Clerics and concerned citizens march in East Baltimore in protest over drugs Group encounters support, ridicule


A group composed primarily of ministers, women and children marched against drugs through hot and litter-strewn East Baltimore streets yesterday afternoon, defying cynical looks and occasional taunts from clusters of young men that evaporated as the group approached.

"Every day there's a sweep by the police," said the Rev. C. Alan Marshall, minister of St. Joseph's Free Will Baptist Church in the 1600 block of Rutland Avenue, looking from his church toward a group of men lounging on the corner.

"People are afraid to be out, afraid they'll be caught up with them," said the 23-year-old minister.

"And as soon as someone is taken away [arrested], more are replaced."

As he spoke, officers loaded a 17-year-old into a police van -- right where the march was forming at noon at the corner of Rutland Avenue and Federal Street.

The teen-ager was released after being charged as a juvenile with possession of cocaine, said Eastern District police, who acted on a citizen's complaint and found their suspect sitting on a doorstep.

The march began with prayers and calls to take back the streets from drug dealers, invoking the memories of those killed by drugs and related violence, especially 6-year-old Tiffany Smith, who city police say was caught in the cross-fire between two gunmen Tuesday night in West Baltimore.

Several dozen people attended the religious rally -- some women set up lawn chairs -- but many of the oldest and youngest participants sat out the march itself.

Robert Butler, 67, said he would have marched if he were stronger. "They should have this all across the city. This is what they need: Preachers need to come out of their churches and get in the street . . . . The people in church don't need their help -- it's the people outside who do."

The 1800 block of Rutland Avenue, where he's lived for 37 years, "used to be a nice neighborhood," until drug dealers moved in some 10 years ago, Mr. Butler said.

At the head of the march, the Rev. Ronald Armstrong, dressed like a surgeon, led an ambulance and a hearse, carrying a casket to emphasize the link between drugs and death.

The march began and ended with prayers by Mr. Armstrong, musical director at St. Joseph's, Mr. Marshall and the Rev. Thomas R. Schwind, pastor of St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street.

It was punctuated by frequent stops for call-and-response chanting, Bible readings and appeals to those who watched from across the street or from upper row house windows to join.

Dozens of people waved and cheered the marchers from steps, doorways and upstairs windows as the group headed up Rutland to North Avenue, across to Caroline Street, rallied at North Bond and East Biddle streets, and headed back to the Baptist church .

Several young women watched, reluctant to come forward. They said drug activity in the neighborhood is worst during "the morning rush, that's what we call it."

"It's real, real, real, real bad around here," said 17-year-old Tracey Brown.

BTC The other women said they feared for their children and try to keep them inside when the dealers are out in force.

"You're the best thing that ever happened to Baltimore," a woman yelled to the marchers from a second-story window on Caroline.

But there were nay-sayers along the route, too.

One teen-ager mocked the marchers, then stopped when he noticed he was being being watched.

A well-dressed youth in a group of young men shouted he was disappointed that no body was in the casket.

Another heckler yelled to the Catholic priest, "Yeah, we'll see you next year."

"That's the attitude we're up against," Father Schwind said of the taunt, adding that the churches plan to stage similar marches at least once a month throughout the summer.

"Marching one time a year," he said, "doesn't do anything but annoy the drug dealers."

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