Young Men Struggle to Find Meaning in a Neighborhood Where Homicide is Routine
In the heart of East Baltimore, in an area surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital about a mile and a half square, 30 people were murdered in 2004. And for some of the people who live in those neighborhoods, homicides have become so commonplace that tears are few and far between as they speak of those they’ve lost. They are more likely to just shake their heads.
Terrell Fowlkes, a wiry young man who favors baggy pants and an enormous puffy jacket that make him seem much larger than he is, buried five of his friends last year. One of them died right in front of him. As he runs down the list of the dead—Kenny, Craig Mac, Rabbit, Troy, Tanash—he says each name without emotion as though he were going through a grocery list. When asked how he feels about losing so many people, he leans back in his chair and says simply, “It’s messed up. It ain’t right but I can’t do nothing. I can’t change it.”
Talk to a number of people in the surrounding community and they will confirm a long list of those they knew who died in its streets in recent years. Ask them to talk about those people and their answers are short: “He was cool.” “He was down to earth.” “A good kid.” Ask them for more and they grow quiet. What is there to say?
These are people living in a war zone—watching friends, family, and acquaintances die is a part of their existence. Given so much death, words come hard.
Walker Gladden is a man of words, a man of mantras. Certain phrases pepper his speech: “the heart of the community,” “agents of change,” “negative contributors.” Gladden is the youth coordinator for the Rose Street Community Center, an East Baltimore organization that helps ex-offenders reintegrate into society and works to keep others off the street and out of jail. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, Gladden uses his words to try and reach an ever-changing group of young men from the neighborhood. Many of these men, most of them in their 20s, have been on the streets and in the drug trade since they were in elementary school. Few have graduated from high school or held down regular jobs. They crowd into the sparse living room of Rose Street Community Center’s Madison Street transitional housing facility, sitting on sagging black couches and folding chairs, keeping on their caps and jackets to hold off the cold that drafts in through the center’s ever-open door. And they listen to Gladden’s words.
“Your lives are so precious,” he tells them. “Everyone in this room is a genius . . . and one thing we know for sure is we don’t want nobody to be the next homicide victim.”
Gladden has been struggling to do something about the once-again escalating homicide rate for years. He’s sued Martin O’Malley for $1 four times since October 2003 in an attempt to hold the mayor accountable for his failed promise to get the homicide rate down to 175 a year (the first three cases were dismissed). Gladden has gone to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to try and get homicides in Baltimore declared an epidemic in hopes of capitalizing on the additional funds and programs that such a designation would bring to the city. He has even been handing out a letter to people in the community begging those still on the street to change their lives.
But on a cold December day at Rose Street, he is focused just on the guys in the room. Some of them are part of Gladden’s program. They are getting their GEDs, going to college, working in apprenticeship programs. Some are still out on the streets. They are weighing their options, trying to decide what direction to go in, as they listen to Gladden and collect the $5 he gives each for coming.
Gladden understands where they are coming from. A large man in sweatpants and a knit cap with pens jutting out from underneath, he has been where they are. He was born and raised in East Baltimore. He spent his youth on the streets, in and out of juvenile facilities and, as he got older, prison. After his last stint in jail five years ago, when he served just over two years of a 12-year sentence on drug and burglary charges, he went to the Rose Street Community Center, where founder and former prison guard Clayton Guyton helped show him another way. But Gladden remembers a time not so long ago when he thought he would be on the streets forever, referring to the streets like an old flame. “I loved her,” he says. “I would have died for her.”
A lover that was hard to leave, he says, because she was all he knew. Back then, he didn’t have long-term goals because he didn’t think he had a long term to worry about. “You see 300 people die in 365 days, and what are my chances?” Gladden asks. “As a young man I didn’t think I would see 30, and I realized that I didn’t mind dying because everyone around me was dying anyway.”
He sees the same sense of fatality in the men that come to his meetings. “Death has become very normal in the thinking system of the youth that live in the heart of Baltimore City,” he says. “They move on [mentally and emotionally], because it becomes a part of the norm. It’s not normal for life to be taken the ways it’s being taken. That’s not normal at all.”
That’s what he tries to teach these young men—that it isn’t normal, that things can and will change for them. They’ve made the first step by coming in, he says to them: “The only thing you have to do now is not fear change.”
But the men, most of whom sit with their heads down as Gladden talks, aren’t entirely sold. Change seems, if not impossible, highly unlikely.
“Them police aren’t worrying about nobody killing nobody,” one says.
“Nobody care about us,” another says.
