Standing up for a cause: Baltimore hopes for a 72-hour ceasefire

Devrone McKnight was driving home from Maryland Shock Trauma on Friday afternoon when he spotted three dozen people on Edmondson Avenue rallying to support a 72-hour ceasefire to violence in Baltimore.

The 23-year-old McKnight said he felt compelled to join the demonstration, given that he had a bullet still lodged in his neck after he was shot Thursday about 10 blocks south of the ceasefire event.

“Somebody pulled up and shot me on my way to work,” said McKnight, still dressed in green hospital scrubs, socks and slippers. “People need to put the guns down and stand up for a cause. It’s crazy.”

His shooting in the 300 block of N. Monastery Ave. — while on his way to his job, which happens to be at Shock Trauma — came just three hours before the ceasefire officially began at midnight early Friday. But his impromptu appearance at the event was a stark reminder of how hard it can be to stem a record pace of shootings and killings in Baltimore.

A free-hug event is scheduled to start Saturday’s activities in Druid Hill Park, site of another near-fatal shooting Thursday night. There are more than 30 events planned citywide over the weekend to generate grass-roots pressure to halt the violence that has resulted in a record 204 homicides in the city through the end of July.

One of those shootings took the life of Christopher Hockaday, the 22-year-old cousin of Shanika Lewis and her 8-year-old son, Shamar Houston. The mother and son stood side by side at the Friday rush-hour rally to speak for Hockaday, who was killed just a mile south on July 14.

“I hope everyone comes out together and puts the guns down to end the violence,” said Shamar, who held a sign nearly as big as him.

Lewis said she worried that children were becoming immune to the violence.

“This city is really hurting,” Lewis said. “At my cousin’s funeral, two young boys went up to the casket like it was nothing. Are we becoming that desensitized to it?”

Ryan Turner, executive director of the AKOBEN Foundation, grew up in Edmondson Village and started his charity in the neighborhood to help children attain grade-level literacy by third grade. He worries that the violence is becoming normal for the children his group helps.

“I don’t want them to grow up in a city where killings and shootings are normal for them,” Turner said.

A 6-year-old student in his program told him he was at a cookout when a shooting erupted. “I asked him, ‘Were you there?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, we just went to the side of the building.’ That shouldn’t be normal.”

Community activist Erricka Bridgeford, who has led the ceasefire effort, said stopping the violence is just the first step.

“We have to look at the root causes or else we’re going to be doing this generation after generation,” said Bridgeford, whose brother was killed in 2007.

She said statistics show that someone is killed in Baltimore every 19 hours. And at 7 p.m. Friday, marking the first 19 hours of the ceasefire, the city had not recorded a homicide.

Her son, Paul Bridgeford, 19, stood on the traffic median on Edmondson Avenue handing out pamphlets to cars. He said awareness is key to getting people to put down their guns.

Erricka Bridgeford says she knows it will be difficult to put a stop to the historic gun violence in the city, even just for a weekend. If someone is killed, she said, organizers are poised to act. They’ve collected money that will be donated to families of victims, and ceasefire participants will “stop what we’re doing and go to that neighborhood and give love to the people affected,” she said.

There are more than 30 events planned across the city for this weekend, including prayer circles, peace walks and neighborhood cookouts. A full schedule of events can be found here.

On Saturday morning, there will be a peace walk starting at Frederick Douglass High School and on Sunday, there will be a vigil and walk from Shot Tower to City Hall. Once there, organizers will read the names of the 208 homicide victims so far this year.

Mayor Catherine Pugh threw her support behind the movement on Thursday.

“We need to stop the violence,” Pugh said. “Violence on our streets is out of control. We need to make people feel safe in our city. I am with them: Let’s cease the violence in our city.”

Shelley Stephens, who heads Stop The Violence EV, for Edmondson Village, said neighborhoods have to take the lead on stopping the violence.

“It’s the people in the community who need to get together to do something,” Stephens said. “We have to tell them we love you, put the guns down.”

There have been numerous official efforts to quell the violence in Baltimore since it kicked into a bloody, record-setting pace in 2015.

Two years ago as homicides first reached record levels federal agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Secret Service joined with Baltimore's homicide unit to help solve killings.

Despite the assistance the killings have continued at about the same pace, getting worse this year.

A formal intervention program called Operation Ceasefire was started in 2014 to target the small number of violent offenders who commit most of the city's shootings. As it does in dozens of other cities, prosecutors, police, clergy, social service workers and community members confront those with violent track records to make them aware of what awaits their actions: lengthy prison sentences or death.

The program failed and was discontinued this year.

Pugh said Thursday that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan plans to direct millions of dollars to help control violence in Baltimore with new technology, additional Police Department positions and an intervention program for at-risk youth.

The mayor said Hogan would send $9 million to cover some Police Department salaries and $600,000 for technology upgrades and training. She also said Hogan has agreed to help fund a program that would focus on 17- to 24-year-olds.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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