It's Sept. 2—the same day as the first of the two Freddie Gray pretrial hearings—and the 300 Men March is holding a women's planning meeting in Walters Bath No. 2, a renovated building that houses the anti-violence organization founded by Munir Bahar and City Councilman Brandon M. Scott in 2013. The 300 Men March, in addition to drawing attention to the street violence that plagues the city through marches and protests, runs a network of volunteers who send out community alerts via email and phone. "It acts as a conduit of essential information to vulnerable populations through trusted sources," according to the website.
On this particular evening, the room is filled with women—girlfriends, wives, mothers, grandmothers, and aunts of those involved in the organization, all greeting one another with hugs.
"Welcome, my sister," they say to one another.
Bahar and senior service organizer Kristina Page soon take charge of the meeting from a table in one corner of the space.
Bahar begins by explaining that he'll be ducking out shortly and that Page will take his place tonight: "My apologies, but I will be leaving in about an hour to walk through West Baltimore with a new recruitment of guys. We usually only do recruitment once a year; we've already done it for this year, but just to capture the interest men are showing, we decided to do recruitment again."
As is often the case with the 300 Men March, the guys come first. Although the group's philosophy revolves around the concept of accountability—as a community, African-Americans are responsible for their own, organizers explain—it is heavily focused on male leadership, with women in the background as organizers or supporters.
"We don't point fingers," Bahar tells the group of mostly women. "We aren't into blaming. But, as men, we gotta do something."
During the women's planning meeting, Bahar says women have been involved in the 300 Men March since the beginning, operating primarily in the background but occasionally participating in events such as their Occupy the Corner initiatives. "Occupy the Corner is the thing that both men and women do together," Page says to the group. "Usually on a Friday, usually in an area that's been involved in some sort of violence."
Still, according to Bahar, the organization exists "to get men to step up and be the protectors they were designed to be in life through the community."
In the past, the organization has outright barred women from marching alongside the men, according to one of the women at the meeting. And during July's march across North Avenue from east to west, women were largely relegated to the sidelines, handing out water and snacks and encouraging the marchers. Perhaps because organizers have fielded so many questions about women's roles, the organization addresses the matter in the FAQ section of its website: "We ask women to understand that this movement is a symbolic gesture of the assembly of men, to be present in the lives of their families. The march is for men only. We have a women's volunteer planning committee that channels the assistance and energy of our wives, mothers, sisters, grandmothers and other female counterparts."
Erica, a woman in the audience, recounts how she was not allowed to march when she first got involved, but that's OK with her. "They explained that the men are the ones doing the killing and being killed the most," she says. "There were things that this group inspired in my son to get serious about being a businessman that I, as a mother, couldn't instill in him."
Bahar hopes to reach out to young men and help them turn away from criminal activity—and he understands the challenges young people face. At 13, he began participating in drug trafficking and racked up a number of criminal offenses until his last sentence in 2001. Determined to change his ways, he attended Morgan State University and studied accounting while mentoring Baltimore youth through the Brother II Brother program, which taught at-risk youth business literacy and the importance of education.
The 300 Men March came out of a conversation Bahar had with friends. "I was in a barbershop, and I decided that we gotta get on the streets because there was a huge surge of murders in West Baltimore," Bahar tells the women. The group's first action was a 2013 march on North Avenue in which 600 men walked the streets while about 80 women helped facilitate the event from the sidelines.
Councilman Scott, a co-founder, has emerged as the more public face of the group, connecting it more closely to other initiatives and raising its social media profile. The group's recent march to Washington, D.C. in August, a 35-mile walk, captured a lot of attention. Oddly, the organization had police escorts for the duration of the march.
Scott says he is not squeezing anyone out. "We've always been inclusive," Scott says of the 300 Men March in an interview last week. "It's never been just about men."
A few weeks after the women's planning meeting, the 300 Men March held an event called "Cycle in Solidarity." This time, women joined the men and the youth cadets in a bike ride through Baltimore, raising awareness and spreading their message of peace.
The event began at 4:30 p.m. on North Collington Avenue. Three teen boys lounged around by their bikes. One wore a black shirt with the March's slogan, "We must stop killing each other." A woman, Makeita Jones, the 300 Men March's conference coordinator, arrived in a crisp white T-shirt. Over the next 20 minutes, more volunteers trickled in. With one exception, the men all wore black "We must stop killing each other" tees; the women were in white.
Soon after, Bahar and company arrived in two sleek black pickup trucks carrying approximately 14 black bicycles for those who didn't own their own. The group embarked at about 5 p.m., with one teen carrying a GoPro camera to record their trek around Patterson Park. They moved through the city with military precision.
Ideologically, however, they are less cohesive. Bahar continues to emphasize that the organization is for African-American men, while Scott insists that the 300 Men March fights against all violence for all people. The March's website even espouses an "All Lives Matter" message—a slogan that has for the most part existed to counter "Black Lives Matter," though it is apparent that Scott, a critic of police brutality in the past, does not see it that way.
"There are so many things that are going on," Scott says, "and that's being represented by our group. Our men are engaged in the fight in many different ways, but as our core group . . . we don't pick one type of violence over another. It's the 300 Men March against violence, period."