(Originally posted on The Washington Post)
By Andrew Zaleski
On a late Wednesday afternoon in the Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, the sun is out for the first time in weeks and the temperature hovers in the mid-80s. It’s the sort of weather that Lamont Medley, a former drug dealer who served 11 years for attempted murder, knows brings people and trouble outside.
Sure enough, shortly after 6:30 p.m., Medley hears about a shooting near the busy intersection of North Carey and Laurens streets. The 43-year-old Idris Elba look-alike strides off in that direction and finds two police vehicles and yellow crime-scene tape blocking off North Carey. Antonio Addison, 22, had been shot several times and died at a hospital shortly after. Onlookers tell Medley what they’ve heard: Addison was sitting on the stoop of his grandmother’s rowhouse when another man walked up, pulled out his gun and started shooting.
Medley looks around. The street’s tense. People mill about, pointing to the house. Others dash off for their own homes. Medley knows this scene, how it could kindle into more beefs, more gunfire, more death. He stands at the corner, keeping a watchful eye, before ducking into a crowded corner store to buy a bottle of water.
There he finds Diddy, a short, slim 24-year-old, and Joe, a tall 22-year-old chomping on mango Italian ice. Both are Sandtown players and could be the next to take a bullet.
“Yo, Joe, remember me?” Medley says.
“You get a job yet?”
“Nah, haven’t found one.”
Medley knows what could happen. How no job, money woes and frustration can build to a boiling point, until somewhere down the line, perhaps in a dispute over a woman or a corner, another life is ruined. He reaches into his pocket.
“Here, take my cell number,” he says. “Call me tomorrow.”
While things might have been different 25 years ago, Medley isn’t there to be part of the trouble. He’s there to stop it. He works for the nonprofit organization Safe Streets and hopes his presence, in his “Stop shooting. Start living.” T-shirt, will help bring calm. If Joe calls, Medley will try to help him find a job — and a chance.
Joe knows Safe Streets. He nods toward Medley. “I love these men,” he says. “They was us before.”
Violence interrupter Lamont Medley and Michael Brown, an outreach worker, review mapping data on shootings to determine hot spots for violence in Sandtown. Medley, who grew up in the neighborhood and spent 11 years in prison for attempted murder, now works to prevent murders in Sandtown. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)
Safe Streets is an organization of former felons trying to head off gun violence in Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods through foot patrols, information gathering and direct intervention. Though established in 2007, the program only reached Sandtown in March, when 10 men wearing the group’s signature orange or black T-shirts set up operations inside a former convent next to St. Peter Claver Church on North Fremont Avenue.
Sandtown is perhaps best known for the events of April 2015: the arrest of 25-year-old Freddie Gray outside the Gilmor Homes projects, the injuries he suffered in police custody, his death as a result one week later, and the protests and riots that followed. Fatal shootings in Baltimore spiked after the riots and helped make 2015 the city’s deadliest year per-capita, with 344 homicides. In the 21217 Zip code, which includes Sandtown, 40 of the 44 homicides were shootings, according to police data; Sandtown alone had 10 gun homicides. Since 2006, 43 black men have been shot and killed in Sandtown, the sixth-highest number in the city, according to statistics kept by Edward Ericson Jr. of the Baltimore City Paper.
The story of Sandtown, Safe Streets workers and residents alike will tell you, is one rooted in pain. A onetime mixed-income working-class neighborhood, Sandtown slowly disintegrated as redlining made it impossible for residents to secure loans and the departure of the city’s blue-collar industries made it difficult to find jobs. By the 1980s, nearly half of Sandtown households made less than $11,000 a year. Today, the median household income is about $22,000.
Despite a $130 million effort in the 1990s to tackle vacant housing in Sandtown, and the accompanying crime and lack of jobs, the 72-square-block neighborhood of roughly 9,000 remains plagued by high unemployment (about 21 percent), poverty, vacant buildings (more than 800, according to city records) and a life expectancy that’s no better than that of North Korean citizens. There is not a single bank branch in the neighborhood. Violence and open-air drug markets, where Hercules or Ray Charles — brands of heroin — are sold, present daily struggles.
