Mommy, why are all the dead men black?

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(by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence)

Baltimore in the summer is known for picnic tables covered in brown paper and blue crabs, block parties, art festivals and, sadly, a dramatic increase in violence. I’ve spent many humid June and July evenings attending vigils, birthday celebrations, and life celebrations for young men killed on the streets of Baltimore. Delli, Donta, Malcom, Kaiyon, Tariq. These are just a few of names of the young men who were honored this summer with candles, prayers and balloon releases. All of them were in their early twenties or late teens. Some of these young men left children, promising careers, girlfriends, wives, siblings, well-paid jobs that supported their extended families… and all of them left devastated mothers.

These celebrations share common elements: photos of the deceased, prayers, and tears. Yet each event has its own distinct feel. Keke’s son Donta’s life celebration was one of the most emotionally raw. The one-year anniversary of Donta’s death fell three days after Keke learned the State’s Attorney was not going to charge Donta’s killer with murder. There were countless reasons why the SA came to this conclusion. Key among them were the death of a principle witness days before the trial and the State’s Attorney’s fear that this was a case that could not be won. Regardless of the reasons, the outcome was one felt by so many survivors of gun violence: the victim’s family felt forgotten and abandoned by the justice system. Keke was experiencing a second loss of Donta.

The pain was palpable. We gathered on the banks of Glen Oaks Pond, a bucolic space nestled in the heart of Baltimore. It’s a place Keke goes to find peace and solace. The emotions varied. Friends laughed warmly when talking about Donta’s kind and generous spirit. His father spoke proudly about his son’s success as a welder. Donta’s youngest brother raged at the unfairness of losing his best friend and shared that he moved to New Jersey to escape the violence of Baltimore. A good friend of Keke’s and mine cried, “no offense,” turning and pointing at me and Jen, “but this is the white man’s fault.”

“None taken,” Jen replied. Our friend continued, “There was no black-on-black violence until the white man created it.” I felt a tug on my skirt. My six-year-old daughter calling me to attention. “Mommy,” she whispered as I braced myself for questions about the justified anger and rage bubbling over.  “Mommy, why are all the dead men black?”

I have two children, an eight-year-old son in addition to my six-year-old daughter. They have been attending the vigils for two years with me.  There have been times when my husband and I have questioned whether it is fair to expose them to this pain and loss. In fact, moments after my friend called out white men, she pointed at my children and said that she’d seen them at too many vigils and that she was “sick” that they had to be exposed to so many tragic stories. I know that many of you reading this have convincing reasons for me to keep my children home and valid criticism of me for exposing them to this violence. When my daughter looked at me and asked her question, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I’d managed to keep my tears at bay until this moment. “The world isn’t fair, baby.” She smiled at me and squeezed my hand three gentle pulses, a gesture my mother taught me that symbolizes “I” “love” “you.” I squeezed back four times, “I” “love” “you” “too.” She looked, not at me, but at our friend who had pointed our way only minutes before. “Mommy, I think we can make this world a little fairer.” Yes, little girl, together we can.


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