Gladden’s response? “Guess what? We care.” He points to his 15-year-old son, Walker, who sits at the foot of the staircase and says, “The same way I feel about his life, I feel about every one of you. The same way I don’t want anything to happen to him, I don’t want anything to happen to you.
“I’d lay down my life for anyone in this room,” he says, and then pauses, “under the right circumstances. You rob a bank, you want my help—I’ll, um, see you later.”
Slumped on a couch, Terrell Fowlkes laughs. He’s been coming to Rose Street for four years, but he says he only stopped dealing drugs last month. After a close friend stole from him, the pleas from his mother and 7-year-old daughter finally had an effect.
“I’m trying to do the right thing for a minute,” he says, stretching out the word “trying.” “If it don’t work, I got to go back to doing what I got to do.”
Fowlkes is a handsome man with big brown eyes and the kind of mischievous smile that makes him seem like he’s constantly up to something. There is an intensity about him—he tends to keep his head down and chooses his words carefully, taking long pauses before offering a sentence or two. But he’s the kind of person who, when he does talk, you listen.
Fowlkes grew up around Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus. At 27, he’s the oldest of 12, including a sister by his mother, with whom he grew up, and nine brothers and one sister by his father. But Fowlkes says he only really knows six of his siblings: “I never saw half of them. They walk up on me today or tomorrow, I wouldn’t know who they was. And if they were to say they were my brother, I still wouldn’t carry ’em like family.”
He got involved in the drug trade when he was 9, holding weed for others. “I kept seeing everybody making all the money, getting all fresh, so I wanted to do that,” he recalls. “Then somebody said, ‘Come on, come with me. We’re going to do this.’ That’s how I started.”
By the time he was 13 he was working for himself, selling heroin and cocaine. He says he’s made as much as $50,000 in a day on the right block with the right package. And his life style reflected his success: “I was young, dumb, and full of come. I was tricking, I was buying cars, clothes, jewelry.”
After a few years, he started putting money in the bank, but he says that money was seized by police. He’s been arrested at least nine times on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to possession with intent to distribute. He was kicked out of two high schools in a row. In the mid-’90s, he was kicked out of Patterson High School for participating in what he describes as a riot. About a year later he was expelled from Francis M. Wood Alternative High for fighting.
Fowlkes says he’s been shot at on several occasions. Once, when he was 17, a bullet connected, hitting him in the ass. And over the years, he says he’s lost many friends to murder, the first one when he was just 10 years old. But he insists it’s no big deal.
“I’ve been growing up around it my whole life,” he says. “The first couple times I seen it, yeah, it shocked me. But it’s nothing now.”
In February 2004, Fowlkes’ friend Kenneth Peay was shot in the forehead in the 1500 block of Lester Morton Court. In June, Fowlkes’ cousin Troy White was found dead in the 1200 block of Ashland Avenue, shot repeatedly in the chest. A month later, another friend, Craig Joyner, was sitting at a red light at Chester and Gay streets when someone walked up to his car and shot him several times through the window. In September, Fowlkes’ friend Nathaniel Jackson was found on the ground in the 1200 block of Appleleaf Court, shot in the back of the head.
He talks about them in the most basic terms and gives few details. “Kenny, he was cool. He was all right.” Joyner “was an all right guy.” And Jackson, who he calls Rabbit, was “just Rabbit.” He doesn’t even know most of their full names.
But he has a full name for one. He can recite where he died, the time, the place: Tanash Kimble was murdered on Oct. 15 in the 800 block of North Bond Street in the middle of the afternoon. Kimble was one of Fowlkes’ best friends, and Fowlkes watched him die.
They knew each other for 15 years and spent pretty much every day together, hanging out on the corners, drinking, smoking weed, and talking about girls. But still, Fowlkes has to be coaxed to say anything about him. When he does, it’s mostly more of the same.
“He was a good guy,” Fowlkes says. “He was cool, real down to earth. He had fun. That’s what he liked to do.”
He agrees to talk to a reporter about Kimble, but he seems to have little to say, giving phrases instead of sentences, speaking softly with long pauses. The answers to most questions are “yeah”s or “nah”s as he rolls his hat down over his eyes and shifts in his chair. Maybe it’s because, though he wants to talk, he doesn’t want to tell.
Telling is a big issue on the streets of East Baltimore. If you tell, you’re a snitch. And few things are worse than being a snitch. Michael West, a friend of Fowlkes who got home in August 2004 from a six-year stint in Eastern Correctional Institute for armed robbery and has just started attending Gladden’s meetings, sums it up.
