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

Patrick Semansky/AP

The annual number of homicides in Baltimore surpassed 300 for each year from 2015 to 2020. Young people have been at the forefront of the city’s violence. On this month’s episode of Future City,a rebroadcast from 2019, we discuss violence in Baltimore, how it affects young people in particular, and efforts to end cycles of retaliatory homicide through violence interruption. We also listen back to an interview with anti-violence activist Dante Barksdale, who was murdered earlier this year in Baltimore.



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.


Click here for a special podcast extra for this month's episode, an interview with Erricka Bridgeford, co-creator of Baltimore Ceasefire 365, an organization that seeks to end homicides in the city.


[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Transcript ", "style": "full"}]]Wes Moore: This episode of Future City is a rebroadcast from 2019.

From WYPR in Baltimore, I'm Wes Moore. Welcome to Future City, our monthly radio conversation that moves the question from, what's wrong? To, what's next? Each month on this show, we hear about innovative responses to our city's most pressing problems. We also check in on how other cities are approaching similar problems and ask, what can Baltimore learn from them? Baltimore has had more than 300 annual homicides for the past three years. Young people have been at the forefront of this violence. Many of Baltimore's youth, especially ones who live in low-income black and brown communities, have grown up in a climate of fear, seeing friends and family members being killed or injured by street violence.

For many years, politicians and media have pointed fingers at gangs, blaming them for crime in Baltimore. But Baltimore is different from other cities. Neighborhood cliques are more common than more established and traditional gangs like Bloods and Crips. But the cycle of violence, that comes from interpersonal beefs and slights that can lead to ongoing retaliatory violence that touches many in the city. Today, we explore youth violence and crime in Baltimore and explore gangs in the city. Why do young people join them? How can violence between different crews be reduced? And how are both current and former gang members participating in the violence interruption projects in Baltimore and in other cities like Chicago?

So we're going to start with Natasha Pratt-Harris. She's an associate professor and coordinator of the Criminal Justice Program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Morgan State University. Dr. Pratt-Harris, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Thank you for having me.

Wes Moore: So the term gang is so ubiquitous and people use it in such a variety of different ways. What exactly do we mean when we are talking about that?

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Well, often in legislation, whether it be federal or more local legislation, there's a description of gangs based upon the criminal element. So the definition is based upon an organization of individuals, oftentimes noted as at least five, who are intent upon engaging in some type of criminal activity to maintain their status, to build some type of income for that group, has some type of a prestige, a means to kind of have a presence or representation in a given area. And it's again often referenced as criminal.

But when you expand the definition of a gang and take away the concept of a criminal gang, you recognize it can be a group of people who have similar interests and it's not always criminal. But you also have gangs who are responsible for selling drugs, which is illegal and a criminal offense, but their activity doesn't always mean violence. But there's definitely an association between the drug sale, turf wars, and violence, so that's there. But again, on a consistent basis from a pop culture kind of description, from legislation, there's this blanket idea that gangs or all gangs are criminal gangs, but that's not necessarily the case when you expand the definition.

Wes Moore: But you just touched on something really important there, the idea that these gangs, these cliques, these structures, are oftentimes incorporated and motivated by different things.

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Exactly.

Wes Moore: What is the scale and the variety of reasons that people will become gang affiliated?

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Well, I recognize that it can be almost a natural reality where it's in a family, where it's passed down through the generations and people just recognize that when they reach a certain point in their life, at a certain age, as a maybe a 12-year-old, or maybe even younger, they become affiliated with a gang by nature of what happens in their family, right? Then you recognize that some people grow up in neighborhoods or communities where almost a rites of passage is to become a part of a gang, because that is kind of a central force in that community.

People who are vulnerable to being affiliated with gangs engage because they feel threatened if they're not engaged. So there's discussion about people being jumped into gangs and they have to kind of partake, unless of course they find a way out of it. People will engage or affiliate themselves with gangs to be protected and this is oftentimes seen in our prisons where being associated with the gang coming in and/or joining one while detained offers some sort of protection while someone's detained. On the outside, same thing. If you are a part of this particular gang or a gang, there is some measure of protection that you're going to get.

