Vicious beating unleashes anger in East Baltimore


In a hallway outside Eastern District Court, Andre Flythe's mother calls her son timid. Nobody mentions the baseball bat. Andre's mother says her son is a shy sort of kid. Nobody mentions Pedro Lugo. She says other boys tend to pick on Andre. Nobody mentions last month in Patterson Park and the beating that electrified a community.

Andre's mother was in court two days ago, hoping to see her son. She never got the chance. The state's attorney's office told her Andre would be in court, but changed its mind and never let him out of his cell.

Instead, somebody in court recited an indictment number, and a charge of attempted first-degree murder was read into the record, and when it was over, Andre's mother, Betty Gleaves, walked into the hall and talked about a mom's innocent vision of a son.

"To me, I can't picture him doing it," she said.

She means the baseball bat clubbing last month of Expedito "Pedro" Lugo. Her son is 19 years old. He is one of several East Baltimore kids charged with the vicious beating, which set off communitywide anger not only over the incident but of long-simmering troubles at nearby Hampstead Hill Middle School.

"He said he was there when the boy was beat up," Andre's mother said now, "but he said he didn't do any of the beating. I don't know whether he's lying to me or not, but my son is a timid kind of boy. He's 6-foot-3, but he's kind of skinny. People beat him up, not him beating up other people. He doesn't get in this kind of trouble."

"He's never been in trouble?" somebody asked.

"Stealing cars," said Andre's mother. "But that's all."

The doctors at Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital say Pedro Lugo is making progress since the clubbing fractured his skull. From the day of the beating, May 17, Lugo lay in a room at Johns Hopkins Hospital and clung to life mainly by grace of modern technology. Three weeks ago, finally conscious, he was transferred to Montebello, where they've begun trying to restore abilities to him that the rest of us take for granted.

But the beating touched off something large and pent-up in East Baltimore. It liberated people's tongues. For years, residents stewed silently over kids from Hampstead Hill who rampage through the neighborhood when school lets out.

Naturally, this being America, a reflex response was heard. Some said it was racism talking, that white residents were using the Lugo beating as an excuse to lash out at black kids simply because of their skin color.

"That's not only untrue, it's an avoidance of the problem," Dick Gatto was saying the other day. Gatto's principal at St. Elizabeth's Roman Catholic School, which rang its final bell of the day half an hour early -- at 2 p.m. -- every day last year.

"To get the kids home safely before Hampstead Hill let out," Gatto says.

The enrollment at St. Elizabeth's is about one-third black. Gatto says there were seven incidents where his students were beaten up last year by Hampstead Hill kids. The attackers were black.

"Racial?" he is asked.

"Look at this," he says. Standing in Patterson Park now, he sweeps a hand across the landscape. On a playground, little kids are running about, oblivious to every varying skin color. On a basketball court, white and black teen-agers are doing the same. All this week, in the park swimming pool, same thing.

Is it important to point this out? Absolutely. Conservative East Baltimore lives the kind of existence that pious liberals used to talk about, before they quietly blew town at the first sight of actual integration in their own neighborhoods.

Blacks and whites live together here. There are frictions, as there are in any community where people live close to each other. But there is also a growing, unspoken, lack of self-consciousness about race.

The Hampstead Hill troubles upset all of that. Kids rampaging through the neighborhood -- Gatto says he looked out his window one day to see some of them casually walking across his Jeep -- sets everybody on edge. It makes some people take sides by race. It sets the racial debate back 30 years.

"People here have come to an arrangement," Gatto says. He's looking at kids happily shooting water pistols under a bright sun.

"They've learned to live with one another. Look, who wants to be hassling all the time with your neighbors?

"But you look at the beating of Lugo, and you look at Hampstead Hill, and you see where everything's going astray. The city has such an opportunity here to say, 'Look at East Baltimore. Look how well it works.' "

His words hang in the air for a long moment. At City Hall, they're talking of redistricting schools so that Hampstead Hill doesn't bring in so many kids from other neighborhoods. Gatto thinks this could give him back his half hour of school every day.

At Montebello Hospital, Pedro Lugo struggles to put his life together. A community holds its breath. At Patterson Park, black kids and white kids play together as if it's no big deal. Dick Gatto calls this the real East Baltimore.

And in a hallway outside the Eastern District courtroom, Andre Flythe's mother utters lonely words of hope for her son.

"They say he threw the punch that started it," she says. "They say he punched this Lugo in the mouth. I can't see my son punching anybody in the mouth, you understand? My son doesn't beat people up. He's the kind of boy other boys beat up."

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