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Remembering Anti-Violence Activist Dante Barksdale

Patrick Semansky/AP

Dante Barksdale, a leader of the violence-prevention program Safe Streets, was shot to death on Sunday in East Baltimore. Barksdale, who was also known as "Tater," dedicated the last decade of his life to mediating conflicts, doing critical neighborhood outreach, and reducing homicides in Baltimore.

Barksdale used his reputation as a formerly incarcerated person to become what he called a "credible messenger" in some of Baltimore's neighborhoods that have been most impacted by gun violence. As he told Future City in 2019, it's "easy for a guy to listen to somebody who they've seen in this mess before."

As an outreach coordinator for Safe Streets, he was responsible for mentoring and training new hires to be credible messengers as well. "We know that we have to continue to build our comradery and be strong if we're going to be fighting in these streets because they need us," he said.

He approached the goal of mediating potentially deadly conflicts with empathy and understanding for everyone involved. "Some of these people are in some dreadful situations," Barksdale said. "The victims are perpetrators and the perpetrators are victims."

Barksdale was particularly focused on keeping young people safe. He told Future City that many of them were traumatized from witnessing violence and from their daily needs not being met. "If I'm hungry, dirty, ain't had no sleep, not feeling safe, I'm not going to go to school," he told Future City. "That's most of our kids."

You can listen to our 2019 conversation with Dante Barksdale above and read the transcript of that interview below. 

Interview Transcript

Wes Moore: Dante Barksdale is an outreach coordinator for Safe Streets Baltimore, a program that seeks to reduce violence through deescalation and mediation in the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. Mr. Barksdale, blessing having you here. Thanks so much for joining us. 

Dante Barksdale: Thanks, Wes, thanks for having me. 

Wes Moore: First I want to just ground the listener into what exactly is Safe Streets.

Dante Barksdale: Safe Streets is a public health initiative to reduce shootings and homicides. But it's actually a spinoff of a program formerly called CeaseFire, which is called Cure Violence now. Cure Violence was created by an epidemiologist by the name of Dr. Gary Slutkin, who was treating cholera and stuff like that over in Africa. And then when he came back to Chicago, he kind of laid this map in the same ideologies of how World Health Organizations attack epidemics. And he used that same strategy for homicides because he looked at homicides as an epidemic, as a disease. His explanation is that it spreads from one person to another, just like any other infectious disease. 

So to clear everybody up Safe Streets is not a city wide program. The city is 96 square miles. Safe Streets covers maybe two square miles of the city. So we're in 10 locations, but most of the locations may only be eight blocks by five blocks. It'll be some community organizations. We have Franklin Square. We have the top and bottom of Park Heights. We have Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Belair-Edison, McElderry Park, Sandtown, and Penn North. 

The actual work looks like this. Our guys come in and at the beginning of their shift, what they do is they brief. And what they brief about what's going on in the streets, what's going on in the neighborhoods, the boundary and which Safe Streets it's actually implemented. When our guys come in, after they brief, they're talking about: who just came home? Does he have a conflict with somebody who told on them? They're talking about: who just stole somebody’s stash down on such and such street? They're talking about: who came through robbing? They’re talking about: is there any guys in this neighborhood selling drugs on a corner where you think it could be a conflict?

So when we go out, if we know that these things are taking place, what we do is we go out and we canvas and we canvas for about four or five hours, all of the members of the site collectively. So they walk through the neighborhood and this is called identifying and detecting violence. 

Now the crux of our program is we have what you call credible messengers. Our credible messengers are guys who may have destroyed the community before but now he has another trajectory and he's trying to reduce shootings and homicides. He's using his credibility to go back in, to do conflict mediation and connect people to resources. Because we see that it’s kind of easy for a guy to listen to somebody who they've seen in this mess before.

Wes Moore: And I'm completely with you and the data backs up the fact that there's a credibility piece to it, right? So someone will listen to somebody if they feel like they actually understand the situation that they're in.

