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As Baltimore hits grim milestone, another call to lay down arms

Neighborhood leaders are once again urging Baltimore’s young men to lay down their guns for a murder-free weekend, calling for peace across a city that’s suffered 300 killings in 307 days this year.

The grim milestone of 300 homicides arrived late Thursday as volunteers prepared to begin the second Baltimore Ceasefire, a weekend of free events from basketball to barbecue — all intended to quell the violence.

During the year’s first Ceasefire in August, Lamontrey Tynes and Donte Johnson were killed, and gunfire wounded four others during the 72-hour period. And more than 100 people have been killed in the three months since the last call for peace.

“It was looking darker and darker. People were dying and dying … it’s so dark that we’ve forgotten our light,” said Erricka Bridgeford, a professional mediator who founded Baltimore’s ceasefire movement. “So that’s what we need to do — flick the lights on.”

With events both large and small this weekend, participants hope to illuminate Baltimore against the violence. The volunteers resumed the movement Friday afternoon by raising “Baltimore Ceasefire” signs and singing gospel songs along Edmondson Avenue.

Behind them was the Dollar General where Deric Ford Sr., a kindly store manager, was shot and killed in a robbery three months ago. Up the street was the block where Sean Williams, a popular teenage dirt bike rider known as “Biker Boy Sean,” was gunned down in June.

About 20 volunteers assembled on the sidewalk with their signs and calling out as cars passed: “Stop the violence!” “Celebrate life!” They were retired teachers, churchgoers and nurses, shouting into the rushing traffic.

“What else can you do? It feels like something,” said Mary Buchanan, a parishioner at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church.

“Even if this is all that shows up, it means something that somebody cares,” said Brigit Molony, a reading teacher at The Lamb of God School in Halethorpe.

Bridgeford said they will repeat their calls for a 72-hour truce every three months until the violence abates.

The first ceasefire weekend drew attention from around the country. Hundreds of people pledged to uphold the peace. Volunteers designed a website and held community meetings. The grass-roots campaign swelled. Participants held a candlelight vigil and read the names of everyone killed by then in 2017, a ceremony they plan to repeat this Sunday.

Among those killed this year was Tynes, the 24-year-old man shot during the second day of the August ceasefire. In a meeting with his mother, Pamela Hall, Bridgeford said she won’t abandon her campaign to end Baltimore’s gun violence.

“They ain’t giving up. Even though there is still killing, she’s still reaching out,” Hall said. “She’s making a difference.”

Bridgeford emerged as a city leader with the success of her first ceasefire. The 45-year-old mediator said her younger brother was gunned down a decade ago in Southwest Baltimore. His killer was never caught. Born without her right hand, the tireless activist said she lives today by the motto “greatness is focused insanity.”

“I’ve had to live my life with people looking at me like I’m broken,” she said, “like they look at Baltimore like it’s broken.”

Even as the killings pile up, she remains committed. “All it does is remind us to stay steadfast,” she said.

Other communities have called for ceasefires after spates of violence in Birmingham, Ala., and Berkeley, Calif. Such efforts are as much about empowering residents as reducing homicide statistics, researchers say.

A similar ceasefire campaign began in Chicago in 2013 and spread across the country, with people wearing orange in June to draw attention to the scourge of gun violence. Across the country, more than 90 people are shot and killed every day, according to the Wear Orange campaign.

Baltimore, meanwhile, remains gripped by its own spike of violence, with 2017 on pace to be the city’s deadliest year ever. The number of homicides shot up to 344 in 2015; another 318 people were killed last year. Baltimore had not exceeded 300 annual homicides for more than a decade before 2015.

Community ceasefires, however, have failed to stem the violence in the past. The group Mothers of Murdered Sons called for a ceasefire over the Mother’s Day weekend, but at least four people were shot, two fatally, including a 59-year-old man and 17-year-old woman.

“If we can stop one person from picking up a gun, we will have accomplished something,” said Patricia Williams, standing on Edmondson Avenue Friday.

Williams retired after teaching 40 years at Lyndhurst Elementary School in the neighborhood.

“These are my children; these are my children’s children,” she said, lifting up her ceasefire sign.

Beside her was Darlene Cain, a former nursing assistant who devoted herself to community activism after her son was shot and killed by police in 2012. There was Shirley Alexander, another retired teacher, who called out to the passing drivers, urging them to stop and join.

“All these people who are passing us, they need to be taking a sign. These people need to stop. Everybody needs to get involved,” she said.

Valerie Keys circled the small crowd with burning sage, brushing the smoke through the air with a white feather. She said she woke at midnight Thursday and began her own small movement, walking through West Baltimore with a bowl of the burning sage to cleanse the city.

Later Friday, a candlelight vigil in Mount Washington brought together people from two different Baltimores - those who live in security and those who live just blocks away where violence has torn lives apart.

Evan Serpick from Mount Washington wanted to be part of the second ceasefire weekend.

“We feel like we are in a bubble sometimes,” he said, adding that his neighbors hope to stand with those in the neighborhoods of Park Heights and Glen.

His neighbors gathered in a circle on the grounds of Elderslie St. Andrews United Methodist Church, standing next to some of the women who have had sons, cousins and nephews killed in Baltimore.

Sharon McMahan lost her son in 2004. She said she talked to him on the phone 15 minutes before she drove up to the party where she was going to pick him up and found him shot and lying in the gutter.

She lives with the pain daily, said McMahan, who went on to become a violence counselor.

“My heart is heavy but I tell everyone you have to get out and love on people.”

Reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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