The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baltimore’s Ceasefire program strives to create peace amid the violence — at least for a weekend

The Rev. Scott Slater, left, leads a walk Feb. 2 through West Baltimore, accompanied by Baltimore Ceasefire activists Erricka Bridgeford, center, and Brigit Molony, among others, to offer prayers for those who have died amid the city’s gun violence.
The Rev. Scott Slater, left, leads a walk Feb. 2 through West Baltimore, accompanied by Baltimore Ceasefire activists Erricka Bridgeford, center, and Brigit Molony, among others, to offer prayers for those who have died amid the city’s gun violence. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)
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On a recent Saturday, a group of adults gathered at the Church of St. Katherine of Alexandria in West Baltimore for a “prayer walk” to memorialize victims of gun violence at the spots where they were killed. Led by the Rev. Scott Slater, the Canon to the Ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, the group walked a two-mile route that covered the city’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, home to some of America’s poorest and deadliest streets.

Slater paused at 500 Sanford Place, a quiet corner in front of a Yammi’s Carry Out where Antonio Ennals, 29, was found dead in May. Teddy bears and ribbons memorialized some of the murder sites along the route, but the majority of them, like Ennals’s, were unmarked, fading unrecognized into an urban landscape of abandoned rowhouses and buildings scrawled with graffiti.

“Rest eternal grant to Antonio, oh Lord,” Slater said at the corner. The group responded, “And let light perpetual shine upon Antonio.” The group of a dozen adults stopped 11 times to honor 12 victims who died during the past year, most of them young men ages 18 to 38.

The controversial method that helped turn one of America’s most murderous cities into one of its safest

The walk on Feb. 2 was part of the larger “Ceasefire” weekend organized by Baltimore Ceasefire, a grass-roots organization whose motto is “Nobody Kill Anybody.” Every three months, the group calls for a three-day hiatus to the street violence that has made Baltimore one of the deadliest cities in the nation, its homicide rate surpassing 300 deaths per year since 2015. The weekends are filled with events meant to celebrate life and galvanize the community around nonviolence, such as a Runners4Justice Peace Challenge Run, prayer services and a youth open mic event called “Voices in Power.”

“People want peace in their neighborhoods,” said Erricka Bridgeford, one of the founders of Baltimore Ceasefire, who attended the prayer walk.

Bridgeford, 46, is the director of training at Community Mediation Maryland, where she teaches conflict resolution. In 2017, she launched Baltimore Ceasefire after her 19-year-old son told her that the city was on track to have one of its deadliest years on record. “I got angry,” she said, “and started fussing — somebody, why don’t they just call a cease-fire or something?!”

That’s when she remembered a conversation she’d had two years earlier with her friend, the hip-hop artist Ogun. They were working together on the 300 Men March, another nonviolence project, when Ogun told her about his idea to organize a cease-fire, a period of time during which people would commit themselves to peace.

After the conversation with her son, Bridgeford got in touch with Ogun to revive the idea. Their efforts gave rise to the first Ceasefire weekend in August 2017.

“I wanted celebrations happening in the city from Friday to Sunday,” Bridgeford said.

Thousands of people showed up to the first Ceasefire weekend to pray, talk and rally for nonviolence. Bridgeford remembers one of them, a man named Devrone McKnight, who had just been shot in the face. He was on his way home from the hospital that Friday night, his face still bandaged, when he passed by a Ceasefire rally on Emerson Avenue. He stopped to join the group and became an animated presence, holding up posters, handing out fliers and “screaming at cars, saying, ‘Honk your horns for peace!’ ” Bridgeford recalled.

There were slayings that first weekend — and so far, only two of the seven Ceasefire weekends have remained homicide-free. The most recent Ceasefire event last weekend was not one of them — it, too, was marred by two fatal shootings. When homicides occur, Ceasefire organizers visit the sites to perform sacred space rituals, such as washing away the blood and burning sage. “Someone was killed on 2/2/19,” read an announcement on the organization’s website. “Please join us in pouring love and light into the space to make it Sacred Ground.”

Bridgeford is heartbroken every time someone is killed, but she remains undeterred. “We’re still celebrating life,” Bridgeford told a camera crew in front of St. Katherine’s Church before the prayer walk started, “and we are addressing murder in a very different way by showing up and saying, ‘We love this person, and this person matters.’ ”

Bridgeford, who grew up in the Normount Court housing projects in West Baltimore, was 12 years old when she first saw someone die. “I heard the gunshots around the corner,” she told NPR in 2017, “watched him fall on the blacktop. I heard him saying, ‘God, please don’t let me die’ while he was waiting for the ambulance.” Then in 2007, her brother David was killed, an event that turned her life upside down and launched her nonviolence activism, which included petitioning Maryland to repeal the death penalty in 2013. In 2017, the Baltimore Sun named Bridgeford “Marylander of the Year” for launching Ