A 'choice to chase away the darkness' in Baltimore

In the autumn of 2014, West Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota dropped the "Bird Flu (Sports Remix)" celebrating the Orioles’ playoff season and the 2013 Ravens Super Bowl victory. The Os were having an unbelievable run after over a decade of perennial disappointment.

The bullpen was unstoppable; starting pitching was consistent. Manager Buck Showalter was inspiring greatness out of a motley roster of underappreciated players cobbled together by general manager Dan Duquette. Manny Machado was coming into his own as a superstar, and Adam Jones and Nick Markakis delivered career high performances. The Orioles would finish in first place in the American League East that year, and we all felt that a World Series run was an inevitable part of this new generation of Orioles magic.

It was also the last year that Baltimore's annual murder total would hover around 200. It was still a dangerous city, but there was a sense that maybe things were changing for the better.

At that time, Scoota’s ode to drug dealing, “Bird Flu” — about hustling a mix of “scramble, coke and smack” — was doing well locally. He turned it into an innocent, but sincere, sports anthem that really saw the magic in that Orioles playoff run. Unfortunately, the Orioles season ended abruptly in the American League Championship Series after a loss to an equally strong Kansas City Royals team, which would ultimately lose the World Series to the San Francisco Giants.

By the next spring, Freddie Gray would die in the custody of Baltimore police. In subsequent protests against the unnecessary death of Gray, Orioles fans, drinking across the street from Camden Yards, would engage these protesters with hostility. The chaos and divisions in the city became all the more apparent not only in the rioting that followed but also in the skyrocketing murder rate, which rose to record levels — an annual total approaching 350 murders in a city of 620,000. In the aftermath, the Orioles would even play a game in front of zero fans in the stands, as the city grappled with an out-of-control situation.

Scoota, whose given name is Tyriece Travon Watson, would become active in efforts to end the violence. Ultimately, while leaving a "Pray for Peace in these Streets" charity basketball game at Morgan State University on June 25, 2016 — two years ago Monday — the 23-year-old was ambushed and murdered in Northeast Baltimore, apparently in retaliation for acts that he probably had nothing to do with. Scoota's ghost now haunts this city, one of almost 10,000 people murdered in Baltimore since I was born in 1982.

The murder rate last year was the worst per capita in the city's history. But out of that devastation, hope. The first Baltimore Ceasefire was held in August 2017, the fourth, last month. Another is set for the weekend of Aug. 3 -5, when the effort will mark its first anniversary with a concert on Aug. 4th at 7 p.m. at Club Charm.

Ceasefire represents a conscious choice to chase away the darkness with light and positive energy; to celebrate life even — and especially — when it feels like death surrounds us. We do this in part, by embracing the artists in this city working against violence, like Scoota was.

The creative culture in Baltimore is soaring. Rapper Young Moose is no longer terrorized by the Gun Trace Task Force; Detective Daniel Hersl has finally been prosecuted for his crimes.

Photographer Devin Allen and writer Kondwani Fidel have found unprecedented success. Lawrence Brown, D. Watkins and Aaron Maybin are ready to drop another book at any moment. TT the Artist has achieved global fame, and her new movie on the dance culture of Baltimore Club will be released to eager audiences.

Today, the Orioles are in last place, however, having their worst season since 1988. The $160 million contract to secure Chris Davis as an Oriole has proved at least as disastrous as the trade for Glen Davis. The bullpen is unreliable, starting pitching is atrocious, Manny Machado is likely to be traded for players to be named later.

However, in baseball we know there's always next year. The scouting and drafting goes on, and the farm system continues. Adam Jones, who is known not only for his work in the outfield but also for community engagement with youth sports in the city, just bought Cal Ripken's former estate in the county in a symbolic move that suggests he wants to inherit Mr. Ripken's career-long role as Mr. Oriole.

We have the same hopeful dreams for our city. The stakes are far higher, and the next years can seem a lifetime away. But we’ll never give up on Baltimore.

Dr. Simon Fitzgerald (sfitzg14@jhmi.edu) is an ambassador of the Baltimore Ceasefire movement. He's also surgeon from Baltimore and currently a fellow of trauma and critical care at Johns Hopkins. He also runs a local podcast on surgery, violence and culture called "Knife at the Gunfight."

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