When it comes to keeping our neighborhoods safe from drug-related crime, it takes the will of a strong individual through individual responsibility. It also takes a strong community (shared responsibility) to back up that individual. The community, the village—because it takes a village—must act as a fortified brick wall having the back of the individual willing to stand her ground.
An individual can do incredible things. Just look at Curtis Sliwa who founded the Guardian Angels in New York at a time when many individuals backed away from a confrontation. It all came together, however, when it became more than just Curtis Sliwa. It gained momentum when the Guardian Angels represented a force, a sea of citizens from various walks of life, standing together, with one common goal.
That shared responsibility makes all the difference as to whether or not the individual can be effective on more than just a small level. To explain, here’s a case that few in Baltimore will forget:
Angela Dawson BELIEVED, and that may not have been the smartest move for the East Baltimore mother and her family. It was the right thing morally, but not necessarily the smartest thing. Her case highlights the reason why, wherein crime is concerned, individual responsibility MUST be equaled by a strong shared responsibility within the community and government.
Martin O’Malley was mayor of Baltimore. He’s now the Governor. He spearheaded a program whose concept was simple enough: Believe.
Believe that you can take responsibility for making your little acre of land off limits to drug dealers. O’Malley doesn’t live in Oliver, where the Dawsons lived in 2002. I researched this case for a book deal which I decided against because the killer took a plea bargain the day before the trial.
Not an October (or month) goes by that I don’t get a vision of Angela Dawson and five small coffins at Dulaney Memorial Gardens. She was a tough woman. I wish I had known her. In fact, I feel a loss for having not known her in life. I think I take responsibility for the tough choices, but I’ve never been faced with the kind of life Angela Dawson faced. I’d like to think I would have behaved the same way. More than that, I’d like to think that the powers that be would help me a lot more than they helped her and her family.
Angela took individual responsibility to make her life better against criminals—a noble act. She could often be seen leading her five children like little ducks around, shepherding them, keeping them out of harm’s way. Their dad Carnell, worked to provide for the family, while Angela cared for the kids. They got by in a neighborhood where many didn’t. Every other house was boarded up. There were many single moms.
Drug dealers smell this sort of thing right away. With all of the boarded up houses, they would come to Angela’s stoop to do business. In Baltimore, your front stoop is considered sacred territory. That they chose to do business on her stoop was meant as a sign to make her think she had no choices in her life. To break her. They had no idea what sort of a force the woman was.
Angela called the police non-stop, and they always responded. The drug dealers threatened her often in retaliation. She was unrelenting, a pit-bull. She was a mom after all, the meanest sort of pit bull there is. Later, the other single moms would say she should have just let the dealers have their way. But Angela believed in taking personal responsibility.
In the shared responsibility part of all of this, the police always responded. They couldn’t do more than they did. For its part, the Baltimore City Police Department shared the responsibility with Angela. But drug crime is a tough nut to crack. It takes a real show of force to win.
A neighborhood man/child who had been an intern in the mayor’s office before deciding the criminal life was a better deal, firebombed the Dawson home once in early October, 2002. The family got out. The police couldn’t pin charges on anyone.
A few weeks later, the dealers came back to finish their game. This time, the flames raged so hot that firefighters couldn’t get in. They found the bodies of Angela and her five children later. Father Carnell narrowly escaped by jumping out a window.
Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson and other leaders came to town for the funeral. A city fell despondent. Stunned neighbors, some whom had never met the family, took up collections to defray costs for the funeral arrangements. The cemetery, which donates plots to fallen police officers in Maryland, donated the plots to the family. Angela Dawson was a fallen hero in a drug war.
Accusations flew as to how officials failed to share in the responsibility. They argued that they set the Believe program in place, expecting people with little to no support or tools, to do what police had been completely unable to do.
A 12-year veteran of the police department who worked in the State’s Attorney’s office (and didn’t like the official handling of the Dawson family) left her job as a result of this case. She was traumatized. As a Baltimore City Police Department veteran, she was certainly used to seeing mayhem—but this case had real, vivid, soul-penetrating faces to the carnage—six faces, five of them way too small to be put in the ground. The image of a pink coffin holding the body of a broken little girl, taken way too soon for no reason, doesn’t leave your mind quickly, if ever.
The other thing that came out of the investigations was that the dealer who killed the family was not supposed to be out running the streets the day he burned the Dawson family to death. Someone screwed up. So individual responsibility (especially for oneself) is paramount, but on mean, worn-down, drug-infested city streets, it has to be met with the shared responsibility of the community and government. OR IT ALL FALLS APART!
From a societal point of view, crime is an individual responsibility that must be reinforced constantly by others through shared responsibility.
Perhaps that sounds like a bit of a cop out, but if both forces don’t meld, you have what we have had many times in our nation’s history: laws without teeth, words without actions to back it up and good intentions without accountability. If Angela were still alive, she could explain it to you. And knowing the legend that is this woman, you would have listened to her.