Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is urging black men to do more to help stop the killing in Baltimore — a call to action some applauded as a blunt truth, while others said the city government needs to step up as well.
In her State of the City address Monday, the mayor said more black men must become involved as mentors, tutors and community activists if the city is to reduce homicides — which, she noted, often involve black men killing black men.
"Too many of us in the black community have become complacent about black-on-black crime," she said afterward. "While many of us are willing to march and protest and become active in the face of police misconduct, many of us turn a blind eye when it's us killing us."
All but 22 of Baltimore's 211 homicide victims last year were black males.
Munir Bahar, a longtime community activist and an organizer of the 300 Man March, said the mayor was sending the right message.
"More black men need to step up and answer the call," Bahar said. "City officials can't raise children. That's not their job."
Bahar said city residents need to get creative about ways to change the environment for young people, citing a vacant building in Southwest Baltimore that he said has been turned into a fitness-training and community center.
"Our neighborhoods are in distress because the community hasn't built the infrastructure to stop these kids from becoming killers, drug dealers and drug addicts," Bahar said.
Leon Purnell, director of the Men and Families Center in East Baltimore, said he's been working to do just that, but he's not sure how much longer he can keep his 20-year-old nonprofit going. He said the city's been working against him, rather than helping the center serve the thousands who rely on it each year.
"Through these doors, we've saved thousands of people," Purnell said Monday at a rally for the center. "Don't tell me it's not making a difference."
The center teaches parenting skills and computer classes, offers help transitioning out of prison and administers preventive health care. It's had to relocate, Purnell said, after city inspectors cited the facility last month for code violations.
Rather than help him address the problems, Purnell said, the city was quick to shut the center down.
Purnell said he's paying $800 a month to rent a space a few blocks away, but coming up with the money from his $250,000 annual budget is a hardship. He wants the city and the state to help pay for the center's work.
The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said if Rawlings-Blake wants to be successful in her call to action, the city must invest in the Men and Families Center and programs like it.
"The integrity of our city hinges on centers like this," Witherspoon said at Monday's rally. "What we believe in is what we invest in. Our integrity is tied to that."
Witherspoon said the center's supporters will come together this month to devise an action plan to save the nonprofit.
Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the city stands ready to support the center, but to ignore the code violations would have been "reckless and negligent."
"There are so many opportunities out there for people who are engaging African-American males the right way, in a safe environment, that it would be irresponsible to not step in if we see a potential situation that is not safe," Harris said. "The mayor through a broad number of initiatives clearly supports the engagement for young people and black males."
Harris pointed toward the administration's construction of new recreation centers, a summer jobs programs for youth and a re-entry program that's helped more than 3,000 ex-offenders find work.
Ralph Moore, a community activist, said Rawlings-Blake needs to think even bigger. He believes the answer to decreasing homicides will be found in jobs, and he wants city and state leaders to do more to recruit businesses and good-paying employment.
"We don't have enough quality job training and quality education and enough jobs that pay decent wages," Moore said. "As long as we don't have training for jobs and decent wages, that other stuff is important, but it is not the answer."
In her address, Rawlings-Blake laid out a plan designed to create jobs by bolstering small businesses.
Of her call to reduce violence, the mayor said the city would hold a forum this month to recruit men "committed to making a difference in the lives of our children" and dedicated to bringing down the number of African-American men killed each year. She said the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple, would lead the forum. Bryant declined to comment.
"Our African-American men need to believe in their future," Rawlings-Blake said.
"We will reach out to organizations that are already working on this issue, and we will encourage others to join," she said. "We will not do it alone. We cannot do it alone. And most importantly, we cannot afford to fail."
City Councilman Brandon Scott praised the mayor's comments, and said any black man in Baltimore who is not mentoring a young person is "not a man."
"If we could see 10,000 mentors of these young men, I believe we would see a great change in the violence," Scott said. "They're clamoring for attention, but they're not getting it. We need men to reach back and pull these young men up."