After the violence, silence

This is the thing that gets me: On March 5, I saw the front page headline — "6 killings continue violent 2013 start" — and it did not faze me one bit. It was not news. It was what I've come to expect in Baltimore and all major American cities. The news, as we say in this business, is not when a dog bites a man but when a man bites a dog.

Or when, as in my hometown, New York City, there is such a lull in killings that that is the news: "Homicides in city in deep freeze for 7 days running," Newsday reported on Jan. 25.


I might still have paid no mind to that Sun headline except that a good friend called from Philadelphia to tell me that one of those killed was the brother of another friend of his. That headline now had meaning. I paid attention because I had a name — Thabiti Khalfani Wheeler — and a story about this 33-year-old, star-crossed man dearly loved by his mother, his sister, his girlfriend and her children. Condolences poured in to them via Facebook and email.

I became angry at myself for succumbing to ennui, and even more angry at those who harbor killers in our midst — people like those who, a March 4 headline reminded us, conveniently become blind, deaf-mute amnesiacs. "Family decries friends' silence after son killed," this newspaper reported about the lack of progress in the investigation of the very public stabbing death of a 15-year-old boy following the Ravens' post-Super Bowl victory celebration. "They all say they were there, but they don't know anything," the teenager's mother told the Sun.


In a vigil that is increasingly common, a detective told me, about 50 people marched the short distance from Mr. Wheeler's girlfriend's house Friday night to the unpaved courtyard where, from the rear windows of rowhouses on three sides, a lot of people probably heard or saw the slaughter that took place in the wee hours of Saturday morning, March 2.

About the same number showed up at the War Memorial on New Year's Eve to remember all the men, women and children slain in Baltimore in 2012. To them — and the rest of us in absentia — Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said: "Too many people in our city have lost respect for human life, and too many of us have stood by and watched." In another time, in another language, the headline might have screamed, as Emile Zola did in France, "J'Accuse!" — not so much condemning government but condemning we the people.

Like 90 percent of Baltimore's 217 homicide victims last year, Mr. Wheeler was a black man. Like many of them, he had a checkered past. Shamefully, that makes it easier to ignore the death tally. This is not man-bites-dog news, except among his circle of family and friends.

His girlfriend of five years prays that Mr. Wheeler's death "is going to be a moment of wake-up around here" because, she says, "Too many of our black men are dying. Too many. It has to stop."


She is sick of the seemingly endless and relatively futile debates about who can buy how many of whichever guns. The plain truth is this, she says: "It's easier to get a gun than a diploma in Baltimore. It's easier to get a gun than your driver's license. It's easier to get a gun than for people that's disabled to get their disability [payments]. Why?"

Mr. Wheeler's mother, a longtime community activist in Paterson, N.J., vows to let every public official from the mayor to President Barack Obama know what happened to her son, and she beseeches Baltimoreans to unchain themselves from the shackles of a "don't snitch" mentality that protects killers. "Come forth and tell what you heard, what you saw," she pleads.

The signals are decidedly mixed in this area just east of Charles Village, a part of town the mayor wants more law-abiding people to consider calling home. Some current residents complain that the street cleaners come through like clockwork, while police foot patrols are a rarity. And how's this for irony? The same family that buried Thabiti Wheeler on Saturday — the Marches of March Funeral Home — opened a new grocery store in East Baltimore that day, Apples and Oranges Fresh Market, promising hope and health to those inhabiting a nutritional wasteland.

Hope, good health and a kick in the pants to those of us numbed by the numbers and cowed by the chaos — wouldn't those be grand unintended consequences of all this slaughter? For now, though, Thabiti Wheeler's folks would settle for someone pointing the police to his killers.

E.R. Shipp is a journalist who has worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the New York Daily News, where she won a Pulitzer Prize. Since August she has been an associate professor and Journalist in Residence at Morgan State University. Her email is