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Death of a peacemaker: Baltimore should honor Dante Barksdale by making a bigger commitment to Safe Streets | COMMENTARY

Dante Barksdale, a Safe Streets Outreach Coordinator, was shot to death Sunday morning in Baltimore.
Dante Barksdale, a Safe Streets Outreach Coordinator, was shot to death Sunday morning in Baltimore. (Ulysses Muñoz, Baltimore Sun)

I heard a man say he felt defeated. I heard a man say that the streets had finally won. A peacemaker named Dante “Tater” Barksdale had been shot dead on Sunday morning, and by Monday his colleague from the Safe Streets effort, James Timpson, was thinking hard about all the time they had invested in trying to stop violence in Baltimore.

Tater? They killed Tater? Tater was out there trying to make peace and save lives. Someone killed him?

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Baltimoreans will understand how Timpson might regard the bitter irony of his friend’s murder and think it was all for nothing — years spent on the street, trying to talk young men out of the nonsense that gets them killed, and all for this?

“I had to sit with myself and try to get some peace about it,” Timpson says. “I felt defeated.”

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Timpson is 45 years old. Barksdale was 46. They were leaders in Safe Streets for close to five years, almost all of it during the surge in gun violence that commenced in 2015. Timpson and Barksdale supervised Safe Street’s violence interrupters, ex-offenders who try to recognize brewing trouble and keep gunfire from breaking out. That’s their mission.

A couple of years ago, Timpson left Safe Streets for a job with Roca, another program designed to intervene in the lives of at-risk young men, but going beyond what Safe Streets does to get them out of the cycle of crime. Timpson remained close to Barksdale. He was crushed by his death.

“I had to sit and think about Tater being shot,” Timpson says. “And, as frustrating as it is, I came back to the same place. I said to myself, ‘You have to finish the work. That’s what the work is about. That’s what Tater was about. This is exactly why we stay in it. You can’t give up. You have to keep believing in the goodness of young people.’”

Changing hearts and minds, getting young men to stop using guns to resolve conflicts — that’s the hard sweat of peacemakers. Baltimore lost a good one on Sunday.

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James Timpson worked with Dante “Tater” Barksdale at Safe Streets. Timpson left Safe Streets for a job with Roca, another program designed to intervene in the lives of at-risk young men.
James Timpson worked with Dante “Tater” Barksdale at Safe Streets. Timpson left Safe Streets for a job with Roca, another program designed to intervene in the lives of at-risk young men. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

There were times, Timpson says, when someone with a beef would reject reason and a situation seemed certain to erupt in gunfire, but Barksdale managed to get everyone to chill.

“Tater was a special person, he was unique,” Timpson says. “He was at the forefront of the things we did, and I saw him quash tense situations between guys that left me, like, ‘Really? You did that?’ I’ve seen others [in Safe Streets] do that. But Tater, he made it look easy. His people skills, the way he could talk to them, were really good. People looked up to him. He had a strong presence.”

A few years ago, Timpson and Barksdale went to Chicago for a conference of interrupter programs, and even there Barksdale managed to make peace. While waiting to enter a church basketball tournament for at-risk boys, Timpson and Barksdale happened into a dispute between gangs that appeared to be on the verge of a gunfight. “We saw guys with guns and gun handles sticking out, and it was going to get ugly,” Timpson says. “But Tater, he talked to one of the guys he had met earlier, and talked him down. He did stuff like that in Baltimore all the time.”

Even during the city’s current siege of shootings and homicides, Safe Streets recorded successful interventions in four sectors of the city where ex-offenders — “credible messengers,” in public health parlance — managed to prevent violence.

In the first five months of 2015, for instance, the Safe Streets sector in Park Heights reported only one shooting and no homicides. In 2016, the Safe Streets post in Cherry Hill had periods of 119 and 80 days without a fatal shooting. The Sandtown-Winchester post managed to go 213 days without a fatal shooting in 2016; it had only two shooting incidents in the first three months of 2017. A relatively new post in Brooklyn went 116 days without a shooting in the first part of 2020.

Still, skeptics look at Baltimore’s rate of shootings and homicides and question whether Safe Street works. Two years ago, a comprehensive study of violence intervention efforts by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that, while Safe Streets had some success at reducing shootings in certain neighborhoods, the program’s long-term effectiveness was limited.

The study found that the Baltimore Police Department’s assignment of detectives to neighborhoods at high risk for gun violence was more effective at reducing shootings for longer periods. That initiative, however, generated complaints of police abuse and costly lawsuits against the city. It was the subject of criticism in the 2016 Justice Department report that found police too often stopped, frisked and arrested residents — disproportionately Black residents — without justification.

So there’s a right way and wrong way to go about all of this, and the BPD is working on the right way in a consent decree with the Justice Department.

As for Safe Streets, the Hopkins report found the program promising — it has stopped violence from erupting in places and persuaded some young men to stop reaching for guns to resolve conflicts — but it needs a much bigger commitment from the city, including more interrupters at better pay in more neighborhoods. That would be a fitting memorial to Tater Barksdale and all the other peacemakers who still fight, who do not give up.

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