10 years after Dawson deaths, community urged to speak out against crime

Ten years ago, a woman who wanted her children to live in a drug-free environment, and who called police on those who would have it otherwise, was killed when a man tied to the local drug trade kicked in the front door of her home in Oliver and set it ablaze.

At an event Tuesday night marking the deaths of Angela Dawson, her husband and five children in the fire, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the message being sent that night in 2002 was clear: that community members "should keep your mouth shut, that you shouldn't speak out, that you can't win."

Rawlings-Blake's message to the more than 100 community members gathered at the event outside the Dawson Family Safe Haven Center, which was built in the ashes of the Dawson's destroyed home, was just the opposite, she said.

"Though we've seen some dark days in Baltimore, I can't remember a darker one," Rawlings-Blake said of the Dawson attack. "I don't want to go back, but if we don't work together, that's where we're going to be."

In the past 10 years, the Oliver neighborhood has seen a surge of investment to turn vacant structures into renovated homes, officials said.

The fire served as "a wake-up call for all of us that we needed to step up," said Paul Graziano, the city's housing commissioner, and inspired efforts to begin "investing real dollars and turning these blighted shells into homes."

The center was built, there have been 125 homes renovated or scheduled for renovation, and there has been an increased focus on witness protection, he said.

Still, crime — and poverty — persist in the neighborhood, and Rawlings-Blake, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and other speakers said there is more work to be done in the community.

Cummings said residents should "speak their mind" if a family member who doesn't have a job flashes drug money, because kids should not live in fear of bullets or have to step on needles outside their homes.

"We cannot go on having rally after rally but still go on being destroyed from within," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Rawlings-Blake said community members should view police officers as partners in standing up to the "handful who choose terror over a future in their community."

She said it is "commitment that's going to make a difference" in the community.

Part of that commitment can already be seen in the Dawson center, she said. Many in the crowd agreed.

Ten years after the fire that killed the Dawsons, the center stands as the physical embodiment of the passion and desire for change that flooded the community after the fire, those in the crowd said.

"They push the kids to do for themselves, not ask for a handout," said Sean Kelly, whose daughter Mackenzie, a fourth-grader at St. James & St. John School, just started getting academic help at the center. "My hope is for her to continue to grow in there, to see how we as a community and as individuals can continue to grow with hard work."

Paris Holmes, 16, a junior at the Renaissance Academy who's been going to the center for five years, said staff members "are always willing to lend a helping hand."

Raschid Smith, a community coordinator at the center, said the goal there is the same one Angela Dawson had 10 years ago: to give neighborhood kids a safe environment to thrive in.

"We want to get the community back to a cohesive unit, with everybody looking out for one another," he said.



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