THE CITY'S battle line is a chalk outline of Larry Hubbard on the sidewalk of the 2000 block of Barclay St., where one policeman tried to handcuff the 21-year-old and another shot him in the back of the head.
At his funeral last week, Hubbard, known as Fat Herb, was hailed as a martyr. We will add this to a previous list of descriptions: trafficker in narcotics, rider in a stolen car, robber, possessor of quite the impressive arrest record.
None of this justifies murder -- if, in fact, the killing of Hubbard was murder. The U.S. Justice Department, responding to demands from the NAACP, is now investigating. So are city police.
While we await their findings, there commences the pain and heartache so familiar in a city bent on wholesale self-destruction -- and some disturbing public outcries.
From the Rev. Willie Ray, for example. Here is a man, leader of the Stop the Killing movement, who has devoted the last few decades to ending violence in the city. He's spent as much time in the streets as in the pulpit, and knows not only the arithmetic of killing, but the pathology that leads to it: including drug trafficking and the numerous predatory crimes that finance endless addiction.
Yet here was Ray, at Larry Hubbard's funeral service, before 200 people packed into the Triumph Missionary Baptist Church on East Oliver Street, telling mourners, "It's warfare now, whether you like it or not. I don't mean to get your guns or Molotov cocktails. It's a spiritual warfare. Fat Herb is a martyr, just like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X."
Some of us will take this as slander. Some of us remember those martyrs not as drug traffickers or robbers but as men who attempted to change the course of history -- by giving people a conscience, by urging them to avoid all violence and do the right thing with their lives.
Larry Hubbard was stopped by police for riding in a stolen car. He was already sought on an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court on a previous drug charge. The police say he was part of a street gang. Some of them were his pallbearers. They wore T-shirts that said "T.O.C. 4 Life." T.O.C. stands for Total Outlaw Clique.
His own family has talked openly about Hubbard's criminal history. It's the kind of history that helps ruin neighborhoods, that keeps frightened people locked in their homes, and sometimes causes police to lose their way.
Did the two officers who fought with Hubbard in the final moments of his life lose their way? We don't know yet. They say they thought Hubbard was trying to break free. Officer Robert J. Quick Jr., facing him, put one handcuff on Hubbard's left wrist and says Hubbard tried to grab his police weapon. Hubbard weighed more than 250 pounds; Quick weighs 160.
There was a struggle. Quick says he yelled, "Get off my gun." Officer Barry Hamilton came behind Hubbard and tried to pull him away, but couldn't. Hubbard, he says, was too strong. The three men fell to the ground, scuffling, throwing punches. Quick says his gun came out of his holster and was lodged between him and Hubbard.
"He's got my gun," Quick says he yelled.
Witnesses say Hubbard yelled, "Don't shoot me." Some say Hubbard never reached for Quick's gun. Clearly, all three sensed the potential end of their lives. Officer Hamilton pulled out his own gun and shot Hubbard.
It sounds frantic, and ghastly, and terribly familiar. In a city of roughly 300 homicides a year -- most of them drug-related, most of them involving one street thug killing another -- we now have four cases of police shootings this year, and this one brings an additional anxious element: two white cops, one black civilian.
It brings out all the old edginess, and the suspiciousness, as well as political opportunism. The mayor-apparent, Martin O'Malley, who swept to primary victory on the strength of zero-tolerance crime talk, now has it thrown in his face.
When O'Malley and Republican David Tufaro met to debate last week at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, on Cathedral Street, demonstrators gathered outside, saying Hubbard was executed while handcuffed, claiming this is an example of racist police brutality which will now be disguised as a policy of zero tolerance.
"O'Malley, what's the tally," they chanted.
O'Malley, speaking through a bullhorn, attempted to calm their fears. The effect seemed an echo of earlier times: street theater, government conducted by confrontation, grist for dramatic television sound bites, everyone's nerves beginning to be rattled.
It draws lines that a new mayor does not need drawn yet. For openers, the police are not practicing zero tolerance yet. This is no secret. But the killing of Larry Hubbard is convenient as a rallying point to stop such a policy before it begins.
We have a long history of racial bullying in this country, which leads to modern suspicions that white people in power -- politicians, corporate bosses, police -- take advantage of black people with no power.
Such suspicions do not die overnight. Larry Hubbard died a needless death, and left behind family in terrible pain. But when is the lesson learned? A lifestyle is chosen, which involves a roll of the dice. You choose drugs, you choose violence, you take your chances.
Nobody justifies murder -- but there was a pattern to Larry Hubbard's life that seemed to bend, inexorably, toward a hideous ending. And this, too, should not be justified or excused in the moment's emotions.