“People feel like they’re left out. They gotta make their own way, and that’s by doing it on the streets,” says Joseph B., a resident who refused to share his surname.
“What if every time there was a shooting, everybody was outraged, and we displayed our outrage?”
Imhotep Fatiu, director of Safe Streets Sandtown
Medley was one of those making his own way. His mother, a nurse, worked long hours. His father, a former drug dealer, had little to fall back on. By 10, Medley, the youngest of four children, was in the streets, “pulling the strings” to provide for himself and his siblings. In 1991, at 19, he ended up in state prison, serving 11 years, nine months and 18 days for attempted murder, the result of a gun battle that broke out after he confronted neighborhood players who had robbed a fellow dealer.
“It was rough trying to take care of myself and provide stuff we needed,” he says. “The only thing that I saw was negativity: robbing, stealing. Selling drugs, that was the avenue that I took.”
Now he and his co-workers, called “violence interrupters,” have returned to their neighborhood with a message for people still engaged in that life: Put down the gun. They will deliver that message by keeping an eye on high-risk individuals and high-risk areas, and showing up at shootings.
“What if every time there was a shooting, everybody was outraged, and we displayed our outrage? We begin to send a message that the community does not like shootings,” says Imhotep Fatiu, the 45-year-old director of Safe Streets Sandtown, a thin man with a shaved head and an intense yet tranquil stare. “We want people to buy into that idea. It’s more than a job; it’s a movement.”
From left, Medley, site director Imhotep Fatiu and site supervisor Greg Marshburn, who says: “People who see us say, ‘Man, the new way can’t be that bad — look at them.’ We don’t make a lot of money, but we’re shining.” (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)
The men, who earn $16 an hour, spent three weeks in training — learning conflict resolution and mapping out the areas where violence is most likely to occur. They canvass the neighborhood in eight-hour shifts that start at 2 p.m. five days a week. On Mondays, as well as Wednesday through Saturday, they’re expected to be outside on the streets, ears to the ground.
If they hear about a conflict brewing, they’ll gather, decide who best knows the people involved and make an overture to squash the beef before it erupts. If they see something unfolding in real time, they’ll jump in, trying to redirect a person’s anger and buy time so they can get to the root of the conflict before guns come out.
What effect Safe Streets will have remains to be seen. Its $520,000 in funding will last only through February. Its interrupters must negotiate the line between being former criminals and rubbing elbows with current ones. And they will be working in a neighborhood that is tired of gun violence but suspicious of police, a situation that existed well before the death of Freddie Gray. A recent report by the No Boundaries Coalition asserted that a “shift toward police militarization, zero-tolerance enforcement, and tough-on-crime sentencing” had resulted in an us-vs.-them mentality. (The Baltimore Police Department declined to comment on Safe Streets, but a spokesman said officials had read the No Boundaries Coalition report and “we are continuously working to improve community relations.”)
Finally, the interrupters will be working in a neighborhood where the need is so great that they’ll have to couple basic social services with their street mediation. But Safe Streets’ resources to do so are limited: Only about $300 a month is left after paying for salaries and benefits, and T-shirts, food and drinks for the twice-monthly neighborhood events. With that, Corey Winfield, Sandtown’s violence prevention coordinator, will try to help residents obtain state IDs, sign up for GED classes, get into auto-technician and other courses, or find jobs.
“Once you step into that gun world, it’s the ultimate stakes,” says Winfield, 47 and a towering presence with meat hooks for hands. “But every man wants a way out.”
Safe Streets members JJ Allen, left, and Medley discuss which way the line for T-shirts should form as they set up for a kickoff event. (Andre Chung/for The Washington Post)
The Baltimore City Health Department modeled Safe Streets on a Chicago program called CeaseFire (now Cure Violence), documented in the 2011 film “The Interrupters.” The department funds Safe Streets’ five sites through grant money issued to neighborhood organizations, which directly hire the workers and provide them office space.
