Council president candidate Bell sees a city adrift


Over breakfast, Lawrence Bell is talking about the routine, what-passes-for-normal, hideous crime in the city of Baltimore when he mentions, the way people sometimes do around here, a murder committed the other day, this time around Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak avenues, and this time the victim was his cousin.

The cousin's name was Damion Bell. He was 25 years old, and some guy with a gun got him pretty good and then ran off. Damion was standing with another fellow outside a bank. The other fellow was lucky and only took a bullet in his leg. Damion took five shots around his body, and then he was dead.

He was a good kid, Councilman Bell says. He was a family guy who was trying to find himself. Such a thing, this shooting business, has never before happened to anyone in his family, says Bell.

He pauses to take a swipe at leaky eyes, which only hint at a tide of emotions.

"I keep talking at these funerals," he says softly. "A lot of them. I tell these kids, 'If you believe in God, if you care at all, you can't keep us going to these funerals and causing us to cry. It's unacceptable, we can't take it anymore, you've got to do better than this.' And we have no idea if we're getting through to them at all."

This week, Bell, 33, will announce he's running for president of the City Council. He's got a fund-raiser set for Tuesday night, on the Lady Baltimore, but he talks like a man who sees more than a ship drifting out to sea. He sees an entire city.

"A lot of people my age," he says, "don't even want to be here today." He mentions the city's population, whose dwindling numbers have lately been in the news. Mentions the depressing zTC crime, which he attacked by demanding Police Department changes when nobody else at City Hall wanted to talk about it. Mentions the city's racial edginess, which some think will grow worse as the current mayoral campaign heats up.

"We need to unify people," he says, his voice rising now. "We need to minimize the divisions, not accentuate them. That's what's hurting the whole country more than anything. We're always going to have differences, but can't we look for common ground, and then build on that?"

He is a product of such an environment. His parents -- dad's a dentist, mom's a special education teacher -- met while they were students at Morgan State, then moved to Randallstown to raise a family. Lawrence grew up in an integrated neighborhood and school atmosphere.

"Diversity," he says simply, "is a positive. We've got to find those common denominators. Baltimore's on the verge of being a permanent minor league city. You talk to business people, they've lost faith. They look at all these people fleeing the city, these astounding numbers. Where's the point of no return? Business people can take bad news, but they can't take uncertainty, which is what we have."

For 25 years now, some of the worst news has come out of the schools.

Bell's done a lot of talking to city high schoolers. He sees a system cheating its students.

"Kids are coming out of school today," he says, "where they aren't ready to compete. They aren't learning fundamentals. Basic conversational English. You see these kids interviewed on the TV news sometimes, and you have to brace yourself when they speak the language.

"My parents forced me to speak perfectly. And I'll tell you a story. My mom teaches special ed kids over at the Claremont School, on Erdman Avenue. One boy got up to read a poem by Langston Hughes, which was written in street idiom. He got to the phrase 'I ain't got.' He froze. My mother said, 'Go ahead.' He said, 'I don't have,' instead of 'I ain't got.'

"My mother said, 'Why did you read it that way?' He said, 'You always tell us not to talk that way.' Well, if people who are intellectually challenged can figure this out, then surely so-called 'normal' children can. We've got to get our schools to stress basic education, which a lot of these kids are not getting in the home."

The words hang in the air a moment and then drift away. They're an echo of the last 25 years of such language. The school troubles, the crime, the racial divisions linger like a plague which a whole run of politicians have been unable to drive off.

"People are afraid to lead," Bell says. "When your house is burning, you don't go in with a water pistol. This city is falling asleep. There's no energy. Managers deal with things, but leaders deal with people. You can't have an ivory tower approach, which we have now. You can study a problem to death, but by the time you've finished your paper, the problem has changed."

Not all of them. Some of the problems stick around, with only the names changing. Like some kid getting shot on a street corner, only this one turns out to be a city councilman's cousin.

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