Inside the Radical Community Response to Baltimore’s Spiking Murder Rate

Forty-one hours into a 72-hour ceasefire called by a group of Baltimore citizens, someone shot Lamontrey Tynes, a 24-year-old African American man. Tynes was the 209th person murdered in Baltimore this year.

“Everybody got the wind knocked out of them that weekend hearing that news,” Erricka Bridgeford, one of the people behind the Ceasefire movement, says of Tynes’s murder. “It made us realize that we hadn’t reacted to hearing about murder before like that and we must have been numb.”

A second person was shot five hours later.

The Ceasefire plan was simple: “Nobody kill anybody for 72 hours.” The conceit of citizens calling a ceasefire is a radical, first-of-its-kind tack to addressing the city’s historically high homicide rate. And whether it has yet been successful depends on how you measure it.

“In total we got 67 of the 72 hours,” says Bridgeford, referencing the two murders that occurred during that period. “But this made us pay attention more to the five hours when we got devastated and notice that we have not been devastated by murder.”

It struck a chord both inside and outside of this post-industrial port city an hour north of the the nation’s capital. Police spokesperson T.J. Smith, a supporter of the movement, says he has received more international press about the Ceasefire initiative than anything else in his tenure in the city—including the trials of six officers following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015.

As the weekend ended, one of those reporters, a woman who worked for a European TV station, seemed stunned by the concept. At the closing event of the Ceasefire weekend, she asked State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby if the word “ceasefire” invoked a warzone here as it did in Europe. “People are shocked that in the city that just regular citizens called a ceasefire,” she said.

Organizers are using the terminology of a warzone for a reason. Baltimore has seen a sharp spike in murders since the summer of 2015, which became its most violent year with 344 homicides, up from 211 the previous year. The killing continued throughout 2016, where the city saw 318 people murdered. This year is set to look even worse.

The spike in murders was part of a national trend, affecting similarly hypersegregated cities like Chicago, where 762 people were killed in 2016. That may be twice as many deaths as in Baltimore, but Chicago’s population is nearly four times as high as Baltimore’s, which is home to just over 620,000 people.

The police commissioner, Kevin Davis, responded to the homicide crisis by focusing on a small list of trigger pullers who, he argued, were the most likely both to kill and to be killed. Another city program, known as the Safe Streets initiative in Baltimore and modeled in a similar program in Chicago, uses the model of of disease control to stop the spread of violence, focusing on “detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating the highest risk individuals, and changing social norms.”

The people behind Baltimore Ceasefire see themselves as working alongside existing efforts like Safe Streets and rely on many of the same techniques. But they are also banking on the notion that affected residents could have even more of an impact on their own communities.

When tough guys would balk and say there’s no way a ceasefire would work, Bridgeford turned it back on them. “You’re telling me you can’t keep your street safe?”

Bridgeford says that leading up to the Ceasefire weekend, she and the other organizers spent countless hours walking around, canvassing the city’s most dangerous streets, following up on tips and rumors of beefs.

Unlike Safe Streets, Baltimore Ceasefire wasn’t just about intervention and mediation. It also focused on alternatives. There were all-night events set up in many of the most dangerous parts of the city. A group called Out for Justice held three expungement clinics, helping people get a handle on their criminal records. Other sites provided health services, entertainment, and food.

A boy plays with a hula hoop at the “Huddle Up on the Wood” event and Cease Fire Community Jubilee. (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters)

But in some ways, the team was really activated after the first murder.

When Tynes was killed, they showed up on the scene to offer support. Tynes’s mother contacted them. She was, of course, totally unprepared for her son’s death and the Ceasefire team tried to help. He had a job interview that day and he was excited to get the job. “His mom didn’t think she was going to lose her son that day,” says Bridgeford, whose brother was murdered in 2007.

The Ceasefire squad—they call it an effort rather than an organization—had already secured $750 to give to the family of anyone killed during the 72-hour period between August 4 and August 7, but after Tynes’s death, they began raising more money. A local church agreed to host the funeral for free, and Power Inside, an organization working for human rights and harm reduction for women and girls, donated a burial plot.

“The funeral was today,” Bridgeford said on August 16, 10 days after the end of the Ceasefire. “It was because people all over the world gave the the family part of our effort that we were really able to help families in a significant way.”

Bridgeford, who lost her own brother to violence, understands what the families are going through. “When my brother got killed, I just thought it was so unfair that the world just kept going,” she says. “Like people were still going to the store and going to work and I’m just like, ‘Do they not know my brother got killed?’ It’s just so weird to me that the world kept going. That’s a part of the numbness we have. Here somebody gets killed and we say ‘oh condolences to the family’ and then we just keep it pushing, we don’t stop what we’re doing. We don’t feel that our city and our world has lost a life.”

There has been roughly a murder a day since the Ceasefire officially ended. That’s pretty much the same rate at which people were being slain before the Ceasefire.  By some measures, the Ceasefire had no effect at all. Even during that weekend, two people were killed in three days, even if those deaths both occurred in a five hour period.

But activists and public officials see the initiative as a success. “It’s highly successful, and it’s highly successful because it’s a conversation starter and we’re talking about it,” Smith says. “We are dealing with people who are learning to get more engaged or learning how they can get more engaged and understanding that public safety is not just a law enforcement policing action but a community action.”

For many, however, that is not enough. Just over a week after the Ceasefire ended, the City Council passed a measure that would introduce mandatory sentences for people caught with a gun for the first time—currently there are such mandatory minimums for a second offense. And Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced a “truth in sentencing” bill this week that would restrict the early release of violent or gun offenders.

In response to the people who asked, “Isn’t the Ceasefire just a Band-Aid?” one of the organizers, Ogun Gordy, wore one on his face all weekend. “You wanna call it a Band-Aid? Let the Band-Aid stop, let the people who are doing the work stop, and you’ll see what the murder rate really gonna look like,” he says.  

The organizers are still processing, debriefing and figuring out how to move forward. But the calls from the families have not stopped coming.

On the Monday following the Ceasefire, a mother contacted Ceasefire organizers to let them know her son had been killed. The man, Barry Lee, had participated in Ceasefire just that prior Saturday.

“She wanted us to know … that he loved it, that it gave him hope, it gave him a renewed love and an understanding of the power in the city,” Bridgeford says. “She  was so proud that her son had participated in what she called a historic event, although he lost his life to violence on Monday.”