Similar approaches have been tried elsewhere, with varying success. In 2005, the District’s Peaceoholics was credited with helping achieve a 34 percent drop in violent crime but was disbanded after six years. In 2013, its co-founders were sued by the city for allegedly misusing city grant money. In Chicago, where the model got its start, studies have linked decreases in gun violence to corresponding increases in implementation of the CeaseFire program. For example, there was a 25 percent decrease in homicides in Chicago in 2004, the same year CeaseFire expanded from five to 10 sites. But it’s likely that a combination of factors, CeaseFire among them, led to the decrease, according to research by Northwestern University professor Wesley Skogan.
Before the violence of 2015, Safe Streets’ efforts had seemed to pay off. McElderry Park, the first site, once went more than 300 days without a fatal shooting. The Park Heights and Cherry Hill neighborhoods hadn’t seen gun homicides in 423 days and 440 days, respectively, before July 2015, the peak of the city’s homicide spike. Even after Gray’s death, “the historic upswing in homicides largely was not experienced at all in communities served by Safe Streets,” says Daniel Webster, a professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Yet adequate funding and sponsorship are continual issues. Safe Streets in Mondawmin, the neighborhood where police and students squared off on the afternoon of Gray’s funeral, is shut down until the fall while the health department looks for a new neighborhood organization to support a site. And while community leaders in Sandtown had been asking for a Safe Streets site for a couple of years, funding didn’t come through until after last year’s unrest, when area organizations such as the Abell Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation committed money and Catholic Charities expressed interest in hosting a Safe Streets site.
And Safe Streets is not without controversy. It has stumbled in big ways, most recently in July 2015, when guns, heroin and cocaine were found in the Safe Streets East office in McElderry Park. The health department shut down operations there for two months while new staff was hired; prosecutors later dropped all charges against the nine people arrested, including two violence interrupters.
“Cops hate it because they just assume that everyone’s still a criminal. What happened on the east side — that’s what every cop has been saying,” says former Baltimore police officer Peter Moskos, now an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Now that doesn’t mean the whole concept is bad, but it sure as hell is a red flag.”
Another point of contention is that the information Safe Streets workers gather isn’t shared with the police, a practice Safe Streets contends is necessary to get people to talk.
“The rules they live by — it does not help the crime fight in Baltimore City. How do I know that the people they’re mediating with aren’t responsible for the homicide?” says Anthony Barksdale, the former acting police commissioner, who retired in 2014.
When asked how he knows Safe Streets is making a difference, Fatiu responds, “I don’t know of any Safe Streets situation where we’ve actually mediated, and then a shooting will occur with the same people.”
Medley greets neighborhood residents “Cousin T,” in the wheelchair, and “Easy.” Cousin T stopped to tell Medley that he appreciated his presence. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)
In April, all the violence interrupters head for Gilmor Homes, the scene of last year’s tension, walking through courtyards where kids play blacktop football. They stop to hand out T-shirts and shake hands of the residents who are sitting on stoops enjoying the warmer weather, drinking from red Solo cups and blasting rap music playing on 92Q radio.
“People who see us say, ‘Man, the new way can’t be that bad — look at them.’ We don’t make a lot of money, but we’re shining,” says outreach supervisor Greg Marshburn, a stocky 47-year-old with gray flecks in his beard.
On another canvass, Medley walks to North Payson Street, where some of his relatives live, and speaks with Mark Lee, a 55-year-old who works at the Port of Baltimore and grew up in Sandtown, although he no longer lives there. Lee sits with three friends on folding chairs between the stoops of two rowhouses that have stickers in their windows that read: “Stop shooting. Start living.”
“Here’s the bull’s-eye — and I like what y’all doing,” Lee says to Medley. “Kids is watching us, even when we’re not watching them.” Medley grins widely enough to reveal the gap in his two front teeth.
