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1 Nov 2020 15:21
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  •   Home > News > International

    Baltimore faced its own reckoning after the death of a black man at the hands of white police. Five years on, many are still calling for change

    Dante is the nephew of Baltimore's infamous drug kingpin, Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale, who inspired the hit series The Wire. But he and his crew of former felons are hoping to make the streets safer.

    On the streets of Baltimore, one of America's most dangerous cities, it's impossible to miss the despair that so deeply defines many of its communities.

    Rows and rows of houses stand in a state of disrepair, abandoned and boarded up.

    Drugs are dealt on sidewalks and street corners with little fear. Lines are snorted openly on the streets. Many carry a gun for protection.

    Some pockets are worse than others. There are some zip codes you just don't enter.

    Many walk around with their guard up during daylight. At night, they stay indoors.

    At least most people do. Dante Barksdale and his crew are among the exceptions.

    As the sun goes down, these former felons get ready to hit the streets.

    The 'Robin Hood' for street violence

    If you're a fan of US television shows, you might recognise the name Barksdale from The Wire.

    Dante is the nephew of Baltimore's infamous drug kingpin, Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale, who inspired the hit series.

    Carrying the Barksdale name has brought Dante instant credibility on the streets.

    And Dante is using that reputation to help make the streets safer.

    Relying on tip-offs and intel from the streets, the group acts as so-called violence interrupters for a community program called Safe Streets, which aims to resolve disputes without involving police.

    Their job is to intercept and prevent crime — mostly shootings and murders.

    "We hire people who are credible messengers," Dante said.

    "These are guys who have backgrounds that suggest they are credible in the neighbourhood, even though they probably used to commit crime …

    "It's like a Robin Hood thing, they maybe used to commit crimes, but now what they're doing is helping their community."

    Dante, like most of his crew, has served time. He spent almost a decade in prison for selling drugs in the 90s.

    But he says now he wants to help his community.

    "[The messengers] never became a prosecution witness, they wasn't a snitch, they weren't a cruddy guy who did stuff to people in his neighbourhood," he said.

    "He's a neighbourhood hero."

    Dante said that once the group identifies violence, they "try to interrupt it and intervene".

    "The next step is to change behaviours and norms," he said.

    A city without police

    It's the kind of reimagined world of policing — the radical shift in mindset — activists called for after 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray was killed while in the custody of Baltimore Police five years ago.

    The idea: redirect police funding into social programs, rather than solely focus on reforming the force.

    Some even advocated to completely abolish the Baltimore Police Department, convinced its culture was beyond repair.

    But instead of defunding the police, the city introduced a consent decree, which mandated orders like when and how officers could engage with individuals suspected of criminal activity.

    It also included more de-escalation training for police, supervision of officers and the deployment of body cameras.

    "Not only did those not work, but the police department here took those up, exploited them to aid their own corruption and to act as a kind of counter insurgency," journalist and author Baynard Woods said.

    Mr Woods, who has reported on the Baltimore Police Department for a decade and covered the Gray case, said the police "thwarted the changes at every moment" even after the protests and the trial of police officers involved in Grey's death.

    "[They're] taking so much of the budget that could go to other things in the city, so they're actually causing a lot of violence here," he said.

    "During that time, we've had 1,500 people murdered in this city.

    "I can't think of any other situation where you'd have such dismal and disastrous results and, every time, you fail so miserably.

    "What you say every time is we really need more money just to do better."

    The department's budget has continued to grow over the past five years, far outstripping spending on social programs.

    During that period, more than 300 people have been murdered in the city each year, which is a rate of almost one a day.

    The impact of a long history of segregation policies

    George Floyd's death at the hands of white police officers in May reignited calls for radical reform, like "defunding police", in cities across the country.

    The Minneapolis city council voted to dissolve the police force, but the proposal to replace the city's troubled police department has now been delayed until after the November election.

    Other cities have followed suit or also suggested radical changes.

    But the power of police unions have in many cases thwarted or held up any real change.

    US President Donald Trump has claimed the effort to defund police is a movement driven by "radical left" Democrats to undermine law enforcement.

