Rally to address city violence at site of Obama's stop was not as crowded

T

he rally was called "Voices Against Violence," and the voices cut through the icy cold air with a somber fury.

The mayor spoke and the police commissioner spoke and the children spoke and the advocates spoke.

They wanted the people to rise up and the violence to stop. They wanted more money for programs to help youth and for the governor to not cut back on money for schools. They wanted a symposium on education, health and jobs. They shouted the word "Life" and a man called Brother Truth led them in rhyme: "Too many mothers have cried; too many fathers have lied; too many children have died."

They stood on the steps of the War Memorial building facing City Hall, the very steps Barack Obama stood on when he visited this city before he was sworn in as president and urged an enthusiastic crowd to adhere "not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."

Yesterday, a much smaller crowd put more urgency into the president's spirited call to action of "Yes we can" with "Yes we must."

But the speakers were frustrated.

"We can't just say it," Mayor Sheila Dixon implored. "We have to do it."

"We spend a lot of time talking," Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said. "More often than not, theory and rhetoric get lost in the chaos on the street."

The organizer, Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., the president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, scanned the crowd and was not happy. About halfway through, he took over the podium, recited the number of people killed so far this year - 22, including six juveniles - and wondered out loud whether anyone cares.

"Can we get a handle on this problem?" Cheatham thundered. "I'm not sure we can. If you cared, there would be thousands of people here. Twenty-two homicides is an outrage. We should have as many people here as Barack Obama had."

Partway through the mayor's remarks, the sound system went dead and sputtered on and off for the rest of the rally, prompting Cheatham to hand one speaker a bullhorn. The city didn't even set up the podium and loudspeakers; Cheatham had to pick them up and carry them up the stairs of the War Memorial. The group had wanted to rally on the expanse in front of City Hall, but it remained a sheet of ice yesterday.

"They didn't even see fit to clear the snow off," Cheatham told me as he packed up the gear when the rally was over. "That shows you their level of commitment."

Only six of the 15 City Council members endorsed the rally, and just two showed up. And most of the people who did come are already members of groups that are against violence or pushing some other agenda. They should all be commended, but they're not enough.

Cheatham said he had visited Poplar Grove Street after a killing there the other night and was told by drug dealers that he'd never win back the street, that "it was their turf."

Bealefeld lamented that "so much is made of the numbers" - without thinking of the faces of the dead, without thinking of the "people who live in this city who get squashed out and snuffed out before they had a chance to make a contribution."

He spoke of "moving beyond the rallies" and said his police officers have proven that neighborhoods and lives can be saved, that churches and cops and community leaders can work together to curtail the killings. "It is possible," he said.

Dixon said she was shocked to hear from police at a recent meeting that $10 million a year is funneled through the illicit drug market along just one street - Pennsylvania Avenue - and that the city attracts addicts like other places attract tourists.

"People as far away as Kentucky come to Baltimore because our heroin is so strong," the mayor said.

Cheatham told me he understands the absence of many leaders. They've been hearing the same thing for 30 years, "and I've been saying the same thing for 30 years."

This is what they're up against: Norma Johnson told of visiting her wounded nephew in the hospital after he got shot twice on a city street corner. "You know what his first words to me were? He said, 'Now I have a story to tell.' It was like it was good he got shot and lived to talk about it."

This is how the rhetoric becomes the chaos on the street.

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