Dan Rodricks: ‘It got real right in front of me.’ How Safe Streets saved lives in Belair-Edison. COMMENTARY

January 4, 2022

By Dan Rodricks, Baltimore Sun

Dante Johnson, director of Safe Streets in Belair-Edison, addresses a celebration of one year without a homicide resulting from a shooting. (Baltimore Sun staff/Baltimore Sun Staff)

I asked Dante Johnson, who directs the Safe Streets violence interrupters in Belair-Edison, how his team managed to keep people from shooting one another throughout the seventh consecutive year of 300-plus homicides in Baltimore. He doesn’t tell many stories about how Safe Streets operates, but he shared a couple with me, and for good reason.

On Dec. 29, Johnson’s outfit, one of two Safe Streets operations supported in the city by the Living Classrooms Foundation, celebrated 365 days with only four shootings, none resulting in death. Johnson’s zone covers a lot of Belair-Edison, not all of it. Indeed, Baltimore police last year recorded four murders — two shootings, a beating and a poisoning — in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood. But none occurred in the three-year-old Safe Streets zone.

That’s noteworthy because, for a decade, Belair-Edison has struggled with an array of problems, an increase in serious crime among them.

“Remember,” Johnson says, “the Safe Street zones were created for the most historically violent areas of the city.”

Belair-Edison is less so now, in part because of Johnson’s team of what he calls “credible messengers.” They are mostly men, like himself, who spent time in prison, came out determined not to go back and took jobs to lead their peers away from street life — or at least stop them from killing or dying.

“Stop Shooting, Start Living” is the Safe Streets credo.

The violence interrupters, dressed in Safe Streets colors, do that with daily walks up and down Belair Road, on the side streets and throughout the zone, listening to people, building relationships and mediating conflicts that could easily result in gunfire.

Johnson told me two stories of successful mediation from the past year; their details support what so many of us have been saying for so long — there are too many guns. People say and do stupid things; too many are ill-tempered or unable to communicate well. They look for a gun when they should just walk away or seek help, and the guns are too easily at hand.

First story: “It got real right in front of me.”

That’s how Johnson characterizes what happened while he was ordering lunch in a Belair Road sub shop.

At the time, there was another man in the shop. The door opened. In stepped a younger, smaller man Johnson immediately recognized as “a guy we engage with all the time,” meaning someone that Safe Streets counsels. (I’ll call him “Shorty” for the sake of keeping the players straight in this story.)

As soon as he noticed Shorty, the older man became angry and profane and threatened to kill him.

He had a gun and showed it. Right away, Johnson got busy. He told Shorty to step out of the store, then got the guy with the gun to calm down and explain his beef.

What was the beef?

Twenty bucks for some lousy marijuana.

Shorty apparently had sold some weed to the guy’s mother. She found it subpar and wanted her $20 back. But what really angered the guy with the gun: Shorty supposedly said something disrespectful about his mother.

In a rational world, such a petty dispute would not be settled with gunfire. But you can imagine that this kind of nonsense plays out all the time in Baltimore. A lot of people think the shootings are about drug territory and power struggles among gangs. But sometimes, and more often than we think, they’re just about some guy convinced his mom has been dissed.

Johnson managed to settle the beef in the sub shop without a shot being fired. The angry guy got his $20 and expressed respect for Safe Streets. Johnson’s staff remains in touch with Shorty almost daily.

Second story: “We’re talking about a boy here.”

As Johnson tells it, this situation began with a collision between a car and a rental scooter on a street within the Safe Streets zone. The car’s driver was a young woman; a 12-year-old boy was on the scooter. The boy had not been hurt, but he was angry with the driver.

“He cussed her out,” Johnson says, “and the woman got paranoid and called her boyfriend.” The boyfriend came to the scene of the collision and threatened the 12-year-old. The boy called his father in tears, and the father — this part surprised me — immediately called Safe Streets.

“We need to talk to y’all,” he said.

The dad apparently had previous experience with Safe Streets in another neighborhood and assumed Johnson’s Belair-Edison team could keep the incident from exploding into violence. The father was plenty angry, Johnson says, but had the presence of mind to call for help. Meanwhile, Safe Streets convinced the boyfriend to take part in peace talks.

So everyone — the dad, his son, the boyfriend and his buddies — all met with Johnson’s team inside the Safe Streets office on Belair Road. “We talked it through,” Johnson says.

The boyfriend, he notes, had problems articulating his feelings about the incident; he’d needed help in describing them. At some point, Johnson reminded him that his anger had been directed at a kid. “We’re talking about a boy here,” he said.

The tone of the meeting turned positive. “The boyfriend and the father talked it out, man to man,” Johnson said, “and the boy apologized.”

I asked Johnson how the meeting ended.

“There was a feeling of relief,” he said, and there always is, when no one dies.