Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bodymore: a reflection

I passed through Baltimore two weeks ago on my way to Beijing, just long enough to read about the murder of Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn the night before. Walking home from the train station two days before his 24th birthday he was callously stabbed to death over his iPhone and pocket money on St. Paul Street near 26th St. At age 24 I was living less than a half block north, working as a medical interpreter at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The murder caused a visceral sensation like the moment a roller coaster drops. There is no good reason that wasn't me. I've walked that corner in the hour before midnight 100 times. His death and my survival are unexplainable evidence of our own mortality in Bodymore, Murdaland. 

Pitcairn's murder seemed to touch many people profoundly in a city with more than a murder every other day.  Peter Hermann compared the outcry over Pitcairn's death to silence that followed the murder of 21 year old Emmanuel Thomas, shot less than a mile south, supposedly because he witnessed a previous murder. His article suggested that race played a large factor, and in a city defined by bigotry and racial tension, race is sure to color our collective memory of traumatic events.

But the better comparison is with the B-More Elite basketball Allstar and highly recruited John Crowder, recently shot to death near his grandmother's Kirk Ave home. Crowder's teamates won the national AAU championship in his absence.

The truth is that Pitcairn has become part of a sad legacy of once limitless potential. James Smith III, Maishan St. Patrick Nelson, Rocco C. Cash, Rio-Jarrell Tatum, Lawanda Dawson, Juan Dawson, Kevin Dawson, Keith Dawson, Carnell Dawson Jr., Lucero Espinoza, Ricardo Espinoza, Alex Espejo Quezada, Javon Thompson, Sintia Mesa, Kiuna Jackson, Shneara Kerrie Boone, Zachariah Hallback, Zach Sowers, Crowder, Pitcairn, and countless others I can't remember off hand. Each year brings new horror stories of death in young lives in what was once a great American city. The oral history has become an unending tragedy, or as Randall Robinson says of Haiti, an Unbroken Agony.

In one of the best scenes in The Wire, homicide detective Bunk chastises Omar, a stick-up man who robs drug dealers, for the change in baltimore from when they were both in high school at Edmondson.
Rough as that neighborhood could be, we had ourselves a community. Now all we got is bodies and predatory mother-fuckers... It makes me sick... how far we done fell.

The murder of 70 year-old Milton Hill during the robbery of his scooter shows the city not only eats its young, but also sacrifices its elders toward this predatory greed.  The rally and outcry over his murder show race is not the defining factor in our anger, but this is still not the type of organizing likely to create transformative change. Even the recent death of Khia Edgerton suggests to me that we are unable to take care of those that we value in our community.

Frustrated officers have complained that Pitcairn's killers had enough of a violent criminal record that they should not have even been on the street.  The justice system in Baltimore is clearly broken, and the police department has little rapport with many of the communities it polices.  While there is much that could be done to improve policing and prosecution, I doubt that law and order strategies are sufficient answers when the prisons themselves reinforce the logic of gang violence and sexual predation.  Now, two generations after the riots that consumed the city in flames, and more than a generation after the rise of crack cocaine that sent murder rates to unprecedented numbers, what will it take to heal the scarred remains of the communities in the shell of a shattered city.

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