As the number of homicides in Baltimore this year climbs past 300 and the city’s Police Department remains embroiled in scandal, with officers caught on camera planting evidence and eight others facing federal racketeering charges, fed-up Baltimore City residents have decided to take matters into their own hands.
And they’re doing it using a simple tactic: love. Erricka Bridgeford is the leader of the love initiative this weekend dubbed a “Baltimore Ceasefire” or “Baltimore Peace Challenge,” with activities for the community and young people that offer a promise. That promise is that no one will shoot anyone.
“It’s a sacred time where we remember our collective power and purpose,” Bridgeford says. “The goal is not to just promote a cease-fire, but to talk to each other about what you’re going through in life that made you vulnerable to be involved in violence, and getting the resources you need, and then make a commitment to not be violent.”
Bridgeford, who lost her brother to a shooting, was alarmed when her son told her the numbers of homicides had risen past what they had been in previous years. A friend named Ogun had suggested a cease-fire to Bridgeford before. She knew that it was time to act, so she called him up. They both insisted that the focus be a celebration of life and the movement be based on self-determination. When people ask who is calling a cease-fire, Bridgeford hopes that city residents will answer, “Me! You joining me?”
Bridgeford has worked as the director of training for Community Mediation Maryland since 2001, mediating wherever there’s a space that needs one—whether it’s between police and residents or young people and other young people. Still, she doesn’t consider herself a leader of this cease-fire effort; it is something, she says, that belongs to all city residents. Given that, it’s up to residents to create activities for the cease-fire weekend and empower themselves.
Activities this weekend will include a trauma surgeon discussing the epidemic of gun violence as a health crisis; cleansing the city with sage in places where residents think cleansing is needed; bringing an item, like a balloon or teddy bear, to places where lives have been lost; resource fairs; and a table at the annual rivalry football game between the Baltimore City College High School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute High School on Saturday.
Baltimorean Sharon Smith Colvin lost her 17-year-old son to gun violence on Sept. 11, 2014. From that day forward, she said, her life changed. She struggles daily: “My mood changes every day. When I think I will have a bright and sunny day, it is not. It’s rough. I know how it can bear on your health just living daily with it. It was a struggle to talk. A struggle getting up. I knew if I didn’t start my healing process, I was going to be in a mental institution or sick in the hospital.”
Colvin is working with other parents who have lost children to start a nonprofit that will help with funeral costs and provide someone they can talk to about their daily struggles. Colvin hopes to be able to attend the cease-fire but is unsure because she is attending a funeral of a friend who lost his mother and son in the same week.
“We have been treating the disease of gun violence using policing, and we were wrong in that,” said Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, who will be attending the cease-fire. “Gun violence is a disease and should be treated from a public health standpoint.”
This is the second time this year that Baltimore activists have called for a cease-fire. In August the aim was for a 72-hour cease-fire, but it only lasted 41 hours before two homicides brought it to an end. Before the cease-fire, Baltimore was experiencing shootings and killings every 19 hours, according to Bridgeford.
But this cease-fire weekend has a little more hope for success: Some gang members, who respect both the community effort and Bridgeford, have vowed not to violate the cease-fire over the weekend. But mostly, Bridgeford hopes that the real success will come in the celebration of life. She doesn’t want residents to be numb to the killings or have the people who’ve lost their lives be reduced to just a number, or have the violence become normalized. What she hopes is that using both practical and spiritual healing tactics will promote change.
“They are really doing a great job of organic, grassroots efforts not funded by any outside groups trying to make a political point,” community activist Hassan Giordano said. “They aren’t marching and chanting in places like City Hall, where things aren’t happening. They are going in the hood, where things are actually happening.
“The organizers are honest about it,” Giordano continued. “They’re not going to change anything overnight. They’re not doing it in hopes that not a single murder is going to happen during that period of time. They are saying, ‘Let’s at least make a concerted effort in trying.’”