“There’s the government of the mainstream that say that if somebody get killed and you know something about it, it’s OK to talk about it, right?” West says. “But then there’s the government of the streets where . . . you don’t tell nothing. You seen it. You heard it. You keep it to yourself. That’s the government of the streets, and it’s totally different. It’s two different rules. And these rules ain’t written down and passed around. It’s either you know ’em or you don’t, and if you don’t know ’em then ain’t nobody going to tell you, and you’re going to be subject to the same violence that’s out there.”
Gladden chimes in: “Unless someone come through with a different way of thinking and show them exactly what’s normal, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to share information about somebody you care about.”
But even Gladden, who preaches to a room so powerfully you could be two doors away and hear his message, becomes quiet when it comes to talking about specific people who have died.
Lewis Johnson was shot and killed just around the corner from the building where Gladden holds his meetings. The 20-year-old was talking to someone in the 700 block of Belnord Avenue on July 12 when a man came out of a nearby alley and shot him repeatedly. Johnson ran to his home just a few doors away and collapsed.
Gladden says he knew Johnson well. He even spoke at his funeral. But when asked to describe him, Gladden says simply that he was a “very gifted young man, well-behaved young man.” Then he quickly turns to the topic of homicides in general, and the toll it takes on the neighborhood, to “the heart of the community,” to “negative contributors,” before finally admitting that he can’t do it. He can’t talk about the individuals: “It’s too painful to do it that way.”
That’s why we only have pieces of Tanash Kimble’s life story. His friends say mostly that he was cool and fun to hang around with. His mother refuses to say anything, sending Michael West away when he comes to ask her to talk to a reporter about her son. A memorial page on the March Funeral Homes web site offers a picture of him, a solid-looking young man with close-shaved hair and a hint of a mustache and goatee, and a brief biography—his birthday, the names of his parents and his three children, the school he attended, and where he worked.
While details of Kimble’s life are hard to come by, over the course of a few days spent with Gladden, West, and Fowlkes, the details of his October death begin to emerge. It starts as more of the same.
“He was the type that just liked to have fun and crack on people, play the dozens and all that,” Fowlkes says. And then he adds quietly, “That’s my man, and they killed him, for nothing.
“They killed him like a bitch. They shot him in his back. Yeah, he wasn’t no bitch, he didn’t deserve it,” Fowlkes says, leaning forward, his voice rising, his quiet mumble becoming clear. “I mean, if they were going to kill him, they should’ve . . . ” His voice trails off. “He didn’t deserve to die like that. Getting shot in the back—nah, nah. That ain’t how he shoulda went out.”
Fowlkes and West were hanging out with Kimble and a few other friends on Bond Street that afternoon. “Just sitting there smoking weed, tripping, and having fun,” Fowlkes recalls. “[Kimble] was talking about the girl he was trying to get with ’cause she liked me. He was asking me to hook him up with her.”
Fowlkes went down to the corner to talk to some other friends, and Kimble went the other way. “I walked down the street, I sat down—that’s all I heard was something go ‘pow.’ I’m thinking it’s a firecracker because it wasn’t that loud. So I stood up, like, ‘Man, these little kids playing with firecrackers.’” Then he heard more pops.
“And I seen Tanash running with a smile on his face, and I seen the dude behind him pointing. All I seen, I look and I just seen him pointing like this—bang bang bang bang bang. Ran down on him in the middle of the street.
“I was standing there. I froze up. And he looked right at me. Both of ’em, looked right at me.” (Fowlkes says he didn’t recognize the shooter.)
Kimble fell on the street just a few feet from Fowlkes. But when asked if he was scared, Fowlkes gives a look suggesting that the very idea is absurd. Of course not. “It just shocked me. It caught me off guard,” he says.
Gladden, Fowlkes, and West are walking through the streets of their neighborhood, pointing out sites where people died on Belnord, Jefferson, McElderry, Madeira, Monument, Monument, Monument. At some spots there are memorials—teddy bears duct-taped to street signs, rips written on walls, rust-colored handprints on light posts.
“That’s their way of expressing how they’re feeling about the homicides that haunt our community,” Gladden says. “This is a burial ground in the heart of the city.”
But most of the sites where people fell go unadorned. Fourteen people were killed this year in an area just six square blocks around the Madison Street center. Expand the range out a few blocks and the number almost doubles. All of the 14 people who were murdered right around the center were African-American men with arrest records in Baltimore City. Nine were under the age of 30. All but one was shot.