Safe Streets workers are keenly aware of this dynamic. On days off, they still tend to wear their work T-shirts. They also avoid certain conversations. When he first got out of prison, it was hard for Medley to be on the streets again, he says, remembering the money he could make. But he has learned to handle it. If people start to tell him information “that I might not need, that might bring me some trouble,” he redirects the discussion, he says. “Today, people know what I stand for.”
The men don’t like to linger on their backgrounds, partly because, they say, the media seem more interested in how many times they’ve been shot than what they’re doing now. But they will briefly outline their pasts to illustrate their growth.
Medley says anger about being in prison was his catalyst for change. “I realized it was my own actions that put me in that situation.” He earned his GED during his sentence and, after his release in 2002, became a youth counselor and mentored juvenile delinquents at city high schools for more than a decade. When he heard Sandtown was starting up a Safe Streets site, he applied to be a violence interrupter.
Today, Medley has four kids, including a daughter who turns 7 in August and wants to be a nurse. He lives in Baltimore County with his wife but regularly stays with relatives in Sandtown to cut his commute time.
“At one point I had no regard for people or even human life,” he says. “Now I love people. One person told me that if I changed, anybody can change.”
And he believes he can help others change as well. In April, Medley came upon two teenagers, one a known gun carrier, arguing over who was allowed to sell drugs on a corner of North Stricker Street. Medley intervened immediately. “I took the person that I knew I could get through to first, grabbed that person away from the other person,” Medley recalls. Then he said something like, “Ho, ho, ho! We can’t do this! Y’all don’t want to send each other’s families to a funeral.”
Was he nervous?
“You can’t be nervous,” he says. “Street people will sense your nervousness, and they’ll take advantage of that. So I’m real calm. I explained to them the consequences of what could happen: the statistics of us killing us, how their families would feel if they hurt one another.”
The teens were able to work out an agreement and are still friends, Medley says. “But one of them just wanted me to make sure the other person was willing to squash the beef, too.”
From left: Brown, Medley and Walter “Chop” Outlaw keep a watchful eye along Pennsylvania Avenue. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)
June was rough for Sandtown’s Safe Streets post. Up to that point, there had been only one shooting, not a fatality, in its boundaries. (The shooting of Antonio Addison happened just outside the line; Safe Streets post boundaries do not exactly correspond to neighborhood boundaries.) But by the end of June, four more shootings had occurred, and one was fatal. As protests broke out in Baltimore in early July over the questionable shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, Safe Streets’ attention was focused on preventing retaliatory shootings in its post.
After any shooting, heaviness fills the office, a mixture of frustration and sadness. The fact that the four June shootings took place before the interrupters were on the clock or on their days off was small comfort.
“It hurts, because even though I might not know the face or the name, I know loss of life. I’ve been that person laying on the ground, fighting to stay alive and praying to God that he don’t take me today,” Marshburn says on a mild Wednesday afternoon in late June. Around lunchtime that day, he says, two men wearing masks had fired into a crowd at Presstman Street and North Fulton Avenue. A 16-year-old boy was wounded. And 29-year-old Donzell “Zelly” Canada was killed, Baltimore’s 127th homicide of 2016. He was one of Freddie Gray’s close friends.
Out on the streets, at North Mount and Lorman, Medley, in his orange Safe Streets T, leans against a stop sign across from Gilmor Homes, watching. To the south, kids enjoy an afternoon at the playground as parents push them on swings. A man sells snowballs, Baltimore parlance for snow cones. But traffic is backed up for three blocks because police have blocked off Presstman.
Another interrupter, Julian “JJ” Allen, 43, walks up to Medley and lights a Newport. “They knew who they was coming for,” he says.
Medley, who is friendly with Canada’s mother, nods, a fatigued look on his face. Residents sit on stoops, friends walk down the block, and for the people around him, it seems like this is just another day punctuated with trauma, the sound of a gun going off in Sandtown. He tries to channel his frustration into formulating a plan — trying to figure out what information he needs to stem the bloodshed. He rights himself. “I know the person I gotta talk to,” he says, and he heads down the street with renewed purpose.
Andrew Zaleski is a freelance writer based in Maryland. This is his first article for the Magazine