The rioters had rocks and bricks. The police, dressed in military gear, had guns.

The 300 Men March had black T-shirts.

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As chaos broke out across Baltimore last week, dozens of men from the grass-roots group walked violent city streets, breaking up fights and inserting themselves between angry young men and the police.

"They did a fantastic job," said the Rev. Louis Wilson, pastor of New Song Community Church in Sandtown-Winchester. "Any time you have a number of men stepping up, I think it has a significant impact."

Community members say the 300 Men group, as well as other volunteers who patrolled tense neighborhoods, played a key role as peacekeepers amid the lawlessness.

Munir Bahar, the group's founder, said members took to the streets because "all my guys were calling me saying, 'We've got to do something.'

"We walked back and forth along North Avenue to have our presence felt," Bahar recalls. "Cars were on fire. Folks were running in and out of stores. I believe our presence helped to bring some sense of calm to everywhere we were. … But there should have been more men out to stop these kids."

Now the group says that its core mission — helping to reduce Baltimore's pervasive crime — is as urgent as ever. More 20 people have been shot in the days since the National Guard's arrival in the city. The group's goal is to get more men involved in the lives of young people in troubled city neighborhoods — and to be a visible deterrent to violence by being out on dangerous corners at night.

They've been able to draw more than 600 people to their Friday evening marches but have a much smaller core group. The 300 Men March is holding a recruitment drive Thursday, asking volunteers — both men and women, black and white — to come to the COR Community Center at 904 Washington Blvd. to sign up.

Of the rioting, Bahar says: "I feel like we failed as a city. I don't mean the city government. I mean the community. We failed if we let that happen."

The group was founded in 2013 during a highly violent summer in Baltimore. The name was meant to evoke the Spartan heroism at the Battle of Thermopylae, but it was also a goal: to get 300 men to become regulars of the group whose motto is "We must stop killing each other."

Bahar, 34, says he spent his early years involved in the drug trade and in and out of jail. Despite a troubled start, he has turned his interest in fitness and martial arts into a career. He founded the COR Health Institute, a physical fitness center, in Southwest Baltimore in 2012. The building serves as a community center as well.

"I don't want young folks to go through what I went through," Bahar says. "I want to show them you can come from these conditions, but it's no excuse to not progress in life."

Members spent hours last week talking to kids in city schools. Their message was old-fashioned: Take personal responsibility for your actions. Respect others in your community.

Talking to students at Vanguard Middle School, Councilman Brandon Scott — co-founder of the group — wrote two numbers on a chalk board: 14 and 189.

"Fourteen is the number of people who were shot by the police in the city last year," Scott told the kids. "One hundred eighty-nine is the number of black people who were killed by other citizens of the city last year. To me, I don't have the ability to care about one more than the other. We have to eliminate caring less about the 189."

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As they work to engage children, members also work to engage adults. On Friday night, about 400 men and women from the group stood on the corner of Cold Spring Lane and Park Heights Avenue, blocks from where Scott grew up.

"Historically, man, this corner was a hot corner," Scott says. "This is the hub of everything that's wrong with Park Heights. They call this the corner of death."

The men regard anyone using inflammatory rhetoric to encourage violence and looting as harming the city's youth. The teens involved in such crimes get criminal records that could hurt job or college prospects in the future, members point out.

Says Scott: "If you are an adult and you are helping kids loot, you are ruining their future."

Erricka Bridgeford, a 42-year-old West Baltimore resident, was moved watching men from the group take to the streets during Monday's rioting and its aftermath.

"They were going out, stopping rioters, walking up to people who were throwing things," she recalls. "They were telling people about the wisdom of not escalating things."

But some say the group's singular message misses some key points.

Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor at Morgan State University, said it's important to remember that many African-Americans in Baltimore still live in poor neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of structural racism. Such neighborhoods have struggled because of racist lending, housing and other restrictions, Brown said.

"Attacking structural racism and taking control of our own community — those aren't necessarily mutually exclusive things," Brown said. "We need to make sure we're not killing each other and cut down on the drug trade. But even if we do all those things, it still wouldn't stop police from killing us. It wouldn't have stopped what happened to Freddie Gray."

He said Bahar's success in overcoming adversity is the exception rather than the rule.

"You're always going to have a certain percentage of people who are going to be resilient even in the worst conditions," Brown said. "But it's hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don't have any boots."

Will Smith, small-business manager at Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc., says the 300 Men March's work has been successful in the Northeast Baltimore community. For an entire summer, members stood on corners each Friday night talking with kids and young men.

"I believe they were a great asset," he said. "What I like most about their organization is they didn't just march through the community pushing an agenda. They came through the community and they actually engaged the youth. The youth were very receptive of that, and their relationships continued."

In the classroom at Vanguard Middle School, the men told the students of their march amid the rioting.

"I'm gonna be real with you, I was scared," said Jahi Faw, 32. "There is nothing wrong with being fearful. But there is something wrong with not doing something because you're fearful."

Group member Bobby Marvin Holmes, 32, told the boys and girls they'd all witnessed adults "express their frustration in the not most productive ways."

"The frustration is valid," he said. "It's understandable. But what we want folks to think about is how they express that frustration. Take ownership of your community. Take ownership of your own actions."

A couple of boys in the back of the room asked how they could join the group.

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"You don't have wear a T-shirt to be down with us," Holmes said. "You join us by valuing your community and yourself."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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