What’s Behind the Recent Plague of Shootings in Baltimore?

Originally published in VICE on May 20th, 2015.
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While the national film crews have packed up and left Baltimore, losing interest in the place now that there are no more burning pharmacies and vandalized cop cars, Charm City residents are left to reckon with one of the most violent months they’ve seen in years. As the Baltimore Sun reports, homicides are up nearly 40 percent compared with this time last year, and nonfatal shootings are up 60 percent. From mid April to mid May, 31 people were killed, the Washington Post reports, with 39 more wounded by gunfire. The Sun adds that, as of late Tuesday, there had been 170 nonfatal shootings so far this year.

To put all this in perspective, the last time Baltimore saw 30 homicides in one month was in June 2007.

The spike in violence has received less attention outside of Baltimore than Freddie Gray’s death, but within the city, leaders, police, and community members are struggling to figure out what exactly is going on.

One theory floating around is that the weeks of unrest after Gray’s demise in police custody have daunted cops, leaving them unable or unwilling to control violent crime. The police union and some legal experts are upset at the criminal charges that the city’s top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, has leveled at six members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD)—among them murder and manslaughter. This, coupled with a formal Justice Department investigation launched in cooperation with local officials to examine police practices, has left the BPD in a state of agitation.

Lieutenant Kenneth Butler, a longtime BPD veteran and president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black officers, told the Washington Post that rank-and-file cops feel alienated, vilified, and afraid to do their job. “In 29 years, I’ve gone through some bad times, but I’ve never seen it this bad,” Butler added in comments to the Baltimore Sun, referring, in part, to officers who feel as though Mosby “will hang them out to dry.”

While beat cop reticence could be a factor, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points out that homicides and shootings in West Baltimore were on the rise before the Freddie Gray unrest, though the pace has since accelerated. Webster thinks that among other things, the protests just strained the cops’ capacity.

“The police have been less active in proactive policing, less likely to engage individuals on the street,” Webster says, adding that resources were diverted to addressing the riots and in turn disrupted patrol and detective work. Leads from residents that detectives use to make arrests—though already quite difficult to come by—were further reduced during this time, he said, citing conversations with officers. Moreover, Operation Ceasefire, an anti-violence initiative begun by the city early last year, has been running without a program manager for the past several weeks. (The mayor’s office has indicated a new program manager will be hired soon.)

Webster believes another factor at play here may be that the Freddie Gray protests emboldened criminals. “We just had a huge display of lawlessness and disrespect for law and law enforcement,” he explains. “That mindset can spread easily and affect behavior.”

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, doesn’t buy the connection between the protests and violence—one he calls an “easy deflection” of systemic issues.

“This [surge in violent crime] is a natural outgrowth of the conditions in which shooting and violence occurs,” Love says. Scapegoating the protests and the Mosby charges, Dove thinks, is particularly convenient for those unenthused with critiques of law enforcement and institutional racism. And it’s true that high rates of poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction all consistently correlate with high homicide rates. Love also argued that Baltimore’s had all kinds of violence for a long time—including sexual abuse and discriminatory housing policies—though it’s only when guns are fired that leaders start to panic.

Perhaps a simpler explanation for the increase in shootings is just that it’s getting hotter outside. Baltimore Bloc, another local grassroots organization, say that they don’t think the protests had anything to do with the recent violence, and that in their experience, violence always surges in the city as summer approaches. Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, agrees that homicides usually rise and fall significantly with the seasons, with the fewest occurring during the winter. “It’s no coincidence that homicides are spiking right now when the weather is getting warmer,” Spence says.

The violence that occurs when competing gangs fight over turf to operate their drug operations also generally escalates in the warmer weather. “People are suggesting that the spike we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks represents something new, but summer is just starting,” Spence adds. “It might be a blip or it might continue. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Baltimore PD Spokeswoman Sarah Connolly told VICE in an email, “We are investigating each incident as a singular incident while examining any trends and patterns to ensure that we are deploying our officers and resources effectively while being proactive and engaging the community. While we have developed investigative leads in a number of cases, we continue to ask the community’s assistance in calling with any information they may have.”

Meanwhile, some Baltimore community groups are taking the opportunity to organize anti-violence demonstrations. Coinciding with the 90th birthday of Malcolm X, the NAACP held a “Stop the Violence ‘By Any Means Necessary'” rally Tuesday night at their office in the Sandtown neighborhood. Another group committed to decreasing gun violence in Baltimore, the 300 Men March, is holding an “Occupy Our Corners” anti-violence rally on Thursday evening to honor the recent homicide victims.

“We the PEOPLE, are not blaming anyone but ourselves for failing to create a safe environment within our city,” their rally flyer reads. “Recognizing this, WE STAND, as a community of all people, regardless of RACE, RELIGION, SEX, CULTURE OR BACKGROUND.” According to the Sun, Munir Bahar, one of the group’s founders, is calling for 30 men in ten Baltimore neighborhoods to become block leaders in the fight against crime.

Love doesn’t expect the organizing work that LBS, Baltimore Bloc, and other grassroots groups are doing will change much in light of the increased violence. “Because doing that,” Love explains, “would take away from the larger objective, which is ultimately about systemic change.”

AP makes ‘illegals’ illegal

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 5th, 2013.

This week the AP Stylebook, the standardized style guide for newspapers and other publications across the United States, announced that no longer, under their rules, will it be acceptable to use the term “illegal immigrant.” AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained that the term “illegal” is incorrect when labeling people and “should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The change, proponents argue, is necessary because labeling individuals as “illegals” or “illegal” is an unfair designation that no other criminal or civil offender in this country receives. Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter and immigrant activist, has called the term “illegal immigrant” dehumanizing. In a Fox News Latino survey conducted last year, nearly half of Latino voters responded that they find the term “illegal immigrant” offensive.

About two months ago a similar political AP Style debate played out with regard to same-sex marriages. An internal memo was leaked that said the AP would use “couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages” as opposed to the terms “husband” and “wife.” This separate-but-equal discourse for legal same-sex marriages drew the ire of the gay community, causing the AP to change its position within the week.

These questions of language have real ramifications; the way that ideas are presented in the press impacts how people understand and relate to the issues, and the effort to avoid potentially loaded terms is never-ending.

For example, in the case of immigrants who enter the country illegally, the AP also now advises journalists to avoid the term “undocumented.” AP argues that often these individuals do hold some sort of documentation, therefore it’s inaccurate to assert otherwise. And in the case of the gay community, in November AP editors advised the press to avoid the term “homophobia” because, in their view, homophobia implies that anti-gay sentiment is based in irrational fear. AP now encourages journalists to use the term “anti-gay bigotry” instead.

(At The Baltimore Sun, the terms “illegal immigrants” and “homophobia” are still acceptable.)

The AP is not alone in revising its language related to immigration; New York Times officials have also said they also want to revise their style book to promote a more nuanced immigration discourse. But nuance may be the enemy of brevity. The AP’s new guidelines say, “Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”

Certainly it’s important to find ways to describe such divisive political issues that is both accurate and neutral, but it can also lead to language that is clunky or, worse yet, not easily understood. Moreover, the effort to avoid potentially freighted language is almost inevitably viewed by those involved in the debate as taking sides. The AP’s effort to avoid controversy in its stylebook has often only courted it instead. In a highly polarized society, it may simply be impossible to find terms that please everyone.