Earlier this year, Erricka Bridgeford's son told her something that stopped her cold: Baltimore was on pace for its most murderous year ever. It was a thought she couldn't shake, and it reminded her of an idea a friend had floated a few years before — a ceasefire weekend. What if Baltimore could go three days without anyone killing anyone else? What if we could stop the violence for 72 hours just by thinking about it, talking about it, marching about it, praying about it?
Ms. Bridgeford started up a Facebook chat with Ogun, the hip-hop artist who had originally suggested the ceasefire when the two were working on the 300 Man March, and a few other veterans of Baltimore's anti-violence efforts. From there, a grassroots movement was born. The first Ceasefire weekend, in August, brought thousands of people out to call for an end to the killings, and a second event in November was even bigger. Neither achieved their stated goal — both weekends saw killings — but the movement has produced something greater and more lasting. It made a city benumbed by violence feel once again the terrible loss of years of murders and shootings. It awakened a sense that the cycle of killing can be broken and that the power to do it lies in our own hands. For bringing hope to Baltimore in some of its bleakest hours, Erricka Bridgeford is The Sun's 2017 Marylander of the Year.
Violence and reconciliation
Ms. Bridgeford, 45, grew up in Normount Court, a low-income housing project in West Baltimore, the oldest of four children in a close knit family. Her parents were "the Huxtables of the ghetto," she says, a surrogate mom and dad to the entire neighborhood. The area was poor but not violent, at least not initially, but that changed in the '80s and '90s, and it eventually caught up with her family as well. Her brother David was murdered in 2007, six years after another brother, Nathan, was shot. It was Nathan's near death that led to her life's work, albeit indirectly.
She was working at the time at an organization that focused on infant wellness, and she got into a conflict with her boss about the amount of time she was spending at the hospital with her brother. Her boss called on the Baltimore Community Mediation Center to try to resolve the conflict, and Ms. Bridgeford was immediately taken with the idea of reconciliation it promised. She trained as a volunteer that year, was hired two months later and became the organization's director of training in 2002.
That experience in mediating disputes developed in Ms. Bridgeford a sensibility that is at the heart of the Ceasefire movement. Baltimore's violence not only produces pain but is the product of it, and the only way out is through healing. When officials talk about violent repeat offenders, she says, they talk about locking them up. "When I hear 'repeat violent offender,' I think they need to be healed," she says. "You can't find a violent offender who was not first a victim of a lot of stuff."
Besides working to keep the Ceasefire movement going, Ms. Bridgeford has taken it upon herself to visit the scene of every homicide in the city in an attempt to reclaim it. For far too many people, there are places in the city that are full of pain, places where the memory of violence done to a loved one produces a "tightness in the chest; you can feel the darkness of that incident," she says. During the August Ceasefire, as she was visiting the site where the first of two people who were killed that weekend, she felt an energy she had experienced once before while performing a Buddhist chant.
Since then, she has gone to the scene of every homicide in the city. Sometimes she's alone, sometimes a pair of anti-violence activists from Southwest Baltimore join her, sometimes a surgeon from Shock Trauma shows up, sometimes there's a crowd of 50 or 60 people. Ms. Bridgeford performs rituals that she admits might be a little weird and that even she doesn't fully understand, pressing her palm and then her forehead to the ground, chanting, burning sage, touching the grass and the trees. She says she can't erase what happened, but she can hope to "make the last memory of that space love, compassion and light" — not only for the victim but also for the murderer.
"We forget how powerful we are," Ms. Bridgeford says. "Especially in a situation where we're above 330 murders, it feels like an abyss. But when you remember you have power, you are light in all this, then you can do some things.
Does it work?
The Ceasefire movement was ripe for mockery by armchair cynics, and they did not disappoint, particularly after the first weekend saw two killings. But if it hadn't been for the Ceasefire, those two murders would have probably gone by all but unnoticed beyond the victims' families and friends, as far too many in this city do. Instead, this time, many more people took notice, felt pain and still committed to come back and try again. The November Ceasefire also saw a murder — but after that followed an unusually quiet stretch between shootings.
Did that happen because of the Ceasefire, or was it a statistical fluke? We don't know, but we can say that for all the debate over the years about police tactics, state and federal partnerships, prosecutorial effectiveness and all the other ways we've tried to stop the killings, our very best years have still seen a level of violence that would constitute an unimaginable horror in most cities. Wherever the pendulum swings on the continuum between zero-tolerance and community policing, we have not addressed the city's culture of violence. Ms. Bridgeford and the movement she helps to lead do.
Breaking the cycle of violence and retribution will be difficult, but Ms. Bridgeford has already achieved what may be the most important part of that task, and that's getting people to believe. We've gotten a lot of nominations for some Marylander of the Year candidates in the past; Larry Hogan in the year he won the governor's race being the previous standout. But the number of people who wrote to urge us to honor Ms. Bridgeford exceeded them all by far. One reader's comment was typical: "Her passion, grit, and poise has forever changed Baltimore and the violence prevention movement. She re-energized the entire population and provided hope when all around us we were struggling with despair over the growing numbers of individuals dying to gun violence."
Ms. Bridgeford says she just wants "Baltimore to feel about itself the way I feel about it," that it is a city full of amazing people with limitless potential. Thanks to her, we do.
Occupation: Conflict mediator, co-founder of Baltimore Ceasefire
Education: Western High School, Hood College, Sojourner Douglass College
Family: Married to Duane Bridgeford, a rapper and producer who performs as NOE; two daughters, Ibani and Jeri; a son, Paul; and a step-son, Qu'ran.