When we look at the human potential, people join gangs or become a part of gangs because of the sense of belonging, the reality that this group offers a family, whether or not the person is in fact coming from a traditional family structure. And that within itself plays kind of like the substitute for a family, however we define family. Interestingly enough, we are very textbook when we talk about what a family looks like in terms of two parents and the children, but we've recognized with our gangs, there are multiple entities, almost like multiple family structures, and persons actually identify with those structures because it speaks to how they in fact define family or what they feel about what it means to be a family.

Wes Moore: Do people often think that it's filling something, it's filling some type of void that is not there, not open, not present? Is that always the case when we're looking at people who end up becoming gang affiliated?

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Well, when you think about, for example the familiar realities of gang involvement, so if a family member, this is a part of the family structure, I don't necessarily say that it's filling a void, it's almost just a part of the process of being a part of this family that one becomes affiliated with a gang. But for the most part, people recognize affiliation with anything, whether it be a gang or church, a particular school, and having pride or a team, whether it's a void or not, it's filling something, like just to have this likeness with another or likeness with a group and people as humans have this yearning to be a part of.

Being an individual or a single in a society where groups are how we kind of engage, that's not the norm. The norm is to be a part of groups. We however tend to look at something like a gang where we often talk about gangs as criminal gangs. We see the deviance in so much as the activity, not in recognizing necessarily the humanity of why someone engages, and the humanity kind of speaks volumes as it relates to why someone becomes a part of a gang.

Wes Moore: How different are the gangs in Baltimore versus other locations?

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: When I began teaching at Morgan State, this was in 2007, 2008, this is when I became aware that people in the city were identifying with gangs that are popularly known like the Bloods and the Crips, right? And there was a kind of upsurge based upon my observations of gang affiliation in Baltimore City. You can actually see persons who were wearing the red and the blue bandanas growing up in Baltimore City. Any notion of a gang wasn't a part of our verbiage. We recognized that there were neighborhood structures, there were turfs, people protected their neighborhood, they protected their turf.

And that wasn't necessarily described as a gang, because more properly, it was again the Crips and the Bloods. And for me, watching Good Times, the Junior Warlords, and that type of thing. But during that time, we recognized that we had sets of the Crips and the Bloods who were situated here in Baltimore, recruited members. And even within that reality of upsurge of gang activity or gang affiliation in Baltimore City with these very traditional or well-known gangs, Baltimore continues to be a place where the neighborhoods, the affiliation based upon what street someone's known to frequent or hangout at, that is more so how we are describing our gangs in Baltimore.

And the term gang again, for me, when I even used the language is kind of difficult because growing up in this city, we didn't say gangs. We just knew the guys who lived on Qaeda or York, which is the part of town I'm from, and it wasn't the word gang used. I sometimes feel that we make the attempt to solve or address a problem using a term that just makes sense, but this neighborhood reality and what's happened in this city for a very long time, it doesn't always make sense. So, what policing do is it relates to law enforcement and protection.

Wes Moore: But when we're talking about some of the bigger elements of Baltimore and some of the larger gangs in Baltimore, who are we talking about?

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Well, interestingly, I had a conversation with my teenager and I said, "Hey, what are the gangs of Baltimore?" And she just gave me of the top of her head, BGF, Black Guerilla Family. She talked about the Crips. She talked about the Bloods. And I just read an article about the TTG out of Sandtown-Winchester, right? And that's who police have identified as gangs in Baltimore. About five years ago was the Hunters, maybe more than five years ago, the Hunters. But these different names that come up based upon this affiliation and/or this grouping where they've kind of self-identify is a particular gang or groups that have given themselves their particular name.

But again, based upon my assessments of what happens in our city, we have gang affiliation, but the neighborhoods structures speak volumes to how we kind of get around in the city to address gang activity or gang. It's about these neighborhoods, it's about TTG, it's Sandtown-Winchester, that's where they are situated. That's kind of addressing what's happened with that particular gang, is really about addressing what's going on in that particular neighborhood, what's happening at those schools, how are we engaging as a community from a law enforcement side, from just general community engagement side that speaks to why?

