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“Baltimore’s Different”: Gangs, Youth, And Stopping Violence

Mark Gunnery

For the fifth year in a row, the annual number of homicides in Baltimore has surpassed 300. Young people have been at the forefront of the city’s violence. On this month’s episode of Future City,we discuss violence in Baltimore, how it affects young people in particular, gangs in the city and efforts to end cycles of retaliatory violence.

Often, criminal gangs are blamed for this violence, and fighting against them is understood by many as a key to slowing homicides. A new federal “Strike Force” to combat drug dealing gangs and their international suppliers was established this year in Baltimore, for example. The multi-agency project aims to indict entire gang operations from street dealers to bosses in an effort to lower both murders and opioid overdoses. 

But gang culture is different in Baltimore than in other cities where large and well-established organizations like Bloods and Crips dominate. That’s according to Dante Barksdale, outreach coordinator for the anti-violence organization Safe Streets Baltimore and author of the new book Growing Up Barksdale: A True Baltimore Story. “Baltimore’s different,” he told Future City. “This is not really a gang town,” he told Future City. “This is a city of blocks and housing projects.”

According to Natasha Pratt-Harris, associate professor and coordinator of the Criminal Justice program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Morgan State University, those blocks and housing projects often have much more of a bearing on someone’s life than membership in a traditional criminal gangs do. “Affiliations based on what street people are known to frequent,” she told Future City, is “how we are describing our gangs in Baltimore.” 

“Addressing what’s happening with a particular gang,” Pratt-Harris said, “is really about addressing what’s going on in that particular neighborhood, what’s happening at those schools, how we are engaging as a community.”  

Barksdale’s organization, Safe Streets Baltimore, focuses directly on community engagement and mediation as ways to combat violence in the neighborhoods where it operates. Safe Streets Baltimore uses what Barksdale calls “credible messengers,” people who may have been incarcerated or involved with violent crime in the past, to do outreach and help mediate conflicts so disagreements don’t turn deadly. The credibility of the Safe Streets workers is key to Barksdale. “It’s easy for a guy to listen to someone that they’ve seen in this mess before,” he told Future City. 

For Erricka Bridgeford, communication and understanding are vital to stopping violence. Bridgeford is a co-creator of Baltimore Ceasefire 365, an organization that seeks to end homicides in the city. The group organizes quarterly ceasefire weekends, asking Baltimoreans to handle conflict nonviolently while celebrating life and sharing resources. They also practice healing rituals at the sites of homicides and offer support to the surviving friends and families of homicide victims.


“Being understood is literally a biological necessity,” Bridgeford told Future City. “When we don’t feel understood we kill ourselves and each other just because of how the brain works. Having a safe space to resolve our conflicts is really important.” 


For Lance Williams, cultural competency is necessary for successful violence interruption. A gang and youth violence intervention worker in Chicago, he is also the author of The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of an American Gang and a professor of Urban Community Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. 

“There’s a particular culture that’s associated with young black males in street life that cannot be ignored,” Williams told Future City. “Your intervention has to be delivered by individuals who understand that culture, that are from that culture, that are not judgemental in a negative way of that culture, but understand it in a way that they can retool it and move it into a direction that makes it prosocial and less antisocial.”

Erricka Bridgeford thinks that adults need to communicate more respectfully with young people, and recognize how their word choice and tone of voice can trigger traumatic responses from youth, sending them into fight, flight, or freeze mode. “We don’t honor their humanity a lot of times when we’re talking to them,” she said. “And especially authority figures. Teachers. Police officers. Parents. We often dismiss children.”


Click here for a special podcast extra for this month's episode, an interview with Erricka Bridgeford.




Natasha Pratt-Harris, associate professor and coordinator of the Criminal Justice program at the Morgan State University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology.


Lance Williams, professor of Urban Community Studies at Northeastern Illinois University; gang and violence intervention worker, and author of The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang.


Dante Barksdale, outreach coordinator for Safe Streets Baltimore in the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice and author of Growing Up Barksdale: A True Baltimore Story.

Wes Moore is a decorated Army combat veteran, youth advocate and CEO of BridgeEdU, a national initiative focusing on addressing the college completion and career placement crisis by reinventing the Freshman Year of college. He is also the author of two instant New York Times bestselling books, The Other Wes Moore and The Work.