The chant rose up as the crowd walked purposefully east on Monument Ave. Saturday just after noon, toward the spot where four men had been shot on Wednesday.
“What do we want? Safe Streets! When do we want them? NOW!”
The gathering of Safe Streets violence interrupters, community members, family of the victims, and others was intended not only to memorialize the three men who died in the shooting and hope for the recovery of the fourth, but to call out once again for an end to the violence and shootings that are destroying lives and families throughout the city.
Violence interrupter DaShawn McGrier and two other men, Tyrone Allen and Hassan Smith, died in the shooting Wednesday, just two days after the anniversary of Dante Barksdale’s murder. Barksdale had once helmed the Safe Streets post that McGrier had started working out of just a month ago. McGrier grew up in the neighborhood; other violence interrupters remembered him from his childhood there.
McElderry Park post violence interrupter Alex Long was one of several Safe Streets workers who spoke passionately about what’s happening in the community.
“Everybody walks around here strapped up and all that, like we’re in the Middle East or Africa or something,” he said. “Surviving caused us not to have nothing. That’s the change that we got to force, man. That if we’re surviving, we’re surviving for something. If we’re taking all these chances, it’s got to be for something.
“We’re the only ones that got our fate in our hands, and we’re giving it away, day by day.”
Young women stood listening alongside elderly women leaning on canes, while senior men and young boys stood together, a voice occasionally calling out “Come on!” and “yes!” as the interrupters spoke.
“Think about the pain this community keeps feeling, week after week,” Belair-Edison Safe Streets Site Director Dante Johnson urged the neighbors who listened. “We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to have those conversations. You’ve got to talk to your man, you’ve got to talk to your cousin, you’ve got to talk to your brother. You’ve got to tell them it ain’t worth it.”
Wednesday’s quadruple shooting represented three of 10 homicides in the city just in the last week. There have been 22 since the still very new year began. Twenty were shot. Mayor Brandon Scott told the crowd he believes Safe Streets is helping.
“I know some folks have said, ‘Should the mayor shut down Safe Streets?’ Hell no,” the mayor said. “We know they produce each and every day… What we have to do as a city is really dig ourselves in deep into expanding the work that they do.”
The third murder of one of their own in 367 days is salt in a deep and painful wound for violence interrupters. McGrier was working when he and the other three men were shot by someone driving by.
“We got brothers out here saving lives and dying at the same time,” Johnson said. “We got good young brothers out here representing their community, trying to make a better way for everybody, and they die.”
About three dozen Safe Streets team members from all across the city were clustered together as Johnson spoke, half to them, half to the neighbors standing in the street and on the sidewalks nearby.
Uncle T, as he’s known in the community, said he knew the men who died Wednesday night, and knew the families’ pain because he himself lost his son to gun violence.
“The shooters and the killers, please hear me clearly,” he shouted as neighbors cheered him on. “We know you’re in pain. We know that mental illness is real. You have people that want to help you. Holding on to that pain is not what makes you strong. It’s letting it go. I know. Your strength will be found in letting it go.
“I’m probably looking at a thousand years, two thousand years in prison, right here,” he said, gesturing to the violence interrupters who were listening. “You mean we don’t have the solution? It’s not found in a book for us. We know what we gotta do, and we’ve been doing it, and we’re going to keep doing it. Warriors don’t give up.”
Safe Streets is a model that employs formerly incarcerated individuals purposefully, because they know the communities and streets where the violence begins, and they can build the relationships with neighbors that can help reduce violence and diffuse tension before gunfire erupts. Staff serve as role models for youth, and help connect individuals and families with resources that build a sense of community and hope rather than fostering a sense of disconnection and resentment that leads to violence. The 10 posts across Baltimore are overseen by various community partners. Catholic Charities operates two, one in Sandtown-Winchester and one in Brooklyn-Curtis Bay. In the last five years, the two sites have interrupted 2,021 conflicts before they could escalate to shootings.
“We’ve got to continue the work, because I know he would want that,” said Brooklyn-Curtis Bay Site Director Corey Winfield. “We’ve got to continue the work because Dante Barksdale would want that. We’ve got to continue the work because Benny (Kenyell “Benny” Wilson, a violence interrupter shot to death in Cherry Hill in July) would want that. We got to continue the work because my little brother, JaJuan Winfield, would want that. We have to save the next one. This was a tragic event. We lost DaShawn. But there’s more DaShawns out there that we can save, and that’s what we’re going to do.”