to funerals.'"
Dent said the violence has shaken Baltimore because it seems to be on the uptick, with few answers as to why.
"People are upset — they're upset with our law enforcement, they're upset with our legislature, they're upset with our community leaders," he said. "People can't be dropping like flies just because it's hot outside."
Akintola Marke, who stopped by the rally at Broadway and North Avenue in front of the new Apples and Oranges grocery store, said he felt people still weren't paying enough attention.
"We're talking about people being murdered, but what are we doing to prevent it?" said Marke, 24, a recent Towson University graduate from the Atlanta suburbs. He said his interest in mentoring at-risk youth has grown with the "alarming rate" of shootings.
"It starts with us being the change that we want to see," he said.
Munir Bahar, a 32-year-old who owns a fitness facility on Washington Boulevard, has been inundated with phone calls and messages since Friday's North Avenue march drew a larger-than-expected turnout, including a guest appearance by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The event came together in about a week and exceeded the goal set in its title: the 300 Men March.
"A lot of people are asking 'What's next?' and I say, 'Ask yourself what's next,'" Bahar said. "I've been in the trenches a while — the problem is getting other men to get in and get in the trenches too."
Bahar's event was promoted entirely through word of mouth and social media. Among those who helped get the word out was Keenan Richardson, a 22-year-old Morgan State University student whose "Mr. Baltimore" Twitter account is typically full of posts promoting the hottest area parties. He found out about the march from a friend and decided to push it as a public service.
"I felt as though, if I'm getting large sums of people to come out to different [nightlife] events, why not get them to support something that's easily way more important," Richardson said. "This was about men standing up to fight, not in the literal way, but fight the odds, [to say] that all men don't kill, all men don't take out their anger with a gun."
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts joined Rawlings-Blake in sending off the marchers. Since taking over the department, Batts created a division to forge stronger partnerships with churches and the community, led by Russell, a minister who for years led the department's Eastern District.
A key to Batts' tenures as police chief in the California cities of Long Beach and Oakland was support of clergy, and on Monday in West Baltimore, members of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity held a news conference where they cheered his efforts but said more must be done.
John Lunn Sr., the group's president, said churches would renew their efforts to connect with residents.
"No longer are we just going to walk with police officers, but walk our blocks and talk to our people ourselves," Lunn said.
At Collington Square Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore, the Episcopal Community Services of Maryland unveiled a peace mural that had been in the works since the organization obtained a grant for a project with a "pay it forward" theme. But violence was a recurring topic as they talked to community members about what it should depict.
The end result was a mural showing a group of individuals holding hands and working together.
"It does take on extra meaning," said acting executive director Nancy Fenton, referring to the recent violence.
City Councilman Carl Stokes attended the event and said groups such as the nonprofit have been consistent in fighting violence through the services they offer.
What he's seen more of in recent weeks, he said, are people who typically are not engaged with the community stepping forward to express outrage that more isn't being done. He said he hopes they connect with the groups already working on addressing the violence and its root causes.
Richard Parker, 35, of Southwest Baltimore is among those looking to become more involved. He started a campaign last month called "My Corner. My Street" and hopes to get residents out of their houses every Friday in August, whether for prayer, cookouts or games of chess. He said he has reached out to Bahar, the march organizer, and others.
"Any people who are doing anything, I'm grateful to be a part of it," Parker said. "Too many people have formed organizations that become more about the organization than the movement. We have to join together."
Baltimore Sun reporters Justin George and Carrie Wells contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun