Mayor Catherine Pugh looked out into the sea of people that filled the Baltimore War Memorial Building Thursday night. The crowd held up signs emblazoned with inspirational words — “blessings,” “wholeness,” “resolve” — as Pugh rattled off the phrases, each one representing a sentiment she hopes Baltimore takes into the new year.
Pugh was joined on stage by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and other city officials for a prayer vigil honoring the lives lost to violence in Baltimore this year. Staring up at them from the front rows were the families of young men killed in the city’s streets during a deadly 2017.
“We will change the future of Baltimore,” Pugh told the packed hall. “This will become the safest city in America.”
Baltimore has suffered 343 homicides in 2017, setting a record for killings per capita with three days left in the year.
The dead include a Morgan State University sophomore who was shot after police say he inadvertently walked into a robbery, a 97-year-old man, nicknamed “Pop-Pop” who was found unresponsive in the East Baltimore home where he lived for six decades, and the stepson of a prominent local defense attorney, described as a “big teddy bear,” who was killed outside a gas station.
A Baltimore police homicide detective was killed while investigating a previous West Baltimore shooting. A volunteer firefighter who was preparing to join the Baltimore Fire Department was shot in his Upper Fells Point home.
They were joined in 2017 by hundreds of other parents, siblings and children on the grim list of Baltimore’s dead.
The homicide rate for 2017 is 55.8 killings per 100,000 people, creeping past the previous record of 55.35 per 100,000 in 2015. The city saw 344 homicides two years ago, but it was home to thousands more people.
Before 2015, the city hadn’t seen more than 300 homicides since the 1990s, when Baltimore had 100,000 more residents.
“This is not just a statistic,” said Pastor Jamal H. Bryant, of the Empowerment Temple AME Church. “These are real families, real fathers, real sons.”
In the front row of the vigil sat Gregory Riddick Sr. His son and namesake was killed in Northeast Baltimore last year, at 26 years old. Riddick carried a small urn with his son’s ashes as he prayed for a better Baltimore in the upcoming year.
“It’s important for us to gather and keep their memories alive,” said Riddick, 56. “It’s sad we’re all here because our family members are deceased. But we’re unifying to create something better.”
Monique Taylor also came to the vigil to honor her son. Elijah Stratton was always a “mama’s baby,” Taylor said, even at 33 years old. He never wanted to leave home — he always tried to make sure Taylor was taken care of and safe. The father of five celebrated Fourth of July this summer with a cook-out at Taylor’s home.
The next morning, Taylor got the call that her son was dead.
She visits the cemetery at least three times a month. She keeps a photo of Stratton’s bloodied body on her phone, a reminder of her pain. Taylor says she won’t delete it until the people who killed her son are locked up.
“It’s a lot to deal with, knowing no one has been brought to justice,” said Taylor, 56.
Bishop Angel L. Núñez of Baltimore’s Bilingual Christian Church said a prayer for the families. Alternating between Spanish and English, Núñez said “tonight our hearts are broken. We are a hurting people because of the violence that covers our beautiful city.”
But he prayed that the new year will bring peace and action from residents across the city, joined in an effort to stem the bloodshed.
“We will not be silent anymore,” he preached. “In this city, every life matters.”
Damian McNeil, 40, works with Safe Streets, an organization that recruits streetwise mediators to prevent violence in troubled neighborhoods. He said he supports Pugh and other city officials as they work to quell the violence.
“Instead of just seeing the number and the problem, we need to find solutions,” he said.
McNeil carried a sign that said “determination” on it. He said it was the perfect word to sum up his work with Safe Streets.
“We’re determined to reduce the shootings and the homicides in Baltimore,” McNeil said. “In 2018, we’re going to bring this number down. We’re not going to see 343 next year. It’s going to go down.”
Some at the vigil said they were disappointed Pugh or other officials didn’t recite the names of those slain this year. Near the end, some people took on that responsibility themselves, Victory Swift among them. Her son — 19-year-old Victorious Swift, a much beloved Baltimore Design School student — was killed in March.
As the vigil came to a close, Swift stood up and screamed out her son’s name, joining a chorus of other mourning families in remembrance.
“I had to,” she said. “We cannot forget them.”