These figures aren’t unusual. In a city with 278 murders in 2004, 246 of the victims were African-American. The same number were male, and according to police data, 241 had been arrested before. The most frequent method of homicide was guns, with 213 people shot to death in Baltimore City last year.
It’s a situation that has left the young African-American men of Baltimore looking like an endangered species. They make up the largest percentage of the dead, with 135 African-American men between the ages of 18 and 29 falling last year alone. And East Baltimore in particular has felt the weight of these numbers. The Eastern Police District, the second smallest in the city, was the site of the most homicides, 55, with the expansive Northwestern District at a not-so-close second with 40.
Over the years, the Baltimore Police Department has tried various tactics to stem the violence in the Eastern District: gun buy-back programs; community-focused policing; former Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier’s 1994 Operation Midway, which featured widespread raids; and 1999’s Operation Cease Fire, which focused on violent drug gangs. In 2000, then-police Commissioner Edward Norris assigned 120 extra officers to the district. Over the years, various “zero tolerance” campaigns have been implemented. While many of these programs saw a temporary decline in violence, critics say they just moved the violence from neighborhood to neighborhood, corner to corner, and none has had any lasting effect.
And of the 278 homicides citywide in 2004, only 119 of those cases are closed. That’s a 43 percent clearance rate, which falls well below the national average of 60 percent. In the Eastern District, detectives closed 42 percent of homicide cases, leaving more than half of them open, unsolved. While David Thornton and Mathew Troy Evans were arrested in December for Kimble’s murder (only Evans has been indicted), Fowlkes doubts justice will be served.
“It don’t matter,” he says, “because ain’t nothing really going to happen. They going to get punished for what they got caught with, but for murder? I don’t think they’re going to catch any time for that.”
Of 110 Baltimore City murder cases that made it to trial during 2004 (most of them for murders committed in 2003 or earlier), 72 resulted in homicide convictions; only 21 of those cases resulted in convictions for first-degree murder.
It’s a situation that leaves many East Baltimore residents feeling that nobody cares. Watching Kimble die cemented that for Fowlkes. After Kimble was shot, Fowlkes says it took 30 minutes for help to arrive, even though they were right across the street from Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Fowlkes doesn’t know if Kimble could have been saved, but he says, “We heard him breathing. He was, ‘huh, huh,’”—Fowlkes imitates labored breathing. “We was like, ‘Hold on, yo. Hold on.’ He was, ‘huh, huh,’ and then he just stopped. He was breathing for, like, a good 15, maybe 10 minutes after they shot him. And Johns Hopkins is right across the street from where we was at, so why it took them that long to get there is beyond me. ’Cause we not in the county, we not in the suburbs. That’s why.”
When help did arrive, Fowlkes says it was less than sympathetic. The police officers at the scene “were standing around him joking, laughing, talking about shit that happened the night before or happened a couple of hours ago,” he says. “They don’t care. They don’t care. They talk that whole, ‘Oh yeah, we got up lift our black people, we got to do this, we got to do that.’ That’s bullshit. They don’t give two shits about none of us.”
When an officer came over to ask him about the murder, Fowlkes says he was almost too angry to speak: “I came real close to spitting in his face.”
He is not the only one with a story like this. Gladden remembers walking down Monument Street one day, and when he got to Madeira Street he saw a large crowd being held back by the police and a young man lying on the ground in the alley near a drainage grate. He was still breathing, and Gladden says that “they [were] just talking over the body while it’s still moving.”
Gladden says he saw none of the officers try to help the man or see to his wounds. No one yelled for help or demanded that the ambulance come quickly. “I think you only see that in movies now,” he says. “The value of life didn’t hold no significance in the mind or the hearts of those officers on that particular day on Monument Street.”
That perception has an impact on the community’s already strained relationship with the police department. Gladden says when people in the neighborhood see behavior like that he describes, “they say, ‘Look, I want nothing to do with the police department, I want nothing to do with this city, when really we should be working together as a unit, as a team. We need the city. We need the police.”
Antonio Williams, the chief of the city’s Detective Division and an 18-year veteran of the force—seven years of that in the Eastern District—was surprised to hear Fowlkes’ and Gladden’s stories.
“[That] suggests that the police, number one, take death very lightly, and number two, that the police stand around and laugh and joke when a person’s dying. And that can be nothing further from the truth,” Williams says. Police are trained to administer aid to victims the second they get to a crime scene, he says: “Our first priority is preservation and protection of life.”
