One fact struck many of the three dozen women holding long white candles as they gathered at the mouth of an alleyway in East Baltimore last night: Few men had joined their ranks.
They said they weren't surprised, but they had had enough. They gathered in the Darley Park neighborhood to hold a vigil in memory of Ronald Crowell, 22, who was killed in an early-morning shooting Saturday. The matriarchs of his family said that out of five generations, six men are living. The rest are dead, many through violence.
"We have to stick together," said Joyce Matthews, Crowell's great-aunt. "Without each other we have nothing, and we'll be doing this every week. We've got to come together. Our young men should grow up and get gray and see their grandchildren."
One by one, they climbed the stairs of a rowhouse to speak - Crowell's mother, grandmother, sister, his aunts. Behind them, a woman had written in marker on a boarded-up window: "RIP Lil' Crow. Gone but won't never be forgotten." Another woman added in fading marker, "I love U."
Crowell pleaded guilty to drug possession in 2006 and finished a prison sentence last fall. Family and friends said that he then turned his life around, leaving behind the "ripping and running in the street," as his aunt put it.
He had a 2-year-old son of the same name, and his girlfriend said they planned to marry and have another child. He had secured a job in janitorial services at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a recent promotion, family members said. His brother, Tyrell, 18, is a standout point guard on Patterson High School's basketball team for whom everyone has high hopes. He will be a senior next fall.
"It's our family today; it might be yours tomorrow," Deborah Leach, another great-aunt to Crowell told the crowd. "We all grew up poor. We don't have much, but we've got life. Gunplay is for cowards. Real men and real women fight and make up tomorrow."
Family and friends said yesterday that they don't know a motive behind Crowell's death. Many were roused out of sleep that morning with phone calls informing them of the shooting. One family member lay by his body until paramedics could arrive. Others rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. They insist the incident wasn't related to Baltimore's drug trade. They may hold a funeral this week, after the medical examiner's office releases the body.
The vigil yesterday included readings from the Bible and a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
Renae Matthews, Crowell's mother, was angry at times, imploring onlookers: "We need to put these [expletive] guns up. We need to stop this [expletive]. This is ridiculous. My son didn't deserve this."
Other times, Mathews' tone was sadly reflective of what others called "a war where we live."
"My son was my hero and my soldier," she said. "I'm celebrating Memorial Day in a different way."