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Baltimore violence won't stop unless we stop it

Baltimore residents rally for the ceasefire anti-violence effort Friday night in West Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Raising black children in Baltimore City is a courageous act. It is challenging and difficult and has caused me more than once to rethink my decision to live here. But every time I think about moving, I drive through the city and I am charmed all over again as places like Red Emma's, R House, the Red Canoe, The Ivy Bookstore and Lexington market remind me of what I love most about Smalltimore. It is diverse and unpretentious, it is open and honest. It is a city with a thousand stories and a million different perspectives. This is why I chose it, and this is why I want my boys to grow up here.

At the same time, we are a city that is under siege, as are so many areas of our country. We now see the impact of what happens to a nation when three generations of black males are incarcerated and or marginalized by an inadequate educational system. We now see what happens when people are forced to live in food deserts, when police brutality goes unchecked, when society is socialized to see the black body as dangerous and criminal. And yes, when young black people living in the inner city put their trust and their hope in weapons and violence; we reap what we sow.

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As a black mother and researcher who spends a great amount of time tracking Baltimore's homicide numbers, I have reached the sunken place. I no longer believe that the city can be saved without ongoing radical intervention. Love can not stop a bullet, and praying hands are most effective when they are reaching out to help. According to mental health professionals, there is a direct link between witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These events, like living in a war zone or experiencing the death of a loved one, can cause an individual to fear for their own life and well-being.

Studies show that exposure to violence is a major factor damaging children's health.

With at least 211 homicides and many more shootings thus far this year, we are a city that is in deep mourning; we are a city that is deeply troubled. Baltimore City is in the midst of a war, and many of its residents are suffering from PTSD. Some of the symptoms include physical pain, like headaches, fatigue or chest pain; negative changes in beliefs and feelings, where you begin to believe that the world is completely dangerous and no one can be trusted; or developing a sense of hyperarousal, where you are always alert and on the lookout for danger. This describes how I feel almost every day in this city, and it makes sense as our homicide numbers are higher than in New York City, which has a population almost 14 times the size of ours, and our homicide rate is more than double Chicago's. Homicide has become our way of life. It is no longer shocking nor surprising. It is to be expected in this never ending cycle of violence, failed solutions, fear and distrust.

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Erricka Bridgeford talks about the Baltimore Ceasefire Sunday morning at the Living Hope at Kingdom Life Church in Baltimore. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)

Yet I hold on because there are groups working in this city who will never give up or give in. They practice daily acts of political and social resistance to the current modes of violent subjugation, and they offer all types of solutions — from pop up evening activities for teenagers to manhood training programs for adolescents. They understand that the violence in our city does not stop until we stop it. This is what Erricka Bridgeford and the Baltimore Ceasefire organizers were counting on when they called for a 72-hour city-wide moratorium on homicide: "Nobody Kill Anybody." The group worked from the ground up, calling on community residents (from gang members to church folk) to be involved and engaged.

This is not the first time a ceasefire has been tried. In 2008, there was a Mother's Day Ceasefire Weekend hosted by the Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United, yet we ended that year with 234 homicides. In 2014, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake unveiled Operation Ceasefire to stop gun violence and we ended that year with 211 homicides.

A successful anti-violence program, welcomed in 2014, is scrapped by the city.

But this past weekend, things felt different. The city felt safer, and it felt like a community. We came together in support of something bigger than ourselves. Two people were murdered, and though we mourn their deaths, we rejoice because so many others were saved. The Baltimore Ceasefire has ended, but as Erricka Bridgeford noted, the work to turn Baltimore's blood-stained streets into sacred spaces has not.

This is our city, our Holy Ground, and this is how we go forward and disrupt the cycle of violence. This is how we hold on and reclaim our city. This is what we do because we are resilient and we are Baltimore.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (kewhitehead@loyola.edu; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and a Baltimore City Commissioner for the Community Relations Commission. A version of this editorial was aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore's NPR station.

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