Baltimore gives new meaning to dead of winter


January was a killer: 31 dead in the city, most of them by bullets, while the politicians back away from tough gun-control laws and the police chase breathlessly after the killers and the undertakers bury the dead.

Will the last people with enough money to move out of Baltimore please turn out the lights?

Last year, 305 people were murdered in Baltimore. The city draws a ring around itself and issues an implicit declaration to all who surround it: This is where we kill people. Enter at your own risk.

When the murders of 1990 were done, the mayor and the police commissioner put their heads together and said this could not go on. They both know better. A week into February, the 1991 homicide count reaches 33. Across the line in Baltimore County, it is zero. In Anne Arundel County, one. In Howard County, they are horrified because four people were murdered in January. Usually, it takes an entire year for that many in Howard County to die from weapons.

In East Baltimore the other day, a retired homicide cop shook his head sadly at the latest figures.

"Listen to the mayor," he said. "What does he mean, he's not gonna let this violence continue? He says things like that, it just makes him look impotent. What does he think, the police can stop murder? He knows better than that. All the police can do is chase after the guy with the gun."

A few hours earlier, a fellow named Robert Pittman had been shot in the back of the head in an alley behind the 2800 block of Ashland Avenue. As this is written, Pittman is the latest homicide victim.

His case is like an echo. He was 29, black, and the man suspected of shooting him is black. Of last year's 305 murders in the city, 93 percent of the victims were non-white and 94 percent of the assailants were non-white.

"It tears me apart inside, it really does," Mayor Kurt Schmoke was saying late one recent afternoon. "Every time I go inside a penal institution and look around and see the overwhelming number of black men in there, it's just heartbreaking.

"You see a waste of so much talent, and you think of all the other people's lives who they've wasted."

The mayor used to be state's attorney, so he approaches this problem with a pretty steely eye. But even in an election year when people want to hear reassuring talk about curbing the violence, he knows this goes beyond reflexive get-tough language.

"We can't build enough cells to put everybody in jail," he said. "We had 19,000 people arrested just on drug charges last year. [And nearly half of all the homicides are drug-related.] The only way we can put them all in prison is to build more prisons."

The alternative to prisons is the kind of talk no one wants to hear anymore: help for the cities, help for the permanent underclass that turns in frustration to lawbreaking.

In Annapolis, there is a lengthy and mostly unread paper called the Maryland Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure, also known as the Linowes commission report, which suggests making people with big money pay higher rates while going easier on people who are struggling.

Proportionately, lower-income people in the state of Maryland pay a far bigger percentage of their income on taxes than upper-income people. When you mention this to some of the big shots in the legislature, they chuckle indulgently over this. They talk of tabling this Linowes business and discussing it some time after the current session ends. This is known as a death sentence.

The Linowes report smacks of unpopular things beyond taxes. It's estimated the plan would raise roughly $800 million in its first year, with the money used to close the gap in education spending between rich and poor subdivisions, and to put new money into health care, transportation and public safety.

A lot of state legislators think this is merely a disguise to help the city of Baltimore. Big deal. They think the city's a combat zone. They think it's filled with people killing each other for no reason at all. They think the city already gets too much money.

Fact: The median household income for the Baltimore metro area is roughly $39,000. In the city, it's $23,000.

Fact: Of 31 metro areas around the country measured in the 1986 census, only two areas -- Newark and Cleveland -- had higher income disparities between the city and the surrounding counties.

Fact: People struggling to keep their lives together tend to act out their frustrations. That's what's happening in Baltimore. It happens everywhere, of course, but in the city there is more frustration because there is more poverty and less visibility of anyone trying to help.

Do we need to paint a picture? Sometimes frustration is expressed with drugs, sometimes with guns, sometimes with both. Every time a shot is fired, those who are left standing think of packing their bags.

A nation cannot live this way. A state where some are wealthy while others are poor and angry cannot simply turn its back on the poor and angry. The frustration grows, and it cannot help but spread.

The city of Baltimore draws a line around itself and says: Enter at your own risk. We kill people in here.

But there is nothing to keep the frustration, and all that it carries, from spreading beyond the city lines until it grabs all those other people, all those smug legislators who think they're safe out in suburbia, while their backs are carefully turned.

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