When we talk about Bloods and Crips come into Baltimore and a set being established in Baltimore, we recognized that Baltimore was ripe for this type of activity because of some of the decay that we've seen in this city over time because of the structures that mean that we have a significant number of people who've been detained, incarcerated, you lose family members. We have a significant number of people who've lost their lives due to violence and other issues, issues related to schools being compromised based upon whatever's happening in our schools.

You're going to have the opportunity for a set to be established in Baltimore because it's definitely lending itself to people being protected, people establishing clout and having a sense of family.

Wes Moore: One that oftentimes gets brought up and their name has become much more known is BGF. How is BGF different from the ones you just mentioned before in terms of either structure, origins? Is there something different about BGF or would you say, "Actually, I would actually put BGF in the same category as Bloods or the Crips in terms of everything you just asked?"

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Well, historically speaking, there's this acknowledgement that gangs were there to protect the community. Gangs had been established in the beginning to protect the community, to feed the kids, to provide resources. And BGF speaks specifically about being established as an umbrella of the Black Panther Movement. And black folks consistently talk about Black Panthers as being connected and involved in feeding children in particular, protecting children, protecting communities who've been victimized in so many ways, police brutality, community violence, those types of things. So BGF speaks to that.

But when I compare the Crips and Bloods and look at their history, it's not that different in terms of the establishment with the whole idea to protect the community.

Wes Moore: We've seen whole slates of legislation that has been proposed to be able to deal with this, new laws, new policing techniques. Where are we now when we're talking about the idea of proposal legislation that can deal with the issue and the growth of gangs and have those movements gotten us anywhere, made communities any safer, or fundamentally address the issues that gangs also are filling in for?

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Well, you may be referencing the strike force here in Baltimore City. You have the Feds, you have the local law enforcement, you have the county executive, you have the mayor, you have a whole host of people who are working together to make the attempt to identify people who were gang leaders, to kind of hone in on the realities of this city as it relates to violence. Does that change or impact what's going to happen in terms of gang-related activity or murders in Baltimore? Well, the verdict is out, on the strike force initiative at least, but we recognize that the reactory styles of everything, even if it's legislation after the fact, isn't all that we can do to kind of address something like a gang or gang activities.

It really is prior to the prevention, the reduction on the forefront of even having the potential for a gang or getting affiliates to kind of inspire more membership, right? There's also this reality that former gang bangers, as they may call themselves, they're actually doing the work on the street to kind of acknowledge that they know what it means to be a member of a gang, they know the impact gangs have on communities, and recognizing that our children are vulnerable to that, and them being called upon to help address and/or solve the realities of gangs or gang activity in a city like Baltimore.

So you actually have former or active members of Bloods or Crips in Baltimore City who are actually on the grassroots side doing a lot of work. Then you have supported initiatives like Safe Streets where Safe Streets members are former gang affiliates in many cases, and them themselves working to address, to kind of actually head on reducing the potential for violence, especially as it relates to retaliation violence.

But again, being connected to community to recognize what's going on, I'm a proponent and will consistently talk the entire community, including our law enforcement community, consistently making the attempt to just do more engagement, having conversations with young people, showing up before something happens, right? And being visible so that it's known that together we're trying to address or solve any of our problems, including gang activity in the city of Baltimore.

Wes Moore: Some of the cities that have been most successful to be able to address this issue, who are some of these cities and what did they do?

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: What we attempted to do in Baltimore, but it didn't work because Baltimore is a different city than a city like New York. But in a city like New York, there was this push to have the zero tolerance policing, right? And we recognize that and we can see numbers that have declined in New York. It hasn't eradicated or eliminated the problems that New York saw when it was at its peak, but a city like New York has had the outcomes that they were seeking in terms of reducing violence, reducing gang activity and the like. But that was be a zero tolerance.

Then you have other cities that didn't necessarily apply zero tolerance policing like Seattle, where they in fact have addressed community engagement. I'm not talking about within the past five to 10 years, I'm talking about 10 to 15 years ago where they've seen decline or saw declines in gang-related activity and/or violence. So places like that didn't necessarily apply zero tolerance policing, but more community engagement models, and then a city like New York who did zero tolerance policing. In Baltimore, we would definitely need a structure that kind of addresses the neighborhoods and the neighborhood dynamics. And who are folks listening to in the first place?

