Sometimes you win the battles and find that you've lost the war. Clarence "Tiger" Davis paces this big, crowded room on The Alameda, with maybe 300 people around him who are anxious and angry and ignoring the sweltering heat of the evening, and he wonders how everything has gone so wrong.
He's summoned these people as an act of community survival. He represents a lot of them in the House of Delegates. He came home last winter, he says, to a shootout outside his house. His neighbors told him they hide in their homes. They talked of today's dope dealers and gun users. Davis thought about yesterday's civil rights battles, when he was young and full of hope.
"The enemy of the past," he tells the crowd, jammed into every corner of this lecture hall in an old building on the City College campus, "was racial discrimination. We went to court against the beast that was trying to destroy us. We put our lives on the line. My generation came together in Mississippi and Alabama. Now there's a new beast, which is at our door."
Nobody needs translation. The crowd is maybe 95 percent black. Some of them are Davis' contemporaries, folks past 50, who came of age when Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall were forcing America to have a conscience, folks who imagined the good life for themselves and their children and never imagined the catastrophe that dope and guns would bring.
"This is not about politics or race," Davis says now. He's moving around the room, hoping to be heard over the whir of a floor fan, waving people in who are jammed into the doorway and onto the parking lot outside.
"We've abdicated our power to City Hall and Annapolis," he says. There's a smattering of applause. "We're going to the drug dealers' doorstep." The applause builds. "And elsewhere."
The words have a muscular feel to them, but he's still a little vague. A few politicians are here, Mary Pat Clarke and Nat McFadden, Martin O'Malley and Cornell Dypski, but mostly these are community people in the room, unconnected to politics, unaccustomed to walking the halls of power. But Davis wants them to walk the streets.
"On the streets," he says, "our young girls are out there prostituting themselves, our little girls are selling themselves. Then they're having babies with birth defects. In some neighborhoods, half the kids entering schools are crack babies. They will live in our community, and they can't function. So the worst is yet to come."
Heads are nodding agreement around the room. Davis talks about AIDS, about those who contract it at the end of dirty needles. He talks about women, "who have always been our strength," now expiring in their youth.
"Jim Crow couldn't kill us," he says, "but now our women are on that dope. We are dying as a community, and let's make no mistakes or excuses about this. Let's not say, 'We don't have the airplanes or the boats to bring the stuff into the country.' Because it's our children shooting each other in the streets.
"If it was the Ku Klux Klan, we'd be up in arms. So why aren't we up in arms about this? This is genocide. And who's responsible? We are. And we have the power to make the difference."
Now Davis begins to talk specifics. He wants to gather "massive numbers of people," beginning with the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello communities of northeast Baltimore. He says he's spent the last two weeks talking to kids, aimless and hanging on street corners, prey to the dope dealers.
"They want to talk to us," he says. "They want help. They don't know how to ask. Every kid out there is on probation for dope, or they've got a court date to go back for violation of probation. And we've abdicated our responsibility to them."
He wants teams of people on street corners, men talking to boys, women to girls. He wants crowds, big enough for people to draw courage from each other, "to go where there's dealing. By July 20, we're delivering an ultimatum to the dealers. This is where it gets serious. The police are with us.
"We're going to their homes, en masse, and tell the dealers they've got to go. We will engage them at their homes. They will not live in peace if we can't live in peace. And if this works in these neighborhoods, we'll take it to the rest of the city, and it'll be a crusade."
Davis is 53 years old. He's heard brave talk before. In the aftermath of the great civil rights movement, despite victories in the courts and the political campaigns, a black underclass has been left behind, undone by drugs and splintered family life and sloughed off between elections by alleged political leaders.
Those in Davis' generation, who thought they'd opened the doors to a better life, have arrived in their autumn years with terrible questions: Will today's tragedies be our legacy? When the curtain comes down on our lives, do we leave behind a community which has irretrievably lost its way?
"That," Davis said the morning after his meeting, "is central to everything. Whenever I'm with friends, that's what we talk about: Where did we go wrong? We allowed our leadership to let it slip away. We failed the revolution.
"We lost our sense of mission. When we were coming along, we were taught that you had to be twice as good as the white kids to make it. So we worked hard. The kids today, they think that something has to be given to them."
He comes back to the language of the night before, the need to point fingers elsewhere. "You talk to people about drugs today," he says, "and they say, 'Come on, we don't own the ships bringing it in.' Well, that's baloney. We have kids selling it in the streets. We're looking for someone else to blame for our troubles. We should know better by now. We can't go around blaming other people.
"We've blamed whites, we've blamed the system. Our children are sitting around, and we've taught them to accept what we fought against. We promoted racism among our own kids. And we try to tell them otherwise now, and they don't understand what we're talking about."
Davis knows some of the same things have happened in white families. Racism cuts both ways. Drugs cross racial lines. Just facing our problems honestly is a healthy first step for everyone.