Tyriece Watson, the rapper known as Lor Scoota, is one of more than 130 people who have been killed in Baltimore this year, but his murder has gripped the city in a way that few others do. Tributes have poured out on social media and street corners, culminating in two days of public remembrances and performances by fellow hip hop artists. It's not just his fame that has led so many to grieve his death. It is the promise he represented as someone who had escaped the street life. It is the good he had done in working with the city's young people. It is the irony that he was gunned down on his way home from a peace rally.
"Lor Scoota was a mirror of the conditions of Baltimore," Derrick Chase of Stand Up Baltimore said Wednesday. He may have been unique in his talent for expressing the sad reality of life in neighborhoods decimated by poverty and the drug trade, but his experience and its tragic end were all too common. Each and every one of those killed in Baltimore loved and was loved, and whether they are mourned by thousands or a few, they leave holes in the lives of those who remain. "Honestly, I didn't know how to feel because I've lost a lot of friends on these same streets," Donzell Canada said last year of his childhood friend, Freddie Gray. "I'm kind of getting numb — not numb, but it's not a surprise." Canada would be killed too, shot to death last month on the streets where he had grown up.
We have had endless debates over the years about law enforcement strategies and leadership in the police department and state's attorney's office, but the horrible truth is that even at times when we have celebrated historic drops in violence, it has remained at levels most other cities would consider horrific. Police can adjust their tactics all they want, but what can stop someone willing to step into the street and fire into a car, as Watson's attacker reportedly did? Law enforcement officials can promise to go after violent, repeat offenders, but how can they do that if witnesses won't talk, whether out of fear or a warped sense of honor?
The deep roots of Baltimore's violence are vividly rendered in Watson's most famous song, "Bird Flu." Sung in the voice of a drug dealer bragging about his sales prowess — "Right back on the block I'm selling drugs like it's a job/Junkies walking around the block, I've got them lined up on the wall/Them dope crowds look like after school at Mondawmin Mall" — it reflects a warped world in which predation, violence and addiction are the stuff of opportunity and ambition. It's hard to know where even to begin to fix it. As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported this week, Watson's death has prompted despair among his peers about finding any kind of future in Baltimore.
And who's to say they're wrong? Unemployment in inner city Baltimore remains rampant. The state announced this week that 107 people died of overdoses in the city in the first three months of the year — a slight improvement over the start of 2015 but still nearly double any other jurisdiction in the state. And killings, while down from last year's torrid pace, are still at a level we hadn't seen in years. At least five more people have been killed since Watson's death, and the number of non-fatal shootings is actually worse than last year.
Yet something has changed since Freddie Gray's death. The police department's leadership has unquestionably shown it is better attuned to building relationships with the community, from tangible steps like the advent of body cameras and a new use-of-force policy to the sensitivity and empathy Commissioner Kevin Davis has displayed in his comments about race and policing. State and local leaders have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to causes ranging from eliminating blight to expanding library hours. Big institutions and corporations, led by Johns Hopkins, are changing purchasing and hiring policies to boost the local economy and help those who have been shut out of the legal job market. Individuals and small groups are pitching in to bring enrichment for youth, and local philanthropists and businesses have collaborated to provide 8,000 summer jobs for city teens this year.
None of that is a quick fix for the social conditions Watson sang about. It will take years and the commitment of thousands across the city to change them, but the task is not impossible. We can still be touched by a senseless killing. We can see the tragic waste of potential. All hope is not lost.