This ain't livin' [Commentary]

To paraphrase Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues," it makes you want to holler, the way so many people in Baltimore do their lives.

Dying is too easy in this city, and neither death nor we should be proud. Even before summer officially arrives, nearly 90 people have been slain. Sages of street life here, anti-violence crusaders like the Rev. Willie E. Ray, forecast long hot deadly days ahead. They point to unresolved conditions that breed such contempt for life that even the slightest thing prompts a violent response. The litany is familiar: joblessness, poverty, broken families, poor education, poor housing, inadequate recreation facilities, too few after-school programs.

"Oh, make me wanna holler and throw up both my hands…"

On my long and winding weekly ride to church on a Mobility bus on Sunday mornings, "The Wire" comes to life as that vehicle, for people damaged in body or mind, makes its way from northeast to west through block after block after block in neighborhoods likewise damaged. Not far from the city's gleaming skyscrapers and thriving harbor, not far from any so-called safe parts of this metropolis, are vast stretches of falling down or boarded up row houses, vacant lots, churches offering a glorious after life and liquor stores offering balm-in-Gilead antidotes for this life. I find myself humming the refrain from another song — the theme for "The Wire," that HBO series that still defines Baltimore for many.

"You gotta help me keep the devil way down in the hole…"

People live in these places visited by homicidal mayhem, from which most of us are shielded, in these blocks "way down in the hole" that we know mainly from the daily rundown of casualties that bring funeral homes alive with the sounds of mourning.

"This ain't livin'," Marvin Gaye sang.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, in a series of public safety forums around the city, are trying with evangelical zeal to convince Baltimoreans that, because of their leadership, we should not judge the city by its body count.

To the relatively few merchants of death — "the repeat, violent offenders who are causing havoc and terrorizing our community" — the mayor says: "We're going to bring down the wrath of every resource that we have on you and everybody that's in your group to make sure that you get the message that we're done. The time that we are paralyzed by violence, that we are crippled by violence, is over. We want better for Baltimore."

The chief of patrol, Col. Darryl DeSousa, promises an initiative, soon to be unveiled, "specifically targeting certain folks, certain areas, certain gangs in the city."

That, and Commissioner Batts' efforts to reform the police department so that it is "a part of the community, not an occupying army," is reassuring. But not enough. As the mayor acknowledges, "Public safety is more than law enforcement. There is no way we are going to arrest our way out of the violence that we've seen."

So her job training programs, new schools in the pipeline, new state-of-the art recreation centers, as well as new City Council initiatives to eliminate obstacles to employment for ex-offenders and to toughen curfews to take unsupervised children off the streets at ungodly hours will go a long way toward making the city more safe — and making residents and tourists feel safe.

But there is room for even more, and that's where we the people come in, replacing our inner city blues with a new attitude of activism. We see that in Councilman Nick Mosby's "Enough is Enough" Friday night rallies in the violent precincts of West Baltimore. But there is room for even more.

People who know who the bad guys are need to turn them in, breaking the shackles of a "don't snitch" mentality that only benefits the criminals. The mayor touts a dramatic rise "in the amount of information we are getting from the public." There is room for more.

Time and again at community meetings, I have heard people say that more people, especially more men, need to step up as mentors for young boys. I hear it from women struggling to guide their boys into manhood. I hear it from Commissioner Batts and his team. I hear it from community organizers.

Instead of throwing up our hands, more of us need to roll up our sleeves — starting with people seeking salvation in the city's gazillion houses of worship.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her email is

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