On a late spring night in 2017, Erricka Bridgeford and her son were on their way home from work when they had a conversation about Baltimore’s persistently high murder rate.

The city was on pace to have the highest number of murders per capita in its history.

Bridgeford, a lifelong Baltimorean, has instructed people on conflict resolution for the past 25 years while working at the Baltimore Community Mediation Center and Community Mediation Maryland. Earlier that day, she conducted a conversation between youths and police at the Baltimore center, while her son had been working with incarcerated individuals as a reentry mediator through America Corps in the same building in Waverly.

Driving from Greenmount Avenue to their home at the time in Reisterstown, Bridgeford experienced the same grief she constantly felt growing up.

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“We’re driving home, and he says ‘Hey mom, did you realize that Baltimore has the most murders that it’s ever had in its history — right now?’ And I got angry because we had been working so hard all day that day to create peace in the city, and it got me thinking like, how is it the most murders?” Bridgeford recalled. “I fussed all the way home, and then the next morning I woke up and was still angry.”

Erricka Bridgeford hugs Free Palnese at the ceasefire rally. BMORE Ceasefire 365 held a press conference to alert the community that they will be rebranding to include more positive and uplifting imagery in their logo on corner of Allendale Street and Edmondson Avenue on November 4. 2022. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“There were groups in the city who had connections with street gangs and stuff, and I kept thinking, ‘Why don’t they tell them to call a ceasefire and tell them to stop for minute?’” she continued. “Because if they say it, they’ll do it. And that’s when I realized my anger had nothing to do with what other people weren’t doing, but it was because there was this one thing that I still hadn’t done.”

Bridgeford decided to call a ceasefire herself. She reached out to people in her inner circle and formed a squad: Kevin “Ogun” Beasley, a cofounder, and Letrice Gant, Jakia Jones, Michelle Herring and Darnyle Wharton, who are all co-organizers, to begin a concerted effort to stop the rampant gun violence in Baltimore.

Over the last five years, the Baltimore Ceasefire 365 movement has held 21 weekend-long events calling for an end to the violence. Now group leaders will announce on Friday that it’s time for a name change before meeting with residents to receive input on what the group should be called.

Bridgeford said now’s the time to move away from invoking the name of the very thing they are combatting: gunfire. She said it’s also time to change the organization’s current logo, which features a handgun.

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“We know that when you focus on what you don’t want, what you experience is manifesting more of what you don’t want and struggling with what you don’t want, in your physical experience ... and so the word ceasefire still has in it a little bit of the vibration of what we don’t want,” Bridgeford said. “And so we want a name that only vibrates at the level of what we’re for.”

Though the group is not sure just yet what the name will be changed to, they’re “shifting to only talking about what they stand for, which is celebrating life” she added.

In 2015, after the April death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died after sustaining injuries while in police custody, the city surpassed 300 homicide victims for the first time since 1998. Two years later, the rate of killings had not subsided.

Gant explained that when Baltimore Ceasefire first started, the group knew they wanted the killings to stop and they wanted the movement to be about the city and not a specific entity. They called for a public meeting on May 9, 2017, to begin the work, she said.

That was the day about 15 people decided they would form the group and call for an end to the gun violence over a weekend period of 72 hours. Organizers appealed specifically to people who are vulnerable to committing acts of gun violence or being victims of gun violence by getting residents to think differently about how they manage or mismanage conflict.

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“Calling a ceasefire is not a new idea, but calling a ceasefire the way that we did, where we asked everyone to participate, was a novel idea,” said Gant. “And of course, we got some pushback and received criticism saying that it wouldn’t work, and it made us think about what happens if someone gets killed during a Ceasefire weekend.”