Are they listening to a former gang affiliate as it relates to gang activity in Baltimore or are they going to listen to law enforcement where their relationship hasn't been the sweetest, right? And/or are we working together with law enforcement, with our former gang affiliates or current gang affiliates to work together to address the potential for gang activity in a particular community, again on the prevention side, not on the reactory side? So we know that zero tolerance didn't work in this particular city because we were arresting and arresting and arresting and not necessarily addressing the problem because we still see upticks in violence while we've seen upticks in actual arrests?

Wes Moore: You are listening to Future City and I've been speaking with Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris, who's the associate professor and coordinator for the Criminal Justice Program and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at our very own Morgan State University here in Baltimore. Dr. Pratt-Harris, I'm proud of Western Cred. This is a great conversation. Thank you so much.

Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris: Thank you so much for having me again.

Wes Moore: We have to take a break, but do not go away. When we come back, we'll hear about gangs in Chicago and how both current and former gang members there are participating in violence interruption projects. Stay tuned.


This episode of Future City is a rebroadcast from 2019.

From WYPR in Baltimore, I'm Wes Moore. Welcome to Future City, our monthly radio conversation that moves the question from, what's wrong? To, what's next? Each month on this show, we hear about innovative responses to our city's most pressing problems. We also check in on how other cities are approaching similar problems and ask, what can Baltimore learn from them? Well, on today's show, we're discussing youth violence and gangs in Baltimore. Now let's shift our focus to another city that's been wrestling with youth violence and homicides, Chicago.

Gang violence in Chicago has been called an epidemic and more than 530 people were murdered there last year alone. But the city has taken some innovative approaches to stopping that violence. To learn more, we're incredibly excited to talk with Dr. Lance Williams. He's a professor of urban community studies at Northeastern Illinois University, he is a gang and youth violence intervention worker, and the author of the book, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of an American Gang. Dr. Williams, thank you so much for talking with us today and welcome to the show.

Dr. Lance Williams: Thank you so much for having me, Wes.

Wes Moore: And so Dr. Williams, you have written extensively about gangs in Chicago and elsewhere, but the ways that they have evolved from the 20th century until today, including what you call the fracturing of African American gangs, how have gangs changed during that time period that you talk about and study?

Dr. Lance Williams: Well, I think it's important to look at the historical evolution of Chicago. African-American gangs date back to the earlier 20th century. The evolution is really connected and tied to the extreme segregation of African-Americans in very marginalized spaces and communities in Chicago. Most people know the history of African-Americans in Northern cities. And particularly in Chicago, black people were concentrated in a community area known as Bronzeville. Over the years, particularly with the end of restrictive covenants in 1948, black people then were given opportunities to move out of this space.

But prior to moving out of the space for about close to 40 years, street gangs began to emerge, many of them connected to what we call Old Black Street Gangsters in a form of policy kings who controlled the gambling lottery type of underground economy. But when black people began to be displaced from these communities and settled into other marginalized areas of the city, that created a disorganization of the culture and the economy, the underground economy, and it caused a lot of confusion in these new spaces. And that's when we began to see black youth gangs flourish.

And they flourished in these communities probably for another 40 years or so, and then we had another resurgence of displacement. But this time, the displacement that begins in the late '80, early '90s into the 2000s is rooted in public housing demolition when large groups of African-Americans were displaced from public housing and also the reconstituting of community schools that began in the 2000. So in these communities where black youth gangs flourished, they were dispersed into other neighborhoods. The federal agencies, FBI, DEA began to target the leaders of these large street gangs like the Blackstone/El Rukns.

Those are two separate names for one gang, but one of the predominant African-American gangs in Chicago. Also another large gang, the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples and the Vice Lords as well, their leadership was targeted by federal prosecutions, taking the leaders off out of these organizations and that caused the bodies to kind of fragment. At the same time, you had the housing displacement. So all of this stuff is kind of going on at the same time and it created a massive disorganization on settled spaces which really drove a lot of the violence that we've been seeing over the last 15 years or so.

Wes Moore: And you mentioned how the evolution of the structures and the evolution of the takeaways from these organizations have evolved, have the way we've addressed it, have the way that we've policed it, have the way that we've controlled it evolved as well? And has it evolved in the same level of speed and discipline?

