Sun, 06 Mar 2005


Baltimore, Maryland: Murder capital of U.S.

Suzanne Goldenberg, Guardian News Service, Baltimore, Maryland

A teddy bear hangs from a stop sign on one of the corners of the Rev Willie Ray's patch of west Baltimore, white plush fur sinking under urban grime, and nearby, a graffiti warning. "If you don't gang bang, close your mouth. Death before dishonor."

For 36 years, he has been ministering to these streets and their congregation of the dispossessed. Three generations have grown up, got into drugs, had children, gone to jail, and died young, their passing marked by sad street shrines like this one. "It's just been a holocaust in the city," says Ray. "A lot of young people are killing each other."

At a time when violent crime is coming down in America's big cities, Baltimore recorded 278 murders in 2004, the equivalent of one for every 2,342 of its people. It is the highest per capita death rate of all U.S. cities, and six times deadlier than New York. The statistics for January were worse: 32 homicides in 31 days.

They were young men, killers and victims both, overwhelmingly between 16 and 28 years old, and the deaths were strangely intimate: "walk-up shootings", where the killer approaches and shoots the victim in the chest or head with a large-caliber gun.

The motive in nearly all the cases was drugs, mainly heroin, and a struggle for control between rival dealers.

Of the dead, 246 of the 278 were African-American. So were 128 of the 147 suspects. Nearly 90 percent of the killers had criminal records; so did most of their victims, with an average of eight arrests apiece.

Poor, black, and not without sin, these were not the kind of victims to inspire sympathy from the police or the public, and the frustration of the city authorities at cleaning up after such lethal turf battles is tangible.

"These are executions. It's drug dealers killing drug dealers," says Matt Jablow, a spokesman for the Baltimore police. "The same thing has been happening forever."

As far as Baltimore police are concerned, 2004 was a relatively good year. The bigger organized crime gangs which once ruled over drugs and other transactions were broken up more than a decade ago, introducing a period of instability with freelance operators struggling to stake out their patch.

While skirmishes between small-time dealers are taking their toll on a few impoverished pockets of the city, life for the majority of law-abiding Baltimoreans is safe.

Overall, violent crime has gone down by 30 percent in the past five years. But officials such as Jablow say it would be naive to think the drugs trade is ever going to disappear entirely from Baltimore.

Unlike New York, which saw its crime rate drop during the Wall Street boom of the 1990s, the city has been in decline for a generation, shedding both jobs and residents.

"We've lost a lot of industrial blue-collar jobs that were well- paying, with benefits, and did not require a college education," says Peter Beilenson, the city's health commissioner. "We don't have that anymore, and so for those who don't go to college, there are really not great economic alternatives. They are going to have a hard time finding a living wage."

Others go even further, arguing that the drugs trade has supplanted blue-collar work as a working class aspiration, and that failing inner city schools and broken families have failed to foster bigger ambitions.

"They accept the drug/thug lifestyle because the achievement is no longer accessible," says Ray.


That is how it seems in the Ray's home parish of west Baltimore, a killing-zone demarcated by burnt-out and boarded-up houses, with the few surviving businesses as heavily barricaded as forts.

Many of the dead were from these streets; the living remain in mortal fear of losing their children to the drug wars, or of being fingered as police informers.

"Our youth are killing each other. Every other day it seems someone is getting murdered," says a woman, who would give only her first name, Debbie, for fear of retaliation.

"I know young children, four or five years old, that have lost their father, and their father is just in his 20s."

Two of the murder victims, killed within a week of each other, had fathered children by women living in Debbie's block of row houses.

"One was in college," she says. "He was doing the right things in life. He had moved out of the neighborhood, and was trying to better himself."

These are the forces Ray confronts daily as he makes his rounds, handing out flyers for afternoon programs and dance contests, waving at anyone who will meet his eye.

"My concentration has been staying right here in the hood and dealing with crime," he says, and is scathing about African Americans who have moved out to better neighborhoods. "They go into another world, another dimension of success, and they don't see the city as their responsibility."

His crusade has changed course over the years. At first, he tried candlelight vigils and Stop the Killing marches. He turned to local churches, begging them to reach out to the community. He approached professional athletes, asking them to share their success stories with the young.

Now, at a time when he is longing to leave the activist life, he has come up with the idea of asking churches just to try to save a single corner of a city block.

He did exactly that with the corner opposite his battered house with the purple door, driving out the drug dealers who used to gather there.

"I cast out the demon," he says. But that was eight years ago, and in all that time, no one managed to save the corner with the teddy bear shrine - or Tracy Austin, the man who was shot dead there at the relatively advanced age of 42.

"There have been many saved now through vigils and such," Ray says. "But I would have to say in the overall percentage, a lot more of them get caught up in the drug violence and subculture."