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Baltimore ceasefire brings glimmer of hope to blighted city

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Erricka Bridgeford points out the intersection where her cousin was shot dead in 2015, an all-too-familiar tragedy in gang-wracked Baltimore, one of the most violent cities in America.

Last weekend, she helped organize a ceasefire that was meant to last three days, but ended 41 hours later.

The initiative’s slogan, seen on placards across the eastern port city was simple: “Nobody kill anybody for 72 hours.”

That period began on Friday and was to end Sunday, but on Saturday, a 24-year-old man was fatally shot followed by another killing a few hours later.

Despite the murders, activists were upbeat.

“Forty-one hours of peace is a huge deal in a city that loses people every 19 hours,” said Erricka, a 44-year-old black woman who grew up on these streets, best known to the outside world through the TV show “The Wire.”

Some months, the number of murders exceeds the number of days. And the victims are mainly black, killed by other blacks.

As a result, a young black man in Baltimore faces as great a risk to his life as an American soldier at the height of the war in Iraq.

The city could see as many as 400 homicides in 2017, a per capita record for the United States, proportionally far worse than even notoriously murder-ravaged cities like Chicago.

At the age of 12, Erricka saw a young boy from her neighborhood bleed to death after being struck by a bullet. In high school, she lost “at least two or three friends.”

Two of her three brothers have been shot. The first, in 2001, miraculously survived, while the other died in 2007. Firearms also claimed the lives of two of her cousins and her step-son.

– Endless funerals –

“I go to about three or four funerals a year,” she says.

But she is convinced the weekend ceasefire, which she had been preparing for two months, saved at least two lives.

More importantly, she says, it helped the city experience what day-to-day life could be like. “There is like a different energy that we created together,” she says.

A lot of energy will be needed to eradicate the roots of the violence: extreme poverty, an opioid epidemic, the widespread availability of firearms, gang violence, and a never ending cycle of revenge killings.

In some neighborhoods of east Baltimore, boarded-up houses can be bought for $7,000 while some of the working population make as little as $15,000 a year, says Gardnel Carter, the local director of Safe Streets, an anti-violence organization.

Young people in search of an escape see their only outlets in video games and drugs, he says.

Heroin has given way to synthetic painkillers, normally sold on prescription.

“You got young and younger people hooked on them. They walk around like zombies, on top of the mental health issues they are dealing with,” said Carter, who himself was imprisoned for 20 years for murder.

– Trust in police broken –

Jamal, a 28-year-old with a beard and sunglasses, sits idly on a street where businesses are run mainly by Hispanics or Asians.

Drug-deals are happening everywhere, he says, pointing out a man whose bulging clothes give away the firearm he has concealed on his person.

“I am not going to call the police on that man because it will put me in a situation where my life now is in jeopardy,” he says.

Confidence in the police was massively undermined by the case of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who sustained a fatal neck injury while being transported in a police van in 2015, an incident that detonated riots in the city.

More recently, police have been caught on their body cameras allegedly planting drugs on suspects.

Authorities meanwhile are working on new strategies to deal with the rampant killings.

Mandating one year jail sentences for those caught with illegal firearms is one idea under consideration. Another is creating a network of audio sensors that would pinpoint shootings in real time.

– Better off in jail? –

It’s gotten so bad that authorities are now asking themselves keeping people with lesser offense behind bars longer “to save people from themselves,” a spokesman for the Baltimore police, TJ Smith, told AFP.

“What we see is a lot of people who could be in jail if they had stiffer sentences and wouldn’t have been on the street at the time of their demise,” Smith said.

More than 85 percent of victims have a criminal record, he adds.

For Smith, the ceasefire was “absolutely not a failure” because of the conversation it helped trigger.

Smith has become the public face of every new shootout, its victims and its perpetrators. He will never forget the 173rd murder of 2017: his own brother, shot dead.

“For me to be on the victim side of this, of course it’s different,” he says. “Of course it hurts in a different way than talking about a stranger at the podium.”


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