Anger, aftermath and hope: Following threads of violence in Annapolis

On a Thursday night in January, three meetings share more than a coincidence of calendar.

Published 1/31/2023 6:00 a.m. EST

Del. Shaneka Henson, D-Annapolis, talks to residents of Woodside Garden during a community meeting called to discuss problems with the ongoing renovations and gun violence.

Inside an American Legion hall, angry moms asked for better security four days after a killing in their neighborhood. They also sought help with cramped living conditions during agonizingly slow renovations.

Across town, artists gathered in Maryland Hall to celebrate the opening of an exhibit inspired by death.

And at a community rec center, a group of interns relaunched a program aimed at helping their community deal with violence.

These three gatherings in Annapolis on Thursday night might seem like unrelated events linked by a coincidence of calendar. But they also were tied by the thread of gun violence, by people striving for change. I followed that thread in hopes of finding some meaning. Here’s what I found.

Annapolis is a small town, and for the most part, it is safe. Still, gun violence is a disturbing fact of life, with many residents numb to shots fired or a morning homicide headline. Once in a while, the violence has a quality of extra tragedy: A woman celebrating her son’s Naval Academy induction is killed by a stray bullet outside a hotel, or five journalists are murdered in their newsroom.

Reco Ramon Johnson’s death wasn’t one of those. He falls into a category defined by a fleeting mention on a local podcast, seconds of TV attention and a passing newspaper story. The 18-year-old died in Woodside Gardens on Jan. 22, a short walk from the corner where he shot at a man and a toddler about three years ago.

At the American Legion nearby, past a checkpoint next to the busy bar and through two heavy metal doors, neighborhood residents say better security might have saved Johnson.

“There are a number of things that happened on the property and security should have been there,” said Shalanda Sheppard, one of the organizers. “We need to see change.”

Johnson wasn’t the reason for the meeting. Residents, most of them women raising families, recounted tearfully how difficult their lives became during renovations by Fairstead, the New York-based owners of the subsidized apartments. The project is in its final phase, but residents are living in hotel rooms, their belongings stuffed into storage pods.

The women talked about roaches and the difficulty of squeezing birthday and graduation parties into a one-bedroom hotel room. They suspect the workers who moved their belongings are getting high with friends on their doorsteps, and they are frustrated by letters from Fairstead tucked under apartment doors while they are miles away.

Community activist Toni Strong Pratt got Fairstead representatives, a state delegate, a city alderman and an adviser to the mayor to attend the meeting. There was sympathy, tears and promises that things will change. More than one invoked new Gov. Wes Moore’s name as someone who might care.

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But as metal folding chairs scraped the floor to signify the meeting’s end and people headed for the exits, the only concrete response was the offer of a lift.

“I can give anyone who needs one a ride to the motel,” said Will Rowel, a community relations specialist for the city.

Artist Warren Hynson painted "Healing" to describe his own experience with gun violence. It is part of an exhibit at Maryland Hall through April 3.

At Maryland Hall, there was wine and canapes in the hallway for “AFTERMATH,” an exhibit divided between two galleries. It was conceived after Sandy Campos was killed three years ago. An 18-year-old student at the arts center, he was shot to death a half mile from the spot where Johnson fired a gun at that toddler.

Laura Brino, head of programming at the center, said the exhibit emerged from conversations with Annapolis moms who have lost their sons to the neighborhood violence that claimed the lives of Campos and Johnson. The kind that gets less attention.

“The sort of glaring difference in the community’s reaction was brought up by the moms,” she said. “After the Capital Gazette shooting, there were vigils and parades. Their version of gun violence was ignored.”

After the worst of the COVID pandemic, Brino brought in exhibit coordinators Darin Gilliam and Alison Harbaugh, who recruited seven artists, including Warren Hynson. His work reflects his own experience, imprisoned at age 17 for 28 years because he was involved in a break-in where a man, John Milton Branch, was shot to death.

“This painting is not just about me,” he wrote in the explanation posted next to the work. “This painting is about Mr. John Milton Branch and his family and me and my family who have been impacted in many ways because of the Aftermath of gun violence.”

In the other gallery, five portraits hung next to a wall of plants intended to represent regrowth. The paintings were organized by artist Andrée Tullier to memorialize Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rob Hiaasen — my friends at Capital Gazette murdered in 2018 by a man who hated the newspaper.

It was the first time in months I’d talked with Gerald’s wife and stepdaughter,Erica Fischman and Uka Saran. They had already seen Rebecca Wallace Pugh’s finished portrait: Gerald in a blue suit, standing in front of a wall of books while holding a program from the arts center where he met Erica.

“It was a very rainy day and I walked in and saw my husband,” Erica told the small crowd gathered before the paintings, her voice breaking. “It’s still hard.

“I walked down the hall and my heart stopped. It was him.”

I left the reception feeling like the aftermath isn’t always easy to define. It is hard to rectify seeing someone who lives now only in your head, regarding you from within the confines of canvas, paint and frame.

Portraits of Gerald Fischman, left, and John McNamara are included in the exhibit "Aftermath" at Maryland Hall in Annapolis. The exhibit, which explores what comes after gun violence, is open through April 3.

It’s also hard to find the Robinwood community center. You either know where it is or you have to ask for help.

The street lights on Tyler Avenue, the road that runs through the Annapolis housing authority community, are blue. There’s something going on with LED lights now, I’m told, and calling Baltimore Gas and Electric Company is supposed to fix them. From the looks of Robinwood at night, though, this neighborhood isn’t a priority.

You have to wonder if the lighting is related to violence. There were a number of shootings on Tyler Avenue last year. Two children were shot while playing in the street in February. Two more people were wounded in July, and a fifth shooting in October sent a man to the hospital.

But I needed directions, so I walked up to a crowd gathered just beyond the cul-de-sac where Tyler Avenue ends. They were laughing and music was playing. The air was cold, but the kind of chill that doesn’t matter when you’re enjoying a group of friends.

“Excuse me guys, I’m looking for the community center,” I asked.

“Hey, you’re the newspaper guy!” one of the men said, cigar clamped firmly in the corner of his mouth. “We used to work together. I was in the security office.”

With the connection made, directions were offered by many at once. “It’s the second parking lot,” a woman yelled as a reminder while I walked away. “The second.”

Even with help, though, the center seems hidden. The entrance is tucked behind a chain-link fence bordering a darkened parking lot.

Inside, though there was warmth and hope in the form of Lovell Offer and Coren Eve Makell.

The two young interns are working for the city, restarting No Harm. It’s a program intended to provide resources to cope with the aftermath of violence. They talked to a group of about 40 mostly young people, played games and passed out literature.

They’re organizing a campaign to paint residents’ names on the green transformer boxes that dot the neighborhood, to personalize life in Robinwood. The two know outreach like this has been tried and dropped before in Annapolis. They hope this will be different.

“I believe I can make a difference because I’m from Annapolis,” Makell said. “I’m part of this community. I’ll be able to connect with people.”

A flyer for the No Harm violence intervention program in Annapolis.