In Baltimore, Ex-Cons Fight to Stop the Violence in High-Crime Neighborhoods

© Provided by CityLab Image
© Provided by CityLab

“This is a bad neighborhood,” the cabdriver tells me as we pull up to an ugly, beige, low-rise building in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Lower Park Heights. The dappled sunlight on the tree-lined street belies the fact that this area has one of highest per capita crime rates in Baltimore.

There are bars on the steel door entrance to the building and a keypad lock. It looks like a deserted prison. I’m relieved when the door opens before I exit the cab and a middle-aged white guy with an ID tag emerges talking on his iPhone. He waves to me, and I realize he is Michael Schwartzberg, the public information officer for Baltimore’s  Health Department.

Schwartzberg has set up interviews for me with convicted criminals, but we aren’t meeting at a prison. We’re meeting in the headquarters of Park Heights Safe Streets. The ex-cons are two of their trusted staff members.

Prosaically typecast, they are both wearing bright-orange shirts.

One staffer, Greg Marshburn, was in and out of prison over a period of 17 years for a number of crimes, including attempted murder and robbery. He has been shot four times and stabbed at least 20. He was asked to be a witness after one of the shootings but refused to identify his attackers. “I let the guys go because I was robbing them,” he explains. “To me, that was my civic duty.”

Marshburn’s current job makes use of his old contacts and his street cred, which is bolstered by the attempted-murder charge and his unwillingness to rat out his assailants. He is a supervisor at Park Heights Safe Streets, one of a small staff of black men who canvass the neighborhood like beat cops.

But they are in no way police. The Safe Streets men are unarmed and work among gun-toting gangs without protective gear. They don’t care if you’re selling drugs or doing drugs. Their message is simple: Just don’t shoot anybody.

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Source: CityLab | Fawn Johnson

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