BALTIMORE (Reuters) - After the deaths of nearly 20 of her friends and relatives, Erricka Bridgeford said she wanted to take a stand against Baltimore’s worst wave of deadly violence in a generation.
It was with that sense of urgency that the 44-year-old community mediation trainer and other activists decided to organize a grassroots “ceasefire” to stop the killings, at least for 72 hours, starting at midnight on Thursday (0400 GMT on Friday).
“We want to purposefully just have a pause and a sacred space where everybody’s intention is that nobody gets killed,” Bridgeford said.
The ceasefire has the support of gang leaders, drug dealers and others linked to the violence, she said.
The slogan selected by organizers gets straight to the point: “Nobody kill anybody.”
That immediate goal is ambitious, given the spotty response to the last Baltimore ceasefire, when two people died in May on Mother’s Day weekend, slightly above the average weekend toll.
As a consequence, there is plenty of skepticism in the city, where rioting broke out in 2015 over the death of a black man in police custody.
Even so, the organizers hope that this time Maryland’s largest city can take a first, tentative step in changing a culture of violence that has fueled one of the highest homicide rates in the United States.
So far this year, there have been 206 homicides in Baltimore, putting it on a pace to break the record of 353 in 1993.
Baltimore, along with Chicago and Detroit, is among cities that Republican President Donald Trump has mentioned in criticizing the failure of local politicians, mostly Democrats, to stop the violence.
T.J. Smith, a Baltimore police spokesman whose own brother was shot to death last month, said the department backed the ceasefire as a grassroots effort to curb violence.
He blamed the trend on repeat offenders caught up in the drug trade, gang rivalries and other disputes.
But on the streets of West Baltimore, where riots erupted after a young African-American man named Freddie Gray died from an injury in the back of a police van, retiree Todd Douglas sounded a note of skepticism, saying the killings would simply resume once the ceasefire ended.
“They’ll just wait and make up for lost time,” Douglas said.
Ceasefire organizers are planning almost 50 events -cookouts, peace walks, a basketball tournament and prayer meetings - across the largely African-American city of 615,000 people.
The Rev. Scott Slater, an Episcopal priest, will lead prayers at 10 spots where people have been killed in the past year.
“The intent is to honor the people who never make the news, except as a statistic,” Slater said by phone.
If nothing else comes from the ceasefire, such gestures were a first step in helping residents feel that they were regaining control of neighborhoods, said Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins-Baltimore Collaborative for Violence Reduction.
“Even if it ends up being only one day without a shooting, that’s going to be good for the city,” Crifasi said.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Grant McCool