If police are joking at a homicide scene, Williams says, it is, in some ways, a coping mechanism. “Unfortunately, Eastern District police have had too much experience dealing with murder scenes. So when they get there they focus, they do the job, but in the meantime, while they’re doing that job, if they’re talking about something completely unrelated to that body on the ground and they laugh, the public, from a distance, looks at that and says, ‘Oh my god, they’re horrible people, they’re laughing and this person is dying, or this person is dead.’ It’s not about that,” Williams contends. “Sometimes the only way to focus and keep from being too emotionally involved is by doing your job.”
Williams does say that the Eastern will be a major focus of the current administration. Under acting Commissioner Leonard Hamm, Williams says, the police department and the city will be taking a more holistic approach to the violence: trying to bring in social services and finding out what the neighborhood needs, addressing the root of the problem instead of just the symptoms.
“In other words,” Williams says, “instead of just saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a bunch of people out on the corner here, police go lock them up or issue them citations,’ let’s find out why these people are on the corner.”
Standing on the corner of Bond and Ashland, Fowlkes looks nervous. He fidgets and moves around from spot to spot. This is where Kimble was killed, a place Fowlkes has not been since a candlelight vigil held for his friend a few nights after he died. White splotches of wax still dot the sidewalk around the spot where his body lay.
“It’s not right,” Fowlkes says, shaking his head. “It’s not right being out here.”
“It’s just like waking up a lot of memories, just being here, because normally I don’t even come through this block,” says West, who laid his coat over his dying friend that October day. “It’s a difference between knowing it happened like if you wasn’t here, then being here.”
They point out where they were and where Kimble was. “I was walking to the corner. I was standing right there,” Fowlkes says. “They were sitting on the step, and then [Kimble] got up and went round the corner right there to pee or something. That’s when I heard the first shot, and I seen him running round the corner. And that’s when I heard the other five.”
As they talk, Fowlkes says something he hasn’t said before: “I could have stopped it.”
It’s quiet at first, but he keeps repeating it: “I think I could have stopped it. He might of got shot, but he wouldn’t have died if I wouldn’t-a froze up.”
What would he have done?
“There’s a lot of things I could have done that day,” he says. “If I wouldn’t-a froze up, dude would have never made it off of this block. He wouldn’t have even been able to shoot him six times.” He looks around the site as if imagining the actions he didn’t take. “I say he’d a shot him about three times if I wouldn’t have froze up. He wouldn’t got killed though. He wouldn’t-a died. I could have prevented the whole thing.”
A few friends see Fowlkes and West standing on the street and come up to join them. They knew Kimble, too, and as the four of them start talking, the words come out more freely.
“That was my man,” a guy with a gold tooth shining in the front of his mouth says. “He was like a brother to me. A big brother, too, and I’m older than him. We looked out for each other. Everybody that grew up with each other looked out for each other.” Others say Kimble was a smoking buddy, a riding-around buddy, a friend.
West runs a few yards down the street to Kimble’s mother’s house to see if she wants to come out and talk. She demurs—she isn’t feeling well. “She told us to really give y’all the kind of person he was,” West says.
But Fowlkes is still reliving the incident in his head. Watching himself freeze. “I still feel like a little piece of it was my fault,” he says. “I could have prevented it. ’Cause I froze up. I froze. First time ever in my life I froze up—at the wrong damn time.”
It wouldn’t have made up for Kimble’s death, West adds, but “it would have been like you did what you could have done, you know, for a friend.”
“And it’d have sent the message back to whoever he was dealing with—‘You come around here again like that, you better come with a bunch of motherfuckers. You better come correct,’” Fowlkes says. “That’s a message I was going to send to ’em.”
“Because it wasn’t like Tanash out there doing so much cruddy stuff that this should happen to him,” West says. “He was a good dude. I mean, you needed something and he had it, it was yours.”
Fowlkes agrees: “He looked out for you as much as he possibly can.”
Now Gladden is trying to look out for Fowlkes and West, steering them toward GED and apprenticeship programs. Fowlkes wants to be a landscaper. West has grander plans. He says he wants to create his own neighborhood, a safe one, with schools, restaurants, and maybe a place like the Rose Street Community Center.
Still, Fowlkes and West paint a bleak picture of East Baltimore. They list the problems and then list the people who don’t care enough to fix them. It sounds like there’s no hope. But Gladden sees it differently.
“Listening to them express themselves in a different way is hope,” he says. “To see them not on streets, to see them not with guns and drugs in their hands, to see them speaking about the things they’re speaking about now, that’s a great fire of hope.” A hope that, at least, no one will have to drip candle wax on a spot of sidewalk where these two men fell.
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