I don't know if you've heard, but there's been some violence in the Waverly neighborhood lately, of the gun variety. I specify the gun part for a couple of reasons. First, because it's true. There were two shootings in less than two weeks (this isn't even counting McKenzie Elliott, who was killed just a year ago, or the man shot in the buttocks in August), one that killed a man and another that struck a 9-year-old girl in the leg as she played on her front yard on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The first took the life of a man who had family, friends, a daughter he walked to school every day. The second changed forever the life of a 9-year-old. Think of a 9-year-old you know, making annoying fart jokes, refusing to eat anything but pizza, and picking on her little sister. How can we live in a world where that kid gets shot while just playing on her porch?
And then there's the collateral damage. I wasn't home when the man got killed near 36th and Frisby, but I hear there were tons of kids out playing in that area, that mothers were running down the street in tears, carrying their children under their arms like footballs. That's a reality changed forever for those folks. Even if we know that the stray bullet is a reality in Baltimore, that the ravages of drugs and the war on them can catch any of us at any time, it hits home differently when it's your kid in the street, when the shots sound like they're on your porch, when you hear them just up the block and sneak a peek around the corner for "safety" as you're out for a walk on a Sunday. If you're lucky enough for the violence to be new to you, it shatters a sense of safety. If the violence is old news, it can harden you, lead to a sense of violence's inevitability. It's just a matter of time.
The second reason I specify gun violence is that there are violences in this neighborhood that don't come at the end of a gun. There's the daily violence of enforced poverty—that's how capitalism works, people; poverty's just as much a part of it as wealth. There's the violence of civic abandonment—our public transportation system and struggling public school system are just two examples of that. There's the violence of mass incarceration that systematically removes resources from neighborhoods and returns people broken by the traumas of prison and jail. There's the violence of a war on drugs that doesn't treat addiction like a public health issue, or a rational response to ongoing violence, but as a crime. Together, it's the violence of individualizing social disorders, and it's no prettier than a gunshot.
So what are we going to do about it? Well, in Waverly, we held an open meeting to talk about it. I headed over to be on time, and for the first time in a very long time, that meant I was almost late—turns out a whole lot of neighbors want to figure out what to do about all this. I snagged a seat on a couch in the home of a neighbor I didn't know until this meeting, gave out my email address like Halloween candy, and settled in with the agenda.
The first to talk were the cops—captain of the Northern District, Robert Gibson—because they're always the first to talk, as if they've got the solution. Gibson suggested that the BPD has strong leads on who killed McKenzie Elliott, that they've got a person of interest in the murder of the man on 36th, and the start of a lead on the shooting of the 9-year-old (they made an arrest in this case while I was writing this column). They're on the case, and if they can get the rest of us to cooperate and make our reports, they might close one or two. We were instructed to call 911 whenever we see anything that might make us a tiny bit suspicious or uncomfortable, to at least get a cop to drive by. The neighbors who make the most noise get the most cops, we were told.
And then I started to get really uncomfortable. Feeling safer because there are more cops around? That only works if you're not the one who the neighbors think "looks suspicious," and it's hard to imagine how we might balance constant calls to 911 every time we see noisy kids (there's a school right here—it's all noisy kids, all the time) or people we don't know. Even the police captain declared that we weren't going to arrest our way out of the problem.
One of our neighbors spoke up and made the argument that crime is a public health issue and we should treat it as such, connecting people to the resources they need to heal. Another who has lived in Waverly for a zillion years said we need to get to know our neighbors, keep an eye out for each other and each other's children. We need to sit on our porches and be the collective that is necessary if we're going to really see each other as responsible to and for each other. Plans were floated for get-to-know-yous and spaghetti feeds on Old York and then the cries of BUT WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING came from the corner.
This is doing something, though. There isn't a quick fix to any of this. We can't shove the guns back in the foundry. We can't not be a country founded in slavery and the racism that justified it for 400 years. We can't undo the logic of capitalism that produces such mass poverty, want, and need. We need structural solutions, but we also need bandages for right now, because right now, it's just too much for far too many of us. We have to try all the things, because maybe all the things, and all the things we haven't even thought up yet, will together help us think more deeply about what it means to feel and be safe, and how to get there.