What's interesting about what's taken place with Safe Streets also is there's an understanding and an acknowledgement amongst the interrupters about their time, their role, their experiences. How does that process work? How does a process work when you're talking about someone who is now coming into this role of violence interrupter, but in order for them to do that, there needs to be an understanding and an acknowledgement and a reconciliation with that about their own past, their own experiences and how they're ready to turn.

Dante Barksdale: It's kind of like a real rigorous process to get a guy on with Safe Streets. So, first of all, as the outreach coordinator, it's actually my job to do walkthroughs with this guy through the community. If we have an existing site, what we'll do is we'll have guys from the existing site help to pick these individuals for a hiring panel, right? Then what we do after that, we send their names to the police department so they could be vetted. The police department has intel that may tell us whether a guy is kind of still in the life. Does this guy, is he a part of this gang or that gang or stuff like that. But it gives us intel and it gives us a way to be able to look at these guys before we bring them in. 

So it's rigorous. I'll take them out, I'll walk them. If I'm walking down the street and people saying “y'all out yet?” this guy might be still into something. You know, if I'm walking down this street and he looking all behind his back, he might be a robber or something or he shot somebody. You’ll see that in his behavior because I'm from the street and he from the street so I'ma understand his behavior. 

After that, what we do is we do a 40 hour training with them. Some of those modules talk about your past life, how it can affect you in this work. So we bring those things up. Because even though guys may believe that, “oh, I'm the toughest guy in my neighborhood, I can squash any beefs,” when you go through this training and you find out that it's things that you didn't even think about even being from the streets. And when you have that conversation with multiple individuals, those things come up. 

I might think that you and Mark, “oh, these are my guys. I could mediate them.” And y'all really going at it. Y'all pulling guns out, he done shot at you, you done shot at him. And I say, “well, I got a good rapport with them. I'ma call Wes and I'ma call Mark and I’ma get them to come holler at me.” But that's a big mistake. Cause I can't handle two guys by myself, even if I believe that I can. So going through those trainings and understanding through trial and error and making those mistakes, we understand that guys need to be taught these things. You don't want to be mediating in a dark warehouse. You won't want to be mediating if guys aren't following the rules.

When we do mediations, the first thing we ask is, “are you willing to mediate?” So once we find out if a guy is willing to mediate, then we putting rules in place. When we come do the mediation, you can bring two of your guys and he can bring two of his guys. If you show up to mediation, he got two of his guys, you got five of your guys, mediation off. You already broke the rules, so I know you're going to break the other rules if you already broke the first rule, you brought too many guys. Or you didn't want to meet in a certain place. We get there and you call me “no, no, come around the corner,” mediation off, you breaking the rules. So having that training and all of those kinds of things in place for that, I think it helps build these guys.

And it's a comradery thing. I'm not going to say that every guy has been perfect. We have had some that might blow up. And those mediations don't look like, “hey, can you go put your gun down?” Sometimes it turns into, you know, “well you, not like that” or whatever or whatever. But you have to remain patient when you mediate and you just have to definitely understand yourself.

So that's why as guys, we check in with one another. We have those briefings. We have those debriefings. Our supervisors have one-on-ones with our guys. Our directors had one-on-ones with our supervisors. We have groups and circles and stuff like that because we know that we have to continue to build our comradery and be strong if we're going to be fighting in these streets because they need us.

Wes Moore: Do you notice a difference between your level of impact depending on neighborhood, clique, group, etc.? Do you notice that, “hey, we are actually more effective in East Baltimore than West Baltimore”? Do you say “we're more effective with a group or a clique or a gang from one neighborhood than we are versus the larger national ones, like the Bloods or the Crips?”

Dante Barksdale: What I can say is Baltimore is different. This is not really a gang town. The news makes this a gang town. This is a city of blocks and housing projects and stuff like this. This is not a gang city.