Dr. Lance Williams: The city has really had a difficult time attacking the problem of violence, particularly in the African-American community. It's for two major reasons. One is because the solution to these problems in many cases carries political connotations. And when I say political connotations, what's actually going on in these neighborhoods is dysfunction rooted in people not having access to intergenerational institutional power. From a political perspective, in order to solve this problem, you have to rebuild these institutions, you have to rebuild school spaces, you have to rebuild the businesses and the faith communities.

Then on the other hand, you also have the problem of just using primary law enforcement approaches to solving these problems. The problem itself is not a criminal problem, it's more of a socioeconomic/cultural problem. And in order to solve it, it requires a massive amount of public resources. And the city just has struggled to organize themselves around bringing the types of resources that are actually needed to solve the problem. You have to be able to provide affordable housing, you have to rebuild the infrastructure for public schools because all of that has been dismantled. It's just been too much of a task for city government.

Wes Moore: When you talk about how that culture then permeates the community, you talk really convincingly about what is the role of social media, what is role of media, what is the role of entertainment in this larger conversation? You talk about something called drill and how drill also played a role in this. What is drill?

Dr. Lance Williams: Well, drill is a hyper expression of rap music that kind of grows out of the gangster rap culture, but it has more extreme expression lyrically as it relates to violence and misogyny and the glorification of the whole street culture, right? And really, drill is an expression of really hard, violent living in Chicago, where Chicago artists like Chief Keef and Lil Durk and G Herbo, these are kids who were 2010 babies. They came up as teenagers in an era where Chicago had really hit its peak in terms of marginalization, so their music expresses this experience, the street experience.

Because it is a popular form of music again that has been popularized all over the world, it becomes glorified, it becomes something that a lot of young people are attracted to and engage in. And as they engage in its expression throughout social media, it exacerbates the violence because one of the major components of drill music is about retaliation against your ops. The music needs to express, "If some of my homies get killed, then it's incumbent upon me and my guys to go retaliate." And the music pretty much is the song track for that type of feuding going on back and forth. Then these attacks and these acts that play out in real life then are posted to social media exacerbating the problem even more.

You've had a chance to see this from so many different perspectives to including working as a violence interrupter in Chicago for many years yourself. What are the things that you have seen that have the highest potential of working in a scalable way? And what are the things that you have seen that actually our continued focus on it is actually not going to help to get us to where we need to get to?


Let's start with the second part of that, and that is taking a law enforcement approach to it, a criminal justice approach to it, is absolutely the wrong-headed approach, has not demonstrated any effective ways of reducing the problem. The criminal justice element attempts to target leadership of street gangs and contextualizing everything as it relates to young black males in violence as gang-related. Most of this violence is interpersonal. It's interpersonal conflict between young African-American males who are stressed out, who are high, intoxicated, but primarily stressed and depressed and they play out their frustration and their rage in forms of violence against each other.

But it's not gang-related as much as it is interpersonal kind of violence. And so, if you take a law enforcement approach to this, you can't actually solve it because you're attempting to attack a gang when this thing is actually interpersonal and culturally-related, right? So you're just spinning your wheels and you are wasting massive amounts of resources because it's so expensive to mobilize in that type of way. Now, what we see as being effective are programs... You have new organizations like Chicago CRED who are beginning to do wraparound services and provide services to this population where they are doing family therapy.

And see, family therapy is really the core of solving this problem. So in other words, if you have kids that have demonstrated the capacity to do violence, have been involved in shootings, the only way to get in the middle of that and interrupt it is that you have to provide wraparound services to their whole family, right? Everybody in the household, everybody on the block, is the most effective way to resolve the problem. And also, it's got to be culturally-centered. In other words, it's got to keep in mind that there's a particular culture that is associated with young black males in street life that cannot be ignored.

Your intervention has to be delivered by individuals who understand that culture, that are from that culture, that are not judgmental 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 pro-social and less antisocial.