Truthe Woodard, 4, and Koddee Shelton, 5, wave their signs at cars during the ceasefire rally. BMORE Ceasefire 365 held a press conference to alert the community that they will be rebranding to include more positive and uplifting imagery in their logo on corner of Allendale Street and Edmondson Avenue on November 4. 2022. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The first Ceasefire weekend was held from Friday, Aug. 4 to Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017. Baltimore had recorded a record 204 homicides for the first seven months of the year, according to a report.

There were more than 50 community events planned for the first Ceasefire weekend that provided “a lot of collaboration between organizations that had not had the opportunity to work together before,” according to Gant. She described the first 24 hours as “magical” because people in the city collectively paid attention to the lives being lost at record rates, and there was a concerted effort to avoid murder on a specific weekend.

But then Ceasefire leaders received a call from the Baltimore Police Department late that Saturday. Officers said Lamontrey Tynes, 24, and Donte Johnson, 37, were both shot and killed — two murders since activists called for a 72-hour pause in the violence.

“It knocked the wind out of everybody, and it was devastating because we had accomplished a thing as a community. ... And after we received the notification, we rallied and told people to show up so that we could pour out love and light over the spaces,” Gant said.

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At the time of a victim’s death — especially on a Ceasefire weekend — activists and community members gather to celebrate that individual’s life and amplify joy through a sacred space ritual.

People are invited to do what they feel to offer love and light in the space where the individual was killed. Often times they will do things like pray, burn sage or light a pink candle (which is said to bring the energy of love and kindness) and pass it around, along with other practices.

Leaders of the movement also contact the families of victims to offer support and information for free funeral services and donated burial plots.

Many thought the first Ceasefire weekend was over as result of the shootings, but co-founders and organizers thought otherwise.

“Our definition of success does not solely rest on if someone gets killed — we obviously don’t want that to happen — but we look at the city’s effort holistically to measure what we did right,” Gant said.

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Initially, the Ceasefire in August 2017 was supposed to be the first and last. But after receiving so much support, the organizers decided to hold the event every quarter thereafter: February, May, August and November. The movement later added the “365″ to its name to reflect the year-round work to plan the weekends.

In February 2018, Baltimore Ceasefire held its first weekend with no murders. It was also the onset of the beginning of 11 1/2 where nobody was killed in Baltimore, the longest stretch the city had experienced since 2014.

A 2020 American Journal of Public Health study, headed by Dr. Peter Phalen of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and written with contributions from Bridgeford and Gant, found that gun violence dropped by an estimated 52% during Ceasefire weekends.

The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, or MONSE, said Baltimore Ceasefire is critically important in helping Baltimore communities navigate the residual traumas of gun violence — and the agency believes the name change is is a thoughtful move.

Free Palnese holds up a sign of her deceased son Aaron at the rally. BMORE Ceasefire 365 held a press conference to alert the community that they will be rebranding to include more positive and uplifting imagery in their logo on corner of Allendale Street and Edmondson Avenue on November 4. 2022. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“The partnership that MONSE has cultivated with Erricka and her team since this agency’s inception has been invaluable. From offering community supports to residents in the aftermath of gun violence through our Coordinated Neighborhood Stabilization Response efforts, to participating in events meant to raise the vibration of our city that result in decreased gun violence, the impact this organization has had speaks to the power of outreach and its connectedness to the Mayor’s CVI [Community Violence Intervention] ecosystem,” the office said in a statement.

Although the name Baltimore Ceasefire is going away, members said their work will not stop. A community brainstorming meeting to pick a new name will be held on Nov. 6 from 2-3:30 p.m. at TouchPoint in Mondawmin Mall. Attendance at the meeting is limited, but supporters can also join live through the group’s Facebook page.

According to Bridgeford, the movement — like herself — is changing and evolving.

“I do a lot of spiritual growth and inner work. So as I heal, if I go through things, if I evolve, I have — like anybody else — new ‘aha’ moments and awakenings, and that spills over into the work that I do,” she said. “And I believe that’s part of the reason why we are where we are now with changing our name.”

penelope.blackwell@thebaltimorebanner.com