Are you black and male, and between the ages of, say, 16 and 24? Do you live in the city of Baltimore, or nearby? Do you own a gun? Do you get angry about little stuff? Do you think the guy who takes the last slice of pizza at a football party is dissing you? Are you involved in something that could get you into trouble with the cops? Been buying or selling dope? Had any nasty disagreements with other guys in the last six months?
Then this column's for you, and here's the message: You could get killed this year.
Of course, any of us could get killed - even middle-aged white newspaper columnists walking across a street.
But you guys are the primary victims of homicides, and we have a shamefully stubborn homicide rate in Baltimore - about 44 for every 100,000 residents last year. The Sun reported the other day that more than 8,200 people have been killed in this city during the past 30 years, most of them young black men.
That trend will change only if you do.
That's what I'm asking you to do, again.
Everyone has a different idea about how to get you guys to stop. Mine is to address you through the space they give me in this newspaper, and hope that you consider changing your ways, or picking up a phone and getting some help.
You could contact me at 410-332-6166, and I'll give you some suggestions, either by mail or over the phone within a day or two of your call. You could call the city's Get Out of the Game Hotline at 443-984-7217; there are some good people there who can steer you out of harm's way.
Consider doing something, anything. Anything is better than what you're doing and where you're headed.
People tell me it's a waste of time - that young black guys in Baltimore don't read the newspaper, and that you're just ignorant and violent, a mass of lost children who think they have nothing to gain by living a long, law-abiding life.
That's what some people believe, either because they're comfortable with those prejudices or because they'd rather not think too much about the chronic homicide problem; it has been with us so long, and no mayor or police commissioner has been able to arrest it over a long term. In fact, Baltimore blood spills at the rate it did 15 years ago.
I understand why people think this is a lost cause. The political leadership in Maryland doesn't seem inclined to do much about it, and the idea that this is a problem of concern to everyone - from Baltimore County as well as Baltimore City - doesn't even get broached.
So, yeah, people in the mainstream tend to kiss you off.
They think you place no value on life, starting with your own.
But I don't buy it.
I refuse to believe that you guys want to die at 18, or 21, or 24.
I think most of you would prefer life over death and freedom over prison.
Do I have that right? Wouldn't you rather be alive, productive and healthy, and doing the things guys get to do while they're still young? Wouldn't you like to make your mothers proud of you? Wouldn't you like to be a real man without having a gun as a prop?
Wouldn't you like to have your own business someday? Can't you see yourself living in a nice house, owning a great car or truck, going to Ravens games with your buddies, raising a family and maybe having a son or daughter who respects and loves you?
Can't you see it?
So why let this killing go on in your hometown? Why are you part of it? Why do you even stand near it?
You guys do most of the killing around here, and you account for most of the violent deaths.
Only you guys can put an end to this madness.
Do something, anything. The next life you save could be your own.
That's a cliche, and it's true. But, of course, you don't believe it, do you?
You think it'll happen to someone else first. You look at that number - 44 out of 100,000 - and you dismiss it.
But, that's stupid and arrogant thinking, and stupid and arrogant thinking only gets you in prison or gets you dead.
Look, I realize this is a broadside. Each of you has issues distinct from the next. There are hundreds of reasons why you're at risk. You think the money from selling drugs is as good as it gets. You equate having a gun with manhood. You've had miserable lives; you grew up with heroin and violence all around you. You might have lost a brother or cousin to gunfire. Your father might have been incarcerated, and you stomp around the city streets now full of anger, resentment and self-hatred.
I'm just guessing, but these are informed guesses.
Whatever the reason for your situation, however confused your thinking, there's a way out of it. There's a way out of everything - a way out of a neighborhood where you're a target, or where you've had too many squabbles; a way to get rid of a gun; a way to learn a skill and get a legitimate job; a way to get off heroin or cocaine; a way to start fresh and make 2008 the year you did not die before your time.