Wes Moore: When we talk about the role that people who have experience in this, real life, practical histories and experience in this, we talk about how important it is when it comes to being an effective violence interrupter, right? Because there's a credibility that comes through when you go into community. Do we have that same level of focus and intention when it comes to the way we think about government intervention and the role of government, the role of philanthropy, the role of business. Do we have the same voices who are helping to make the decisions in those spaces as we insist upon having those voices when it comes to things like violence interrupters?

Dr. Lance Williams: Unfortunately, we do not. Public officials have been reluctant to get involved at this level for political reasons. You go into a violent hood in Chicago, and let's say the city decides that it wants to approach this from this grassroots perspective, and you mobilize a cadre of young African-American males who have that credibility that you mentioned, and you empower them, that you employ them to actually go into the community and to begin to change the young men that are active in the violence, right? So what you've just done is you've mobilized and you've empowered in a real way, because it takes a massive amounts of resources.

You have to put people on the payroll, you have to give them resources where they can put the young men that they are working with to work. But when you do that, you've also mobilized a large part of the community in a way that they now have political power, and so now they become competition. And so I think that's the reason that you not have not had elected officials stepping up to the plate. Most of this work that's being done successfully is done by private entities that are getting private funding, because you don't even see a lot of resources coming from federal, state, and local public agencies. It's mainly private entities that are putting money into this process.

Wes Moore: You've been listening to Future City and I had the joy of speaking with Dr. Lance Williams. He is a professor of urban community studies at Northeastern Illinois University, a gang and youth violence intervention worker, and also author of the book, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of an American Gang. Dr. Williams, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Lance Williams: Thank you for having me.

Wes Moore: We have to take a quick break, but do not go away. When we come back, we'll hear about Safe Streets, a violence interruption program in Baltimore. Talk to you soon.

This episode of Future City is a rebroadcast from 2019.

Welcome back. I am Wes Moore and you are listening to Future City here on WYPR. Each month on the show, we hear about innovative responses to our city's most pressing challenges. We also check in on how other cities are approaching similar problems and we ask, what can Baltimore learn from them? So on today's show, we're discussing youth violence and gangs here in Baltimore. We've heard about why young people join gangs and crews and we've heard about the fracturing of gangs in Chicago and how anti-violence activists there are actually disrupting the cycle of retaliatory shootings.

Now, let's come back to Baltimore. You are about to hear my 2019 interview with Dante Barksdale. Barksdale was the 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. Dante Barksdale, also known as Tater, was a tireless anti-violence organizer in this city before his own life was taken earlier this year. I had the pleasure of talking to him about violence in Baltimore in 2019, and here is that conversation.

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: So before we close out, I would just like to leave us with just a few thoughts. Addressing the pain so many of the young people of this city are facing is not easy. There is no single entity that is responsible for the level of violence and hurt that this city is currently enduring. Therefore, there will not be one entity with a sole responsibility to get us out. The way to address the rise of gangs is to address the void that these gangs moved in to fill in the first place. People don't join gangs because they look forward to life's impermanence.

They don't get excited to think about the untimely death of a family member or a loved one, or the vision of violence that you can never unsee and that will haunt you for the rest of your life. People are experiencing this because they don't have a choice. Gangs are filling voids that shouldn't be voids in the first place. Oftentimes, people talk about the things that make gangs so complicated to address, and the truth is, their structures are not excessively complicated. They look at it the same way that we look at Fortune 500 companies or the same way we look at military organizations, where there's structure, there's promoted responsibility, there's accountability, there's a sense of belonging.

The solution to our gang problem doesn't require genius, it requires courage, a courage to deal with the deeper problems and the courage to have a belief that the people who are currently gang affiliated deserve saving in the first place.

Future City is produced and edited by Mark Gunnery. We welcome your feedback. Also, feel free to contact me directly on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram @iamwesmoore. If you want to learn more about some of the people and organizations we heard from today or if you want to listen to previous episodes, please visit wypr.org and look for Future City under the programs and features tab. Thanks to WYPR intern, James Burrows of Baltimore Lab School, for providing original music for this episode. Future City airs here on WYPR on the third Wednesday of each month at 1:00 PM, and then again at 9:00 PM. So until next time, for 88.1 WYPR, your NPR news station, I'm Wes Moore.

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.
Mark is a producer at WYPR