Since deciding to attend the funeral of a young man who was one of nearly two dozen homicide victims in December, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to resist the natural reflex to tune out the carnage that seems as much a part of Baltimore life as crab cakes.
It’s hard to wrap your head around 334 people dying in one place in a year — men and women as old as 74 and children as young as a year. And then as you’re trying to process those numbers from 2022, you hear on TV or see in your social media news feed that police are investigating the homicide of a 17-year-old girl, the first killing of 2023. That’s followed by days of stupefying stories about a mass shooting at a Baltimore shopping center that killed one student and injured five others on Jan. 5. By the end of the first week of this new year, five people had been slain, including at least two teenagers.
Many of us are aware of this backdrop of mayhem as our January days are filled with exchanges of “Happy New Year” and hooking up with friends for our versions of ancient “out with the old, in with the new” rituals. But these actions can have the feel of empty words, hollow gestures, or maybe just wishful thinking. In Baltimore, our old (more than 3,100 homicides over the last 10 years) is also our now.
An antidote to numbness is to think of the individuals, rather than their order on the list of the dead. So let’s refer to that “first of 2023″ as D’asia Garrison. Say her name.
In December, there was a lag between a headline saying “1 man killed, 2 men injured in separate shootings in less than 20 minutes in Baltimore” and one nearly a week later announcing “Baltimore police identify 2 December homicide victims.” That was the way we learned about No. 322. So cold and impersonal. So Balti-normal.
Because we are so accustomed to hearing that Baltimore is on pace to match or break the previous year’s record, we become rather unfazed as the number approaches and then surpasses 300. It was at the 322 mark that I took notice when a friend was asked to sing at the funeral being arranged at Faith Presbyterian Church on Loch Raven Boulevard. I decided to attend. To bear witness.
At Faith Presbyterian, the young man was neither a number nor even just another dead 21-year-old Black man. This was “where he was baptized, the church where he learned and grew and went to camp, the church community that named him and claimed him,” Rev. Cat Dodson Goodrich said at the start of a brief service that drew dozens of young people. In the best of circumstances, they would never have to bear such grief. In Baltimore, young people routinely do so.
“William Brown Jr. Say his name,” the pastor emeritus, Christa Fuller Burns, urged us. And we did.
Saying a name opens the floodgates so we can snatch back the humanity that threatens to be lost in the systems that hold sway at these times: the criminal justice agencies, the public health agencies, the social services agencies, the ravenous 24-hour news cycles.
I, like thousands of people, know the agony of seeing life move on while the murder of your loved one goes unsolved and displaced by the next headlines. My nephew was killed in New Orleans in a drive-by shooting on Nov. 6, 2016. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times to Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison, who held that top cop role in New Orleans back then. He offers empathy but holds out little hope that my nephew’s killer(s) will ever be held accountable. He is one more dead young Black man on a cold case list.
As we said William Brown’s name, he was once again one of a group of a dozen or so young Black boys from the neighborhood for whom, for a while in their tween and early teen years, Faith Presbyterian was a hangout. For them it was a safe haven; for the multiracial congregation of well-intentioned but older folks, they were a goofy, gangly breath of fresh air, walking affirmations that their church was making a difference.
Brown, shot to death on Silverbell Lane, was remembered as one of a trio who were particularly close: William, called Junior, Julius and David. There were fond memories of hijinks at a church-sponsored summer camp that brought some of the boys their first experience in a non-urban environment. There were memories of the boys participating in a church pageant in which they dressed in majestically flowing robes to depict what Pastor Burns described as “towering angels.” She remembered William towering, too, on the basketball court and excelling in boxing as well. “He was gentle and kind with a whimsical smile,” she said. “William always showed up.”
Amid “I really miss you” hugs between current congregants and the men whom the boys had become, nostalgia was a bridge from a time when a safe space existed to the uncertainty of today. Julius and David, who are now working men in their 20s with children of their own, promised to bring their children to Faith for baptism and maybe more. But they no longer live in the neighborhood.
“This was the last place where we were all together, and it hasn’t been that way since,” David told me.
Faith Presbyterian and other houses of worship play various roles in helping people make it through the pain of these deaths and maimings, offering gathering spaces, covering unexpected costs, providing solace.
But for those of us who’ve grown as weary of the rituals as we are of the murders, the old songs miss the mark in trying to assure us that “all things work according to [God’s] perfect will” and that “all is well with my soul.” None of this rings true at the moment or in days that follow.
What did resonate with me was Pastor Burns’ practical advice for this world rather than the next. “We as his church are compelled to express our outrage in action,” she said. “We must demand a response because we’ve learned that the police and the city aren’t going to do a thing unless we do.”
I thought of an additional path to follow. On TV cop shows, when the ranking officer wants the squad to know that solving a case is a priority, they say something like, “Treat this like it’s family.” More of us can do that in 2023.
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.