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A return to '90s carnage in Baltimore

In Baltimore, one of every three people struck by gunfire dies. That means it ranks as the most lethal of America’s largest cities, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis. (Baltimore Sun video)

The skyrocketing deaths in Baltimore look eerily familiar to those of us who survived the carnage of young black men in the '90s.

Back then, I was the laid back guy in the crew, but my friends thought I was playing a dangerous game. Instead of wearing my bulletproof vest every day in the streets of Baltimore, most of the time, I kept it in the trunk of my car. I hated it. It was bulky and uncomfortable, and I thought it was unnecessary. My friends would constantly tell me that I was being stupid and foolish. But the way I looked at it back then, I was a tough guy, so I didn't really need it — right?

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I started selling dime bags of heroin in the '80s as a teen-ager. By 1990, the drug-ravaged city was recording 300-plus homicides. But it wasn't until my friend Mooch was shot and killed in the parking lot of Mondawmin Mall that I changed my tune. Everyone was shocked when he died, and soon afterward, I figured, if someone could get a guy as popular as Mooch, then surely I could be touched. The rumor in the streets was that this was an assassination brought on by a meaningless personal grudge. But nobody really knew the answer to who killed our friend from Lexington Terrace. It was just another senseless death of a black man on the streets.

This was one of many high profile homicides in Baltimore that year. It was a tense time. The heroin trade was flourishing, and dead bodies were dropping from the west side to the east. None of us wanted to admit it, but we were all concerned about being shot and dying in the street. Nevertheless, the fear of being killed still wasn't enough to persuade us to run away from the profits generated by the underground drug economy.

The same appears true today. A Sun story last weekend revealed Baltimore, which recorded 344 homicides last year, to be one of America's deadliest cities. Trigger pullers fire their weapons multiple times, aiming for the head to get around any body armor that might be worn. And a street code that once made innocent bystanders off limits is largely ignored today by shooters who grew up in the shadow of city violence and simply incorporated it into their world views. They don't know anything but the game and the despondency of streets.

When you don't feel hope for a promising future, you don't have a reason to prepare for tomorrow. When your friends are being shot and killed in the streets, there's not much reason for you to think beyond today. I call it the "I'm next syndrome." Most days you don't believe there will even be a tomorrow, so there's no motivation to make a plan for the future; you're always thinking to yourself, "I'm next."

And so, life becomes a survival of the fittest — to kill or be killed.

It pains me today to turn on the evening news just to hear more stories about homicides and death. Officials are projecting 300 murders in Baltimore this year, holding the '90s numbers steady after years of decline. It's gotten to the point where the elderly residents of our city don't even want to leave their homes during the weekend, because that's usually when gunfire erupts with a vengeance.

Eventually, I got off the streets and out of the life through education. I actually took college courses while in federal prison, focusing on business management. I took classes like business law, marketing and English 101, and I read anything I could get my hands on — from books on Middle Eastern leaders to those on black history heroes like W.E.B. DuBois, Jesse Owens and Rosa Parks. Ultimately I found that many of the skills I learned while involved in the underground drug culture in Baltimore — including sales, management and leadership — were transferable.

When I returned to the community I returned with soft skills needed to rebuild my life. Soon, I was no longer looked at as a liability draining the community of resources but an asset to help and guide others in a positive direction. Even with the lack of opportunities in our city, I created opportunities for myself by working hard and not quitting, despite some mistakes along the way. One of my very first jobs following prison was working for a nonprofit and helping formerly incarcerated men and women find jobs; this work opened many doors, allowing me to work on policy issues affecting the community. In the last 10 years I've worked on several committees and initiatives designed to curb violence and substance use in Baltimore and nationally. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that there are no simple solutions. Easy access to guns and drugs and growing up amid violence tends to breed more of the same.

Since 2014 I've been a member of a working group for the Clemency Project, a White House initiative through which President Barack Obama has been able to release from federal prison 673 nonviolent drug offenders who were previously serving lengthy sentences. Our work group meets quarterly in Washington, D.C. at the offices of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and makes recommendations about the resources that are necessary to help returning citizens make a successful transition back into the community. Such efforts will go a long way toward helping people resist the lure of drug money.

There are many organizations and advocacy groups working tirelessly to reform the criminal justice system and create "fair sentencing" for us all and better opportunities for city kids. But while that work is being accomplished, those of us living in communities where homicide is a regular occurrence have to do a better job of loving one another and ourselves just long enough not to commit another murder.

We have to be better than the city we grew up in so that the city will be better for our children.

Kevin Shird is author of the memoir "Lessons of Redemption" and a youth advocate. His email is kevin.shird@yahoo.com.

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