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Commentaries on Baltimore's homicide rate by Trevon Jackson and Erich March, two individuals who provide services for those left behind by these violence arts.

Deep into the night, Trevon Jackson hunches over the old wooden desk in his bedroom, tapping on his keyboard and studying the smiling image of a young person on his large computer screen. Carefully, he traces the photo and juxtaposes a pair of enormous white angel wings behind the man, and then inserts a few words in his trademark gold cursive script, the words he puts at the bottom of every memorial poster he creates: Long Live Truie. Long Live Taylor. Long Live Mook.

From his family’s apartment in Baltimore’s Oldtown neighborhood, the 26-year-old creates these large posters and frames them. They hold places of honor in hundreds of homes across the city.

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For the fifth year in a row, Baltimore has suffered more than 300 homicides, and like many, Jackson has found a way to remember the dead. He’s among a universe of men and women in Baltimore compelled to take action amid the bloodshed. Their gestures are big and small: designing posters, washing the streets, and the tending to the bodies. They are an invisible army, working quietly in a murderous city, doing what they can.

“I just want to give people closure,” said Jackson, the artist. “I like to bless people.”

Jackson’s signature collages, which he posts on social media and sells, have drawn a following of nearly 35,000 on Instagram and made him a community celebrity. He makes them for weddings and birthday parties, as well as for well-known people like rapper Meek Mill and mayoral candidate and community activist Carmichael “Stokey” Cannady. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson even asked for one of himself.

But most of the posters feature people who have been killed. This year alone, Trevon Jackson estimates that he’s made well over 230 victim collages.

It all started in 2003 when Jackson was looking for an outlet to unleash his creative thoughts. But two years ago, the cousin he grew up with, whom he considered a brother, was shot and killed at a pool party. And Jackson, who was supposed to be with Melvin Allen Truesdale Jr. when he died, became consumed by his artwork.

Growing up in West Baltimore in the 800 block of W. Lexington St., he’d known dozens of people who had been killed over the years. But now Jackson knew what it was like to lose someone he loved. To this day, he edits Truesdale’s image into pictures with him.

That gave him comfort. He found himself driven to do something that might bring other families comfort, too ― even if it was just a little.

“When you pass away you can be forgotten, and I don’t want that for anyone,” he said.

He posted the images on Instagram. People began to see them and request them, paying about $40 for the digital image and $150 for a framed version.

“Once I realized people needed these,” he said, “I can’t even stop if I wanted to.”

But with fatal shootings happening around the clock, his Instagram account is constantly buzzing with people alerting him to new deaths. It’s hard for him to sleep, he said, and he feels like he’s lucky to be alive and shouldn’t waste time sleeping anyway. Many now expect him to do the posters for every victim ― even if a family hasn’t asked him.

“You see who was just killed?” the messages ask. People send the username of the latest victim — and Jackson gets to work tracking down photos.

Trevon Jackson looks over a recently finished poster. Jackson has a large following on Instagram for memorial photo posters of loved ones with angel wings he creates and posts. Since the murder of his cousin in 2017, the majority of his posters are of Baltimore's homicide victims and they are frequently requested by their families.
Trevon Jackson looks over a recently finished poster. Jackson has a large following on Instagram for memorial photo posters of loved ones with angel wings he creates and posts. Since the murder of his cousin in 2017, the majority of his posters are of Baltimore's homicide victims and they are frequently requested by their families. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Kim Miller, Jackson’s aunt, said she finds her nephew’s creations so special, she buys them for families of homicide victims whose candlelight vigils she attends, so they have a lasting memory.

“You give him a picture, an old picture, and he brings it back to life,” Miller, 54 said. “It brings a lot of joy to a lot of families.”

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If you get too deep in this city, you can’t get out.


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He has been able to earn a living off his work, and he has dreams. He wants to make movies, put his photos on billboards across the country. He wants an office ― a big one ― where he can see his gold Tre Designs logo everywhere ― maybe even in Hollywood.

But he doesn’t know if he can escape Baltimore.

To Jackson, it almost feels as if he will drown here. In one image he crafted, the city’s glittering skyline sits above a water line. And below it, in the dark depths, are vacant row houses, and a person’s body being pulled down, into the dark.

“If you get too deep in this city,” he said, “you can’t get out.”

Shortly after his cousin’s killing, Jackson created another memorial image.

It’s saved, deep in his computer, for someone to find, if and when the day comes.

This one is missing his signature elements ― the angel wings, the halo and the long live phrase. In this case, that would have made death too real, because the portrait is of himself.

