The election of the first black US president in 2009 offered hope to millions of African Americans across the country – and the eastern city of Baltimore was no exception. But in the intervening years, any hope that inner-city Baltimore residents may have held has been further eroded by a downward spiral of poverty, high incarcerations and worsening race relations.
The 2015 death in police custody of a young black man, Freddie Gray, saw the city erupt into race riots, looting and arson. In 2017, violent crime peaked, with 343 homicides – the highest number by far of any American city per capita.
In 2018, REWIND re-visits Al Jazeera’s 2012 Faultlines investigation, Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City. Though still beset by a culture of violence and drugs, Rewind talks to 42-year-old Tyree Colion, a former gang member who has set up “No Shoot Zones.” His aim is to reduce homicide rates in the city, one negotiation at a time.
I go out there in the gang members’ face and say what it is… I say ‘if you really run it, these are what areas not to shoot in. You decide what areas have suffered enough.
Tyree Colion, Former Gang Member/Founder “No Shoot Zones”
“I go out there in the gang members’ face and say what it is… I say ‘if you really run it, these are what areas not to shoot in. You decide what areas have suffered enough. You decide what area a little girl got shot in and the neighbourhood was traumatised, so now you put up a No Shoot Zone. You either deal with it or you get dealt with, and they listen.”
Joblessness, poverty and a decades-long war on drugs have led to mass incarcerations that have relegated American blacks to a kind of caste system comparable to slavery, says author and law professor, Michelle Alexander:
“We have a school-to-prison pipeline operating in Baltimore and in other cities across the nation where young people, with some good reason, believe their destiny lies behind bars and they too will become members of the under caste.”
With drug addicted or incarcerated parents, many adolescents drop out of school, leaving them few options to earn a living. It’s a direct hit to the nuclear family that leaves Baltimore’s youth with few options to make money.
the way the game is rigged, they can’t win. The number of guys that actually survive the corner, to get into the mid-level drug dealing that will get them away from the corner are few and far between.
Ed Burns, Former Baltimore Detective/Writer TV series ‘The Wire’
“What they have is no choice,” says Ed Burns, the former Baltimore detective and school teacher who went on to write the hit television series, The Wire, “and the way the game is rigged, they can’t win. The number of guys that actually survive the corner, to get into the mid-level drug dealing that will get them away from the corner are few and far between.”
Anonymously, a Baltimore resident and former drug dealer says that dealing drugs is the only default option for inner city youth trying to earn a living.
“Hopefully I can be in a better position where I can find something positive to do,” he says, “but if I have nothing to do, I have to resort to what I know.”
The war on drugs gained traction in the eighties, under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Since then, and through successive administrations, increasing numbers of black males have been incarcerated on drug-related charges.
For Ernest Shaw, a muralist and educator who grew up during the Reagan years, and during Baltimore’s crack epidemic, federal policies have offered little help.
“I believe Obama did what he could. I didn’t have any unrealistic expectations of the first so-called black president. But those folks who are really catching hell are going to catch hell regardless of who is in the presidency.”
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