With dozens of his determined but traumatized colleagues behind him on an East Baltimore corner, Safe Streets worker Alex Long grabbed a microphone and spoke of pain, frustration and hope.
“When I look out in this crowd, I see a lot of love but I also see a lot of hatred and revenge,” Long said Saturday. “For some reason, we keep having these gatherings, we keep having these circles. Three people lost their lives for absolutely nothing.”
DaShawn “Nut” McGrier, 29, Tyrone “TJ” Allen, 28, and Hassan “Woot” Smith, 24, were all gunned down Wednesday night in a drive-by shooting in the 2400 block of E. Monument St. that also left another man injured. Candles and balloons put in place for a vigil Saturday replaced the evidence cones and shell casings which earlier this week marked the location of brazen violence that killed them.
They grew up and died together in the McElderry Park area. For about a month before his death, McGrier committed himself to keeping his community safe as a violence interrupter for Living Classrooms Foundation Safe Streets East. Allen and Smith were the type of people who brought a sense of community to the place, neighbors said at the vigil.
Speakers eulogized their friends and also hailed the work of Safe Streets workers, who often put themselves in harms way to make their communities safer, and decried the killings.
“We’re the only ones who have our fate in our hands and we give it away day by day. So what choices are we going to make?” Long preached. “This is our community. This is our family. We’re neighbors, homeboys, homegirls — we all grew up together and this is what we cause each other. So get real: This truly has to stop!”
McGrier’s death was the latest to underscore the perils of being a Safe Streets violence interrupter. Safe Streets worker Kenyell Wilson was killed in Cherry Hill in July and Dante Barksdale, described by some as the “heart and soul” of Safe Streets, was shot to death outside Douglass Homes last January.
Still, their colleagues everyday seek out disputes and try to settle them before they devolve into violence. As Long puts it, they are armed not with guns, but with street credentials earned through their own scrapes with the law; protected not with bulletproof vests, but with their ability to find the words to defuse situations that often turn deadly.
Mayor Brandon Scott, who attended the vigil, pledged to work with the state to empower Safe Streets workers with equipment to keep them safe, including exploring protective vests.
Saturday’s vigil brought Safe Streets workers, clad in black and orange coats, from across the city. Workers said they wanted to show their support for their fallen colleague and display their resolve to stem the shootings in Baltimore. Homicides and nonfatal shootings in 2022 are already outpacing the year before. At least five people were killed since their homicides, including three Saturday within hours of the vigil.
Among the Safe Streets workers in attendance Saturday were Tayon Dixon and Davon Crawford, violence interrupters from the Sandtown outpost. Both men said it was traumatizing to learn of a colleague being gunned down but also said it motivated them to prevent the next death.
Crawford, 38, recalled a recent interaction: Two young men — best friends — ready to fight over money in a city where guns are easy to acquire. He said they spoke of killing each other but shook hands and walked away because he intervened.
“We come out here everyday and put our life on the line to stop a brother from taking another life. That’s why we’re here,” Crawford said. He was shaken by McGrier’s death. “You want to make it back to your family, too.”
Those who knew McGrier and Allen described them as devout family men. Both had young daughters, and Allen had a baby boy on the way — three children who will grow up without their fathers.
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Steven Turner, 28, grew up with them both. He said Allen was his best friend, a kind and generous person who, while not officially a violence interrupter, had a way to calm people down.
“Anybody having a bad time, bad thoughts, he’d tell them ‘It’s bigger than that. We got to grow old together,’” Turner said. “He had a big heart.”
Long, who lost his sister to gun violence in the same neighborhood roughly five years ago, said McGrier and Allen shared a passion for being positive influences for youths.
Smith, meanwhile, graduated from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he played football, and went on to attend Baltimore City Community College, according to acquaintances who attended the vigil. He was remembered as funny and caring as well as smart, someone who could take apart a smartphone and put it back together.
“We don’t have too many friends that go to college,” said Turner. “For us, that’s big.”
Allen had encouraged them all to go to Washington Wizards game recently to celebrate Smith’s birthday, the last time they were together before the night they were killed. Instead of benefitting from their collective gifts, the community collectively mourned their deaths.
“We lost three friends in one night,” Turner said.