There are days and weeks in the city of Baltimore when it’s hard to think past the latest horror. This time the victim is Jacquelyn Smith, who, police say, was stabbed to death after being kind and generous to a panhandling stranger through a car window. Consider the utter depravity of that act, and it’s hard to think of anything else.
Since early 2015, we in this city have been pushed to the borders of hopelessness by the rise in violence, the revelations of cop corruption, and the dysfunction in leadership. The mayor taking campaign money from the liquor store owners she claims to condemn, cutting down a 30-foot spruce in a park for a City Hall Christmas tree — any other week, those stories might be worth public concern, or interest, even good for some Twitter sarcasm. But we have the death of Jacquelyn Smith, and, while there have been hundreds of killings, it’s hard to look at this one and not see a measure of municipal degeneracy.
Some of us will mark it as aberrant because the victim was from the suburbs, an innocent passing through, and because panhandlers are everywhere and almost nowhere act violently toward those who give them money. But, coming in the stream of violence that could make 2018 the fourth consecutive year of 300-plus homicides, coming in the midst of a prolonged opioid epidemic, the death of Jacquelyn Smith represents all the fears that make Baltimoreans restless — that desperation and violent impulse are at critical mass, that city leaders (including the new class elected in 2016) have been too slow to respond, that the bad casts longer and darker shadows over the good, that it will be years before we return to a civic-spiritual trajectory we can call positive.
But I won’t leave you there.
Hard as it is to think of anything beyond the death of Keith Smith’s wife and what it says about Baltimore, we can’t lose all hope. There are lots of people, city and suburban, who believe in a better Baltimore and who, despite all its lingering problems, still want to have a hand in the city’s recovery.
A month ago, I received a letter from a reader about Baltimore’s squeegee-equipped boys and young men. John Frizzera wondered what motorists could do to help besides roll down their windows and give the squeegee kids money.
“I'm a typical Baltimore County dad and I work in the city,” Frizzera wrote. “I've heard both sides of the squeegee kid debate. One of the youngest, smallest kids I've ever seen wanted to wash my windshield. I would have said yes, but he couldn't even reach that high. Cars couldn't see him, he was so short. And so young. I told him to get up on the median strip, and I gave him $5. I want to help out, don't know how. I have three sons of my own and my time is tight, but as a parent and a member of society, I need to do something.”
Frizzera asked for suggestions. I came up with a few from people I respect.
“Donate or volunteer with a grassroots organization in the city,” said David Miller, founder of the Dare To Be King Project, focused on helping black boys survive the transition to adulthood. “Donating $25 per month could impact an organization’s ability to provide ongoing support to youth programs like Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood. ... Maryland Mentor is focused on recruiting mentors. The commitment is four hours each month.”
Other suggestions: Higher Achievement is always looking for tutors for their after-school program, and if you want to support young people who are homeless, there’s the YES Drop-In Center near Charles Village for teens and young adults living on the streets.
“There are several things that this man can do to make a difference in Baltimore,” said David Warnock, the venture capitalist and philanthropist who ran for mayor two years ago.
Warnock suggested supporting Humanim, Thread, or the Center for Urban Families. But he also urged doing something outside the suburban comfort zone: Take your family to worship at a city church; pick a city restaurant and go there twice a month and get to know the owner; bring your family and friends to cultural events in the city; listen to the talk on WEAA or WOLB as much as you listen to WYPR or WBAL.
“Create an internship program for high schoolers of color at your job,” Warnock added. “Find a public K-6 school in the city and adopt it. Give it clothes, books, money. Make it a project that means something to you. And then identify a scholar at that school and mentor that child.”
If none of this inspires you to act, or even write a check, I understand. This week it’s hard to think about anything beyond the horrible death of Jacquelyn Smith. But I couldn’t leave it there. Giving up is not an option.