I started working in Baltimore in 2007 at the state health department in a downtown building. My commute was on the metro (subway) most of the time and on the road some of the time. It was usually a straight shot in, with little deviation from what I always did. I got on the train on the same station most of the time and off at the same station most of the time. When I drove, I got off the freeway at the same exit most of the time. From time to time, mostly on the weekends, my wife and I would drive into the city to go to dinner or some other “touristy” event/activity. Rarely did I ever go into the “bad” parts of town.
One day, the metro service was having issues, so I opted to walk to the next metro station. Along the way, I took some pictures (here, here, and here) and posted them to Twitter. A friend of mine counseled me against being in that area, by my self, and taking pictures with a relatively expensive iPhone. I did see some folks, and some of them looked like the stereotypical definition of a “thug”, but everyone nodded their heads in acknowledgement of my presence. I nodded back. If I said “hello” or “good afternoon”, I got a response. Also, I’m not small by any definition of the word. I’m a six-foot tall Mexican with a couple hundred pounds (and then some) of weight on me. If anything, I was surprised that no one ran away from me.
It goes without saying that The Charm City, like any other city of its size, history, and location, has its problems. One of them is the issue of crime, especially youth crime.
I was listening to a story on NPR the other day on a documentary film following a “gang” of young men in Baltimore who ride around in dirt bikes. Baltimore and Washington have had issues with kids riding dirt bikes, usually in violation of motor vehicle laws, sometimes in the commission of crimes like theft of assault. The story was centered around a young man named “Pug”. Pug was 12 years old when the documentary started to be filmed, and, like many kids in Baltimore, his expectations were low. Namely, all he really wanted was to be part of the biker gang.
On the periphery of his expectations were aspirations to be a veterinarian. By the time the documentary ends:
“Pug is 16. … He’s still in school. He also is more interested in girls now. … [The filmmaker] knew that would take over. [He] tried to tell him that actually. … He’s liable to go in any direction, but he’s also got limited options, living in Baltimore. And [he would] try to tell him that his salvation would be to really try hard at school. It’s just difficult to communicate at that age.”
Take a look at that word: Salvation.
The Christian definition of salvation is “deliverance from sin and its consequences, believed by Christians to be brought about by faith in Christ.” But I want to focus on the other two, more laic definitions of salvation. One is “preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss.” The other is “a source or means of being saved from harm, ruin, or loss.” In the film, Pug still has an interest in animals even as he’s grown older, so the filmmaker suggests that Pug “might start by getting a job at a pet store.” Imagine that. A job at a pet store can be a salvation.
A job. A career. A reason to live and finding meaning.
In an ideal world, I would take Pug on a ride to any of the many veterinarian offices and hospitals in the Baltimore City area:
Once there, I’d introduce him to the staff at those places and ask them to tell Pug if any of them have been in a gang. I am willing to bet good money that those who were in a gang are in the minority and, if they made it out of a gang and into a career in veterinary medicine, they would have really good tips for Pug. And I’m also willing to bet that there is at least one person among all of those veterinary techs, doctors, and other staff who would be willing to become a mentor to Pug. Finally, one more bet… I bet you dollars to donuts that none of the 12 O’Clock Boys are currently in a veterinary medicine career at any level.
Pug was 16 at the end of the filming of the documentary, two years away from legal adulthood but at an age that he can be charged as an adult if he goes and does something very serious. Running over someone or causing someone grave bodily harm are very serious things. While many in the comments sections of the news reports on this documentary are quick to want these young men thrown in jail for a very long time, those more rational among us want to look at and address the root cause of why these young men do this. That root cause should be in plural. It’s root causes, and they’re as many in number and diverse in nature as the motorcycles being used by those young men.
(*I keep calling them “young men” instead of “kids” because their social situation is less than that of children and more like that of a young man.)
I’ve noticed that special interest groups don’t see the problems as being many and multifaceted. The problem is whatever their special interest is. On the average, teachers see the root cause of the problem the low investment in education in terms of salaries and infrastructure. But we can throw all the money in the world at schools and the other root causes would take over. Organizations that work in youth services say that they need more money to deliver more services, but even they can’t force children into their programs or be there 24/7 to look over the children. And so on… Each agency or group has their own niche.
That right there is a root cause of the problem all in itself. I worked at the state health department for six years, and, even with all the work in the city on outbreaks and cases or reportable conditions, I never really learned what agencies exist for what purpose and how many of them there are. I also didn’t know about Baltimore City’s Data Catalog, where anyone with web access can go and look at indicators of the “health” of the different communities that make up the city. (There are 55 communities, with hundreds of neighborhoods.) You can get all sorts of data there.
Just for kicks, I looked up where the arrests for prostitution were made in 2013 in the city:
All jokes aside about arrests at the entrance/exit to the harbor tunnel thruway, the data in that catalog is a powerful thing. We can see how many neighborhoods have high crime rates, low school attendance, more empty houses… Things that would make turning to a life of crime a “reasonable” choice to a young man (or young woman) growing up in that environment. In that case of Pug, it is a perfectly reasonable thing for him to want to be part of a group with which he shares interests. Trust me when I tell you that there are worse alternatives. The filmmaker put it best:
“There are so many worse options for a kid like Pug. I mean, when I met him in 2010 I remember there were drug dealers directly outside of his house, tempting him with a stack of $100 bills. Putting it in his hands, telling him to throw it up in the air. You know, a little kid who is not even 13 yet seeing that these are the only people on his block who have money. It’s tempting to do a lot worse. So I think for a kid like Pug this is almost a wholesome activity.”
Know what he means? What I mean?
I mentioned above that I would take Pug to meet people in veterinary medicine if we were in an ideal world. We’re not in an ideal world. In this world, there is a great deal of mistrust of “outsiders” who come into Baltimore City and want to tell people what they should do to live better or be better. A lot of people — good-intentioned people — forget that there is a sort of cultural awareness that must come with every intention of doing good for the “at risk” people in town. You just don’t walk up to the Pugs of Baltimore and tell them what to do. They’ll never go for it, or they’ll run you out of town.
If all these agencies and groups want to start somewhere, they need to start by making a plan on how to identify the children and youth in need. Pug is one of those children, and not even his mother can provide what he needs to be distracted from the gang and toward a career. If we identify them first, then do a full-court press on aiming them in the best direction they want to go, we’d go a long way to addressing one root cause of the trouble with the youths. Deep down inside, they all want a reason to live, and aiming them toward a meaningful career and away from a meaningless existence goes farther than just throwing money at them.
Then again, maybe there is such a group or agency doing this, but I haven’t heard of it… And that’s a problem as well.
Anyway, I could go on and on about this here, but I’d rather get to work. If you’ll excuse me, I have emails to send and phone calls to make… And I need to get to know the City, breathe it in… Feel every quiver of its beating heart.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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