Susan Dalgety: The city that celebrates 72 hours without a fatal shooting

With the police considered ineffectual, a grassroots campaign aims to reduce the tragic rate of homicides in Baltimore (Picture: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
With the police considered ineffectual, a grassroots campaign aims to reduce the tragic rate of homicides in Baltimore (Picture: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
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A group of mothers in Baltimore is determined to ‘will this city toward peace’, finds Susan Dalgety.

Baltimore describes itself as “The Greatest City in America”. It probably was, once.

Sitting on the mid-Atlantic coast, a short train ride from Washington DC, the city is now more famous as the setting for The Wire, a gritty crime drama which, over 50 episodes, tells the story of American urban life in relentless, gory detail.

Baltimore’s founding fathers were Scots-Irish immigrants. They built a great port where hundreds of thousands of Europeans disembarked to start their new life. They created a major industrial city which helped power the United States.

The city was home to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe and Dashiell Hammett. And it is where Frederick Douglass, civil rights pioneer and adviser to Abraham Lincoln, grew up.

“We don’t have as much history as you guys,” remarked Michael, our waiter at Phillips Seafood, which has been serving up crab cakes since 1956. “But we still got a ton of stuff,” he added quickly. He’s right. This city of neighbourhoods is overflowing with history.

We are here for a few days, waiting for our campervan to arrive from its uneventful journey across the Atlantic. From our temporary home, a modest, if not downright seedy, hotel in the city’s downtown area, we have explored most of what historic Baltimore has to offer.

Magnificent Edwardian skyscrapers, hewn it seems from single blocks of granite and marble, sit alongside shiny 1960s high-rise towers, punctuated by neat rows of red-brick ‘rowhouses’ which mimic traditional English terraces.

The inner harbour, which once traded in America’s most terrible cargo, Africans stolen from their land, is now a handsome tourist spot, with Maryland’s famous crabs and oysters on sale in every bar and restaurant, except McDonalds.

The city boasts the Baltimore Basilica, America’s first cathedral, the internationally renowned Johns Hopkins University and hospital, and the Peabody Institute conservatory, the country’s first school for professional musicians.

And it is fast becoming a must-visit destination for a new generation of tourists, looking for somewhere a bit edgier than Boston.

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It is most certainly edgy, but probably not in the way that the millennial hipsters in search of craft cocktails and Chesapeake Bay oysters envisage.

Walk a few blocks past the famous Lexington Market, where people were once sold as slaves, and you are smack in the heart of the real Baltimore.

Not the hip, historic city with its internationally renowned art collection, symphony orchestra and convention centre.

This Baltimore has one of the worst drug problems in America. As many as 10 per cent of the city’s population is addicted to a deadly cocktail of heroin and opioids.

These lost souls wander the streets, downtown as well as in the projects, weaving in and out of the traffic, sometimes begging, more often mumbling to themselves.

A skeletal woman, who could have been aged anywhere between 25 and 60, stands, shaking uncontrollably, inside the 7-Eleven.

She can’t even ask us for cash and simply sticks her hand out in desperate expectation. She takes the dollar bill without a word, her eyes dead.

Muscled young men, dressed in immaculate white vests and wearing heavy silver jewellery, saunter down the street, shouting out their wares. They are selling smack, not craft beer.

We eventually find the statue of Billie Holiday we had been looking for. The incomparable blues singer grew up in Baltimore and a motif of her most haunting song, Strange Fruit, which tells the story of a lynching, is carved into her monument.

“Black bodies swing in the Southern breeze”, she sang in 1939 at the height of America’s apartheid.

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Black bodies still scar Baltimore, technically a Southern city as it sits below the Mason-Dixon line, the traditional border between the North and South. Only these black bodies are not victims of the Ku Klux Klan. They are the casualties of Baltimore’s war against itself.

Last year there were 343 homicides, the worst year yet. Last month alone there were 34 deaths, more than one a day.

The city has twice the per-capita homicide rate of Chicago and more murders than New York City, which has a population of 8.5 million to Baltimore’s 680,000. Most – 90 per cent – of the victims are black.

Perhaps not surprising, given that Baltimore is a black city – nearly two thirds of its residents are African American. As the city’s economy began to shrink in the 1950s, white residents moved to the suburbs, or new cities.

Poor, mostly black, people didn’t have an escape route. They were helplessly trapped as drugs and guns took the place of work and hope.

But now a group of mothers are fighting back against the bloodshed that is destroying their children’s future.

Monday morning saw the end of the city’s fourth ‘Ceasefire Weekend’ since August last year, a 72-hour gun-free period when residents are asked to “avoid having any murders”.

The first two failed, but, like the February event, this one worked. The city centre news tickertape boasted, “Fourth Baltimore ceasefire weekend ends with no fatal shootings”, alongside news that Bishop Michael Curry, a former Baltimore minister, will preach at the Royal Wedding.

The women behind the Ceasefire campaign want nothing less than an end to murder in Baltimore. Full stop.

Their home-grown solution may seem naive, but their determination that all lives matter has captured the city’s imagination.

Monday’s editorial in the Baltimore Sun read: “There can be no denying the power of thousands of Baltimore residents gathering at events, large and small, simply to will this city toward peace.”

And they can’t do any worse than the Baltimore police. The city’s police chief resigned earlier this week after only weeks in office. His crime? He “forgot” to file his tax returns for three years in a row.

His predecessor Kevin Davis was sacked in January for his failure to tackle the city’s culture of violence. And members of the Gun Trace Task Force were recently convicted of stealing and reselling guns and drugs on the very streets they were supposed to protect.

Meanwhile, 40 miles down the road, in the la-la-land that is the nation’s capital, the bizarre headlines just keep on coming.

“Testimony confirms Trump campaign efforts to obtain Russian dirt on Clinton” is today’s breaking news.

“There is no Collusion,” tweets the President. In Baltimore, I doubt anyone cares.