Nathan "Pop" Thomas Sr., a leader in the 300 Men March anti-violence movement, calls himself a "recovering thug" who once supported his family by dealing drugs. Eight years ago, his brother, David Thomas, was murdered in the Rosemont neighborhood of West Baltimore. "And I swore vengeance," Pop Thomas says, "not against the person who killed my brother, but against violence itself."
Now 39, Thomas has a job and supports his family legitimately. He takes part in 300 Men March activities, with Friday night walks into neighborhoods where he engages young men he believes to be at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence. I asked if all these attempts at intervention — the marches and walks, this past weekend's west-to-east bike ride — had made a difference.
"I know absolutely I saved a life," Thomas says. "Last year while we were out on our weekly street engagement, we saw one of the guys we normally see in the neighborhood. He looked very frustrated, so we approached him. We saw that he appeared to be holding onto something. We asked him what was going on. At first he declined to respond. But after some sincere encouragement, he disclosed he had to 'take care of something.' He was 'strapped,' meaning he had a weapon on him. We knew exactly what that meant, and his intention was to harm someone. It's because of thug recovery that we knew what to say to discourage him from destroying his own life. That caused him to rethink and make the best choice for him and his potential victim. You could see his eyes well up. A lot of these guys are not as tough as you think. They are wounded. They need a place to hide and we give them that."
300 Men March on Washington: Frustrated with what he considers a lack of local support, Munir Bahar, the founder of the anti-violence group, plans a direct appeal to the Obama administration for federal funds. On Aug. 16 and 17, Bahar and members of the 300 Men March will walk from Baltimore to the White House.
Bahar says he has raised about $52,000 since the April riot to establish a 300 Men March youth corps: 10 teenaged boys who receive $10 an hour for training in violence prevention, leadership and physical fitness. "That's a drop in the bucket," he says. "So much more needs to be done. But I need to ask for help from outside. I've got to go out of town to raise funds to help Baltimore."
Safe Streets: This program is fully funded, but it needs tough love. A public health initiative designed to prevent homicides, Safe Streets has been rocked again — this time, by the arrests of two workers after police found guns and drugs inside the Safe Streets office in East Baltimore. What a stupid and infuriating development. It caused the suspension of the east-side operation pending a review.
Central to Safe Street is the role of ex-offenders — "recovering thugs" — who hear about brewing trouble, then act to prevent it. Safe Streets "interrupters" from Park Heights to Cherry Hill have been effective at reducing shootings in the limited sectors they cover. But it takes just a couple of ex-offenders to relapse to sideline a program the city should not only keep in place but expand.
The city has been in talks with the Abell Foundation about funding new Safe Streets zones in Sandtown-Winchester, the Freddie Gray neighborhood in West Baltimore. That's a good idea and the mayor should make it happen. But Safe Streets needs serious adult supervision.
Baltimore Homicide Review Commision: Who needs Marilyn Mosby? If the city state's attorney refuses to cooperate with this project — because she worries it will jeopardize open cases, or because she thinks it's a waste of money, or because she didn't think of it first — fine. The project should proceed without her. The commission is too important to be derailed by Mosby's decision to provide information only about old cases.
The idea, based on the 10-year-old Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, is to have an array of experts conduct timely reviews of homicides to determine causes or patterns and to keep strategies fresh, with the goal of saving lives. The commission would bring together public health and law enforcement officials to get a broader picture of what's happening in the city. The head of the commission is Daniel Webster, a leading Johns Hopkins researcher whose career has been spent in the deep weeds of trying to find ways to reduce violence. Webster's work is serious and based on evidence, and I doubt he would waste his time and Baltimore's money if he did not see a value to a multi-agency homicide review like the one in Milwaukee.
So, before the whole thing blows up, the mayor needs to step in and do more than express meek regret about Mosby's reluctance. She needs to order the Baltimore Police Department to fully cooperate with Webster's commission.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is also the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.