A sweltering August night in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Baltimore. A young Black man has been shot and killed. The murder gets barely a mention in the news. The fact is, as the city’s Police Commissioner Michael Harrison knows all too well, something like this happens almost daily.
“Sunday Morning” special contributor Ted Koppel asked, “I’m sure you can recite the numbers in your sleep – number of homicides?”
“Well, right now we’re at 202, and we’re even at 202 for the same time last year,” Harrison replied.
Our interview was in the morning; that night’s homicide would be the 203rd.
“This is a predominantly Black city – sixty-some-odd percent?” Koppel asked.
“That’s about right,” Harrison said.
“And yet, the number of murders, I believe, is up around 93 percent Black in this city, the number of murder victims?”
“I think that percentage is close to accurate, yes.”
The racial disparity is staggering. According to Centers for Disease Control data, Black men are 14 times more likely to be killed by a firearm than White men. That’s nationwide.
Harrison said, “While there may be many who are affiliated with gangs, many of the murders are retaliations from previous bad acts, and many of them are just individual arguments that turn violent, where young men are using guns to settle their disputes because they don’t know how to solve their conflicts any other way.”
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, told Koppel, “There is almost a contagion phenomenon that one shooting will lead to another, it leads to another.”
Webster knows that gun violence in Baltimore has deep roots: “If you would go and talk to the young people, 15-, 16-year-olds who might be shooting, pretty good guess that no one has really taken care of them. So, to make money in this underground economy, either through robbery, through drugs, you typically have to have a gun.”
“When you say no one they can rely on, very often the father figure is in prison?” asked Koppel.
“Or dead, or gone. But that may also be true of the mother.”
“The worst thing to happen to us as street people is when we lost our fathers,” said Corey Winfield, a site director for an organization called Catholic Charities: Safe Streets. His credibility depends in large part on what he did when he was young.
“I didn’t raise my oldest daughter,” said Winfield, because he had been in prison, convicted of murder. “When I came home and my daughter looked at me like I was a stranger, that was profound to me. So, when I tell ’em young men, ‘Come get these Pampers we got in the office and make sure you raise your child.'”
“So, one of the tools in your armory is Pampers?” asked Koppel.
For about 14 years now, Winfield has been what’s called a “violence interrupter,” which can be as dangerous as it sounds, or as mundane as organizing community movie nights.
Koppel asked how much time he did in prison. “I did 21 years,” he said. “Right now I’m in my 50s. When I got locked up, I was 17. When I came home, I was 38. So, one thing I could tell you is, what’s going to happen when you point that gun and when you pull that trigger.”
Commissioner Harrison knows he’s battling a culture of gun violence, and it’s a national problem: “There are no gun stores in Baltimore, so they’re coming from outside of the city. About 50% are coming from outside of the state.
“There is the culture of carrying guns. The same number who are arrested for illegally carrying guns is the same demographic of people who become the victims of shootings, and perpetrators of shootings.”
Too often, those left behind to pull the pieces of broken families back together are the women, like Rosheda Murray, a single mother of five. Her youngest son, Jarrod, is nine. His father was murdered.
“He had an altercation with someone, and they went and got a gun and came back and killed him,” Murray said.
Two of Murray’s sons, twins, have also been killed, seven years apart. In 2012, one of the twins, Roderick Burton, went out to buy some Advil for a toothache.
“He went to the store with his friends, and he never came back,” Murray said. “So, I heard these shots: Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And the first thing I can think is, Where’s Roderick? Where’s my baby at? He was 18. And I go outside, and it was him.”
“My second twin, Romar Burton, he was murdered September 5th, 2019.”
Koppel asked, “How did you find out?”
“I found that out 10:30 that night, when the detectives knocked on my doors as I was getting into bed. And they had a picture, and I’m thinking, ‘OK, they coming to tell me that he might have did something to somebody, or they was looking for him.’ Never to tell me that my son was the victim of a homicide. My second one, a twin. My second child.”
Romar was 26. He left behind a daughter who will soon turn four.
Koppel said, “It’s almost beyond belief for one woman to have gone through what you’ve gone through.”
“Something’s gotta change,” Murray said. “We can’t keep on burying our sons. We can’t keep burying our daughters. These little kids that’s going through all this trauma and all this tragedy and how they feel about growing up without their parents. My son ask me, is he gonna ever get another father? That’s hard.”
In Baltimore, as in so many other cities, gun violence is an epidemic. Corey Winfield and his young Safe Streets recruits were once carriers of the disease. Now, with additional support of the city, they’re trying to control the spread.
“They was once a part of the problem, they decided to change their life and be a part of the solution,” Winfield said.
Koppel asked if they are former gang members. “Not everybody. Typically in our neighborhood, that’s more of drugs and robberies. The cycle of violence, it begins when you’re young, and it just goes on perpetual. It never stops.
“And trauma, trauma in our neighborhood, like helicopters and sirens,” Winfield added, as a police chopper buzzed overhead. “Don’t forget, this is a violent area. So, just because it’s quiet now, doesn’t mean that it’ll always stay like that. At any time, day or night, this can erupt.”
And it did, that night. The young man mentioned at the beginning of this story was nameless in the news, but not to Winfield.
He and Koppel talked again the next day.
“Bad night?” Koppel asked.
“Yeah. Very bad night. Young man that I was working closely with, trying to get him off the street, was ambushed and murdered last night. So, it’s days like this when I really … it hurts you the most.”
“Do you know why he was ambushed?”
“I don’t know,” Winfield replied. “But right now, we are working on stopping the retaliation. It’s a very volatile situation.”
“Who’s gonna retaliate?”
“Well, that’s the cycle of violence: ‘It’s my brother’s life, or my friend’s life: I’m not gonna let this go.’ And it’s the same thing, over and over and over again. You have to forgive somebody in order for somebody to live. And then they’ll come back and say, ‘Well, how you know?’ I say, ‘Because I have found forgiveness for the man who killed my little brother.'”
Corey’s brother, JuJuan Winfield, was 21 when he was murdered.
Koppel asked, “And you knew who did it?”
“Yes, I did. I found out who did it the very next day. So, I tracked him down. So, the night when I was going to kill him, the police pulls up, right there. So, I left. And when I got home, my mother was sitting on the sofa. She grabbed me by my elbows and pulled me close and she said, ‘Please stop. I can’t lose another baby.'”
“Let me ask you a very profound question – well, the question’s not profound, but the answer will be: Why is this still happening?”
“I know there’s a saying that ‘Hurt people, hurt people,'” Winfield said. “But where I come from, hurt people kill people. A simple step on your shoe, you don’t know the outcome of it. And there’s too many young people, uneducated young people, with guns. You looking at hurt, and you looking at anger, and you looking at a race of people, young people, with no vision.
“I have a vision; that’s what keeps me working. My vision is that one day we gonna have no murders for a whole year. Not just Baltimore; I’m talking about gun violence not just Baltimore, but the United States, my country. I vision that. I vision that.”
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Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Ed Givnish.