    He has falsely claimed his Democratic rival Joe Biden backs the plan, warning of "lawless streets" under his presidency and suggesting it would destroy the suburbs.

    While he has continued to back those in blue, Mr Biden has declared he wants more police training and funding for community-based programs.

    But if the root causes of the huge disparities Baltimore residents live and breathe each day are not addressed, community leaders argue change will never happen.

    Local pastor and juvenile justice worker Tara Huffman took us on a walk through one of Baltimore's most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.

    "It's known as the 21215 neighbourhood," she told us.

    "The zip code represents a perfect storm of negative indicators that make it a very challenging place for Baltimore residents."

    This zip code, like many others in Baltimore, has high rates of poverty and crime.

    "We unfortunately still have a city and a state that is putting too much investment into police, courts, corrections," Ms Huffman said.

    "[That's] to the detriment of systems that are designed to help communities, build neighbourhoods and strong communities. That's the part that didn't shift."

    Many of the disparities between black and white communities, inherited from segregation policies of the early 1900s, remain ever present.

    Even right down to the neighbourhoods in which black people and white people still live.

    A map of the city done byMorgan State University's Lawrence Brown found white people live within an "L" shape, while black communities reside in a "butterfly" around it.

    Ms Huffman said while the role structural racism has played in building the problems Baltimore communities face today is being more openly discussed since Gray's death, progress on addressing the issue has barely shifted.

    "We still have a case where a lion's share of the city budget is going into systems that have contributed to the state communities are in today," she said.

    "It's a foregone conclusion that we have to do something fundamentally different.

    "Reallocating funding away from police starts with reallocating functions, roles and responsibilities away from police.

    "There are functions police are playing today that the police should never play. They're not social workers, they're not mental health experts, they're not youth development specialists and mentors.

    "So, when it comes to those functions, those are not reasons you should be calling 911 and those are not places police should be intervening.

    "Those things should live in other systems and other sectors or within the communities themselves."

    Changes need to be made at the very top

    Most people we spoke to say there is no easy answer to the problems faced in Baltimore and other cities across the US. The traumatic death of Mr Floyd reminded the country of that.

    The Baltimore Police Department said while it had a long way to go in addressing disparities and becoming a more accountable department, progress was being made.

    It said it was focused on rebuilding trust with the community it serves and concludes America has reached a turning point where law enforcement must re-examine what society wants policing to be.

    According to former Safe Streets worker James Timpson, the changes required in Baltimore should begin with the leadership in the White House.

    "This is a city of highly traumatised people, no matter which neighbourhood you go to, people are traumatised right across the city," said Mr Timpson, who now works with health-based organisation ROCA, which aims to change the behaviour of young men involved in crime.

    "I'm old enough to know certain situations have been systematically created and under certain leadership those systemic situations will not change.

    "Leadership has to change."

    People who live in Freddie Grey's old neighbourhood say no much has changed for them. One resident, Levar Highsmith has to wear an ankle monitoring bracelet while out on parole after he was accused of intending to sell heroin.

    He is trying to get his life on track, but says being involved in crime and violence is par for the course among young men in Baltimore.

    "Sometimes it happens, even [to] the good kids ... it just happens in our city. I can try my best to avoid it, that doesn't mean it won't happen, I'll still be a victim of it," he said.

    Mr Timpson said ROCA's intervention was designed to help "young people emotionally regulate".

    "A highly traumatised brain causes a person to be stuck in the state or position that they're in," he said.

    "So, we know our young people are generally stuck in that middle part of their brain — the limbic system — which is the fight, flight or freeze."

    The data shows community-based program like Safe Streets and ROCA have already worked to reduce violent crime and change criminal behaviours.

    In some of the neighbourhoods patrolled by Safe Streets, violent crime had reduced by more than 50 per cent.

    "We have seen lives transformed. The guys we're hiring, we're changing their lives," Mr Barksdale said.

    "We just don't have the funding we need, and we don't have the manpower.

    "If we had 500 violence interrupters through-out this city, we could make a major impact on the homicide rates."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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