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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Blood-soaked Baltimore becomes murder central

Published by The Mail on Sunday (31st December, 2017)

Erricka Bridgeford first saw someone shot dead when she was 12 years old. Her brother has been killed, along with her stepson, her cousins and close friends. When I ask her to tot up the funerals she has attended, she estimates it to be about 30 over the past decade alone.

And that is just the fatalities. Another brother survived a shooting despite doctors declaring him dead on arrival at hospital.

Erricka has been raped twice. She has heard bullets fizz by her face when carrying a child and shots ring out almost daily. ‘This is clearly a war, with so many guns out there on these streets,’ she says. ‘It feels like we are under attack.’

Welcome to Baltimore, fast becoming homicide capital of America. The day I met Erricka, three more men were killed. Another turned up at hospital with serious gunshot wounds.

 Two more men were found shot dead on Boxing Day, one pumped full of bullets in a smashed car. Another man died on Wednesday after being shot in the back, the 343rd murder this year in the Maryland port.

The death toll includes five pupils from the same school; a mother who dared to report her son’s bullying; a pregnant woman; a teenager shot in the face while calling a taxi; a man of 97; and even the brother of Baltimore’s police spokesman.

This city stained with blood serves as a tragic symbol of a country scarred by lax gun control – just as surely as the slaughter at a Las Vegas concert in October, the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in United States history.

Last week saw Baltimore’s carnage break its own grisly record for killings per capita. The body count for 2017 of 343 nearly matched the all-time high of 353 homicides in 1993 – although since then its population has fallen by more than 110,000 people to 615,000 citizens.

On taking office, President Donald Trump pledged to stop such bloodshed and he tweets about killings in Chicago hitting epidemic levels – but Baltimore’s toll is twice as bad. It has many more murders than New York City, which is almost 14 times bigger.

And it could soon rise to the highest per capita in the country, already overtaking Detroit and New Orleans and closing in on St Louis.

Yet six years ago the annual homicide count fell below 200. As several people tell me, this eruption of violence makes the iconic gangland television drama The Wire, set in Baltimore, look tame. ‘It’s worse out there on the streets,’ one gangster with convictions for homicide and drug dealing says.

Catherine Pugh, the Democrat mayor, admitted earlier this year that ‘murder is out of control’ in her city and called for federal help. ‘There are too many guns on the streets,’ she said. ‘We’re looking for all the help we can get.’

Yet, incredibly, she tells me the problem was largely illicit weapons and she does not seek tighter gun controls. ‘People do not think before they act,’ she says. ‘Before they would smack each other, punch each other. Now they have illegal guns.’

Erricka, a mediation trainer and energetic 44-year-old mother of four, became so fed up with the slaughter she led moves for a three-day ceasefire backed by other mothers and activists. They plastered signs around the city and pleaded for people to put away their weapons.

The August truce, which was dubbed ‘Nobody Kill Anybody’ weekend, attracted national publicity. It held for 41 hours before a 24-year-old man was mown down. A few hours later, another man was shot dead.

But even this was judged a triumph in Baltimore. ‘People told me the atmosphere felt totally different across the city for that time,’ says Erricka. ‘They said they could sleep good because there were no gunshots.’

What a tragic indictment of a major city in the world’s richest nation – that two nights of unbroken sleep without the sound of shooting is seen as a success. A second ceasefire in November was also shattered by a killing.

This port is less than one hour’s drive from the White House. Yet to put this crisis in perspective, young black men in Baltimore are as likely to die a violent death as US soldiers serving in Iraq were at peak of the lethal post- war insurgency.

And there is a 20-year difference in life expectancy between rich and poor parts of the city, with citizens in wealthier zones matching the long lifespans in Japan yet those in the most depressed areas have a life expectancy lower than Syrians.

No one seems able to fully explain why this city is hit so hard by violence. ‘It is very, very bad,’ says Denis Madden, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Baltimore and a trained psychologist. ‘We have been trying to make sense of it.’

Some causes are clear: deprivation and drugs. As I talked with Erricka, gaggles of men in jeans, hoodies and baseball caps dealt heroin beside children on swings and teenagers playing basketball in a park over the road. Graffiti on a wall nearby reads ‘RIP Dion’ beside a scrawled ‘No Shoot Zone’.

Anyone familiar with the blatant dealing on street corners seen in The Wire – the hit show that ran from 2002 to 2008 – would conclude little has changed since the show’s detectives McNulty and Bunk tried to take down their gangland kingpins.

Clearly the epidemic of drug addiction ravaging much of America has hit Baltimore hard. ‘The market for heroin is on that corner,’ points out one former gangster. ‘And the one for prescription opioids is just down the block on the other one.’

Driving around the distressed streets, many pockmarked with boarded-up buildings, this heavily tattooed man shows me how gangs used juveniles to hold drug supplies in case of police raids, while older members held the cash and guns. In the window of one house a stark sign reads: ‘We must stop killing each other.’

Yet there is widespread mistrust of police, inflamed by the death from spinal injuries of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old drug dealer, which sparked major riots two years ago. Six officers were charged with murder, but none was convicted.