See, most of the guys you know that's part of the BGF gang are guys who went to jail and they were made BGF. But when they go back home, they from Greenmount and North, they could give a rat's tail about some BGF. We don't have a really bad gang problem. And the city should thank the BGF for not having a bunch of Bloods and Crips in this town. In the year 2000, maybe 99, 2000, 2001, it was red rags all on all these poles, bro. Little kids was running around with red flags, blue flags. But when they went to jail, it all changed. A lot of them became what? BGF. Because they not in no gang, for real. They was just getting in it, some of them, for protection.

You know, one of the biggest problems I see about this violence? You got a world full of kids who have committed hundreds and hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of murders, psychologically, on that video game. But see, on that video game, you can start over. On that video game you don't go to trial when you blow the dude’s head off. You don't go to trial when you steal a car. But that stuff is working on these kids' psychological. ‘Cause some of them come out here and play that game and realize it ain't no game once they put them cuffs on them and they sit in prison and they talking about 200 years.

I think our kids should, in fifth grade and sixth grade, when you first start getting bad, I think they should have a class that actually tells you how much time you can get for just strong arm robbery. Because a kid doesn't understand the capacity. “I got a gun and I go up to Wes and I get his $5.” To the kid, “I just robbed him for $5.” But that's robbery. First degree assault. Handgun in the commission of a felony. All those charges, 50, 60, 70 years in prison. But kids don't understand that.

Wes Moore: But is it that the kids don't understand it or, I think for so many of the kids we’re talking about, they understand it in a way because they've seen it, right? They've seen it with family members. They’ve seen it with people, you know, in the neighborhood who are gone.

Dante Barksdale: But it’s not a reality until you see it. It ain’t no reality until you’re sitting in the courtroom, like “damn, this real.” 

A lot of these kids, bro, have not separated fiction from reality. A lot of them are traumatized. You know how many kids in this city have witnessed homicides? Probably 85% of them. That's trauma, bro. We talking about trauma. We talking about mental health state. 

And then this is the biggest thing. When I went to college and got my degree in social work, I found out about something called the Maslow hierarchy of needs. They say if you do not take care of your physiological needs, you will not move to the next level. Meaning if I'm hungry, dirty, ain't had no sleep, not feeling safe, I'm not going to go to school. That's most of our kids, bro. 

‘Cause I hear a lot of people say stuff on the radio or get on Facebook or Instagram or comment, “oh these kids out here doing this, these kids out here doing that.” You can't talk about that kind of stuff until somebody hunted you with a gun. Because when 344 murders happened last year, all of those people who committed those homicides weren’t bad people, bro. I'm not saying it's alright to go shoot nobody. I'm saying every shooter is not a bad person. Some of them been pushed in the corner. 

What I'm saying is we don't know what we will do if we were put in some of these situations. Some of these people are in some dreadful situations, man. The victims are perpetrators and the perpetrators are victims. Most dudes who shoot people been shot before most of the time. And most dudes that get shot once they more likely to get shot again. What is it, 40 times more likely?

And Safe Streets, this the stuff we trying to educate kids about. We go to the kids like bro, the lady that called the police on you on the corner for you sitting on her steps, she not a rat. Your man a rat that went with you on that robbery and then he turned state evidence on you. He a rat. That guy you commit crimes with and then told the police on you, he's a rat. If an old lady or young man or woman, a somebody, a regular citizen, witness a homicide and go to court and testify, they're not no rat. This is what we teach the kids in our Safe Streets sites. 

Wes Moore: Well, I got to tell you, we're all thankful for not just what you do, but how many people you're bringing along with you and how many people are saved because you do what you do. I've been speaking to Dante Barksdale and Mr. Barksdale is the outreach coordinator for Safe Streets here in Baltimore, in the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. Mr. Barksdale, bless you. Thanks for joining us. 

Dante Barksdale: Thank you, my brother. 

Wes Moore: Thank you. 

Dante Barksdale: Appreciate you.

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.