The ‘No Shoot Zone’ where bullets are still flying

The ‘No Shoot Zone’ where bullets are still flying

Driving across West Baltimore recently, I got stuck at an intersection behind a slow-moving truck. After sitting through two cycles at the traffic signal, I inched my car forward to see what was blocking the way.

Normally, trucks are delivering beer to liquor stores in this neighborhood. But on that unseasonably warm late fall day, the truck was bringing something that is always in demand in Charm City - caskets.

There is not much commerce in West Baltimore. The place has actually been declared a “food desert” - after the last supermarket at Monroe and Presstman closed last year. The building was razed. It’s a vacant lot now.

The little convenience store across the street, curiously called Jolly, was looted and burned like so many others during the widespread rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray last spring. It remains boarded up. Since the riots, the worst in nearly half a century, which resulted in some $30 million in damages, there is even less commerce. But the funeral homes do a brisk business. I pass several on my daily route through a neighborhood visited in December by usually taciturn Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders. 

“Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood,” Sanders told reporters, “would not think you are in a wealthy nation. You would think you are in a Third World country.”

West Baltimore is indeed a Third World country, a place of extremes, poverty and constant violence. On a busy weekend, there can be several murders. A murder a day is not uncommon. As of this writing, 341 people have been killed so far this year, a staggering increase over last year, when a mere 211 died. 

But the year of Freddie Gray has been a different year in so many ways. When 2015 began, you could have put all the folks in Baltimore who had ever heard of Gray on the No. 35 bus that lumbers across the blighted west side. Now his ghost haunts us.

Gray was an almost classic West Baltimore corner boy. He was a petty criminal. He’d been arrested before. He had lead-paint poisoning in his background. But he was not a bad guy, and he was not violent; how he wound up in the back of a police wagon with massive spinal injuries is deeply troubling.

The city has already preemptively settled with Gray’s family for $6.4 million, a whopping payout when one considers that the six police officers charged in connection with his death had not been tried yet. Baltimore is hemorrhaging money as a result of Gray’s death. The trial of Officer William Porter, who did not actually arrest Gray but was one of the police involved in his detention, ended last week with a hung jury.

The Porter trial was supposed to be the easy one, one reason it was the first. But that proved not to be the case. The problem is that Gray’s death is not Ferguson, Missouri. There is nothing simple or obvious about it.

It’s not clean.

Of the six Baltimore police officers charged in connection with Gray’s death, three are black and three are white. Unlike most of the other incidents that have gripped the nation in the last couple of years, however, this one is more complicated. There is video showing Gray being arrested, but it is not clear if this is when he was injured. The case hinges on who did or failed to do what. Much of it involves what may or may not have happened after Gray was put into the police wagon.

Despite a lot of speculation, largely by the national television media, the city has remained calm since the spring riots. But it is still anxious and bewildered. Baltimore wants answers and there are none yet.

The west side is plastered with signs exhorting passersby. “Thou Shall Not Kill” and “We Must Stop Killing Each Other” are two of the most prevalent, professionally printed signs tacked or stapled to the fronts of an uncountable number of abandoned buildings that dot the city. There are said to be 16,000 such buildings. Who can say? I drive past dozens of these signs every day. A grim urban collage that reminds us how cheap life is here.

The signs remind us that black lives matter. Yet the homicide rate consists overwhelmingly of black victims, and the accused assailants are virtually all black. All but 30 of the 336 dead so far this year are black. This is an awkward fact.

Christopher Corbett is a Reuters columnist