‘The dangerous people – the drug dealers and the gunslingers – are the leaders now,’ says Leonard Spain, a social worker. ‘In poor communities they are the people with money and power. They have respect. Kids want to be like them when they’re older.’

Spain, 49, knows what he is talking about. He started dealing heroin aged 16. Five years later he was shot, then convicted of killing a bystander in crossfire during a shootout. Today he is finishing a master’s degree and assists victims of violence.

He says it used to be much harder to get a gun; today, police believe they can even be rented for murder. ‘It is much worse now,’ says Spain. ‘Streets are more violent and there are more firearms. They are emptying magazines containing 50 rounds.’

Many bullet-ridden victims end up at the University of Maryland’s R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, which has developed such expertise in treating gunshot casualties that it trains military medics, including some from Britain.

‘Every day I think this is senseless,’ says Thomas Scalea, the physician-in-chief, who points out these would all be avoidable incidents if guns were not so readily available. ‘How many more mothers do I have to tell their kids have died?’

The professor admits some staff became despondent. The proportion of their 8,000 patients a year who suffered stabbings and shootings has almost doubled in five years – and many have multiple wounds from high-velocity weapons.

His team go into ‘a ballet of organised chaos’ to save victims but their job is getting harder. ‘With a single gunshot it is easy since you can see the injuries. If they have 12 holes with bullets still inside, you can draw infinite curves between the holes.’ Scalea adds that the violence was seeping out across the city into its better areas, with armed carjackings and stabbings. ‘The Wire was real life, not fiction,’ he says.

Every day 93 Americans die in shootings, although guns wound many more than they kill and most shootings do not result in calls to emergency services. There have also been 330 mass shootings –defined as more than four people shot in a single location – this year.

Yet murder levels almost halved between 1991 and 2016 – although they are creeping up again thanks to a handful of blighted cities.

Shootings are unusually deadly in Baltimore, with fatality rates almost twice as high as Boston, Chicago or New York. This indicates heavier weaponry and more targeted attacks – and almost all the victims are young black men.

Perhaps the story that best sums up the battle for Baltimore is that of Ericka Alston-Buck, whom I meet at her house in a smart suburb outside the city. She became a mother aged just 15 – and a homeless crack-cocaine addict a decade later.

‘I stopped going to work, lost my job, did not pay my rent so got evicted. I stole my dad’s cellphone so ended up on the street, standing in front of a liquor store asking for change,’ she tells me. ‘I was down to just 96 lb.’

Two decades later this vivacious woman runs the drug treatment centre that helped her clean up – and, after finding her office at the heart of the ‘uprising’ over Gray’s killing, launched a safe centre for children in the most deadly part of west Baltimore.

‘I kept saying something should be done because there was nothing for kids,’ says Alston-Buck. ‘A lot of them have dads incarcerated, their mums don’t live with them or are out all day holding down two jobs, while every household has someone addicted.’

So she obtained use of a disused launderette, launched an appeal on social media and has since raised $500,000 (£370,000) to create Kids Safe Zone, a haven for children and teenagers away from the violence that offers everything from art to yoga.

‘One day we were going on an Easter egg hunt and had to stay inside because there were 20 gunshots,’ she says. ‘What you see on television movies these children experience every day. We hear shots every day.

‘There is a black cloud of hopelessness over Baltimore. Look at the boarded-up homes, the people selling drugs in front of you – people here are so damaged, so neglected. If they have no self-worth, how can they value anyone else’s life?’

She is working hard to break this cycle of despair in a city with high unemployment, rampant truancy and one-third of homes lying empty. Yet with cruel irony, among the murderous gangsters on streets outside the centre was her own son Kai, 25. Kai tells me his problems began after he was shot in the foot during a mugging at the age of 14.

‘I did not want to be a victim – I wanted to be a perpetrator,’ he says. ‘It was fear, defensive – you have to pretend to be a hard guy. So I got myself a gun.’

It cost him just £25. He began hanging out with hoodlums and selling drugs – then came his first shooting when he pumped six bullets into another dealer. ‘By 18 I had a reputation,’ he says. ‘I’ve probably shot over ten people. I feel bad about it now.’

After being shot in the back he was given opioid painkillers and developed an addiction. ‘It made me even more violent to feed my addiction,’ he says.

He was finally locked up at 19 as an accessory to a murder, although he says he was so stoned he had no idea what was really happening.

Beside his right eye is a tattooed teardrop, jailhouse symbol of a confirmed killing. ‘You know what it means,’ he says when I ask about it. There are also two small hearts inked by his other eye in memory of dead friends.

Released last year, Kai has a baby on the way and says he is dedicated to stopping other young men turning to gangsterism. ‘There is nothing glamorous about it,’ he says. ‘As black men we want people lifting the community up, not drugs and killing.’

Erricka Bridgeford, organiser of the ceasefires and selected ‘Marylander of the Year’ by the state newspaper, remains optimistic. ‘I believe in Baltimore,’ she says. ‘We are human beings who don’t have to accept this and don’t want violence in our lives.’

Her efforts are noble. But will the gangsters ever agree and lay down their guns on the bloodstained streets of Baltimore?

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