An unexpected part of the job

Day after day, young men are shot in the streets of Baltimore and the cycle begins anew. Paramedics and doctors treat the victims. Detectives search for the shooters. Prosecutors try them. In this bleak routine, city firefighters bear a grim duty. They wash away the blood.

Such work came all too often in 2019. Baltimore’s street violence continued unabated, leaving more than 1,000 people shot and nearly one-third of them killed. The men and women of the fire department found themselves called out again and again to clean up.

“We don’t like doing it. We don’t.” says Capt. Jason Turner, of the Mount Washington fire station. “But it’s what we have to do.”

On a December morning, he stands with firefighter Ivy Brooks-Hailey in the station, agreeing to speak about the violence and its toll. Beside them, painted on the engine, the words say, “Baltimore City Fire Department” and “Emergency Medical Services.”

“That’s who we are," the captain says, “and what we do.”

A Baltimore firefighter washes blood off the southwest corner of Monroe and McHenry Streets where two people were killed early Thursday morning. The city reached the grisly milestone of 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row.
A Baltimore firefighter washes blood off the southwest corner of Monroe and McHenry Streets where two people were killed early Thursday morning. The city reached the grisly milestone of 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Citywide, firefighters spend less than a quarter of their time fighting fires, officials say. Nearly 80% of their calls are for EMS, everything from heart attacks to shootings. Therefore, authorities have required since the late 1970s that every firefighter train as a medic. They are among the first to reach the wounded.

These are the men and women who provide urgent care in the streets, who hear the last words. As the captain notes, who get blood on their shoes.

“It’s takes an effect on everybody. It’s not easy," he says.

Then, they clean up.

“Can I get the fire department for a wash down?” a police officer calls over the radio.

A fire engine rolls out to another crime scene. By now, the paramedics and detectives have left. The crowds dispersed. Sometimes, crews are called to clean hours later.

“It just provides ease to the community," Brooks-Hailey says. “They can resume normal conditions without seeing this."

Engines carry a supply of cleaner. They splash bleach or peroxide over the scene.

“We don’t want a hazardous waste in the street,” Turner says.

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Crews unroll the hoses that can spray 200 gallons a minute. Their work doesn’t take long.

Then they leave with the streets washed clean, if only for a time.

Front line of city’s crisis

Erich March regularly sees his funeral home packed with mourners in T-shirts emblazoned with a young man’s face. He’s witnessed heartbroken mothers lean over a son’s body for the first time. He’s also heard friends of a young victim covet his casket, as if it were a nice car.

“I do too many of them,” March said of the services of mostly young men killed in homicides in Baltimore.

Erich March, VP & COO of March Funeral Homes, talks about what it's like to serve families who must bury loved ones who were victims of homicides.
Erich March, VP & COO of March Funeral Homes, talks about what it's like to serve families who must bury loved ones who were victims of homicides. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

March has worked for his family’s March Funeral Homes, one of the largest African-American-owned funeral service companies in the country, his entire life. But he’s frustrated by what he believes is a lack of value of life in the city.

“If a funeral home is saying enough is enough, it should sink in,” March said.

Often, families don’t have the money and the young men don’t have life insurance to cover the costs, so March and others work with homicide victims’ families, he said. Families who cannot get coverage from insurance can apply to get $5,000 from the state Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which also provides other services to victims.

March declined to say how many homicide victims his business has assisted this past year.

Of the victims they do assist, March said he’s seen more with multiple injuries, which can make an embalmer’s job most difficult.

The “restorative arts” process, which March described as “putting a person back together to give the family some comfort,” will often take longer with a homicide victim, depending on the extent of the injuries. Homicide victims must also undergo an autopsy, which March said can cause damage that must be repaired in order to make the body presentable. Sometimes, however, he said the damage is too great and a casket must remain closed.

“If you can’t actually see the person that you love it’s more traumatic,” he said.

For a man who has thought about death much of his life, he said he cannot comprehend why there are shooters who don’t seem to value life.

“You’ve hit the biggest lottery in the universe" by being born, he said.

March said he and his colleagues, despite their work, are still personally affected from some services. He has been brought to tears by the smaller caskets containing the city’s most vulnerable victims over the years.

Back in 1989, when the city had just 262 homicides, funeral home employees were so concerned about the violence that the March Funeral Home Choir released an album of anti-violence songs. Erich March said he wrote the lyrics to the first track titled “Needlessly (Us Killing Us).”

Last year, outside the North Avenue location, he said the company has once again set up a large plastic candle emblazoned with the words “Stop the Killing." The flame comes on at dusk.

“The police can’t solve this problem. It has to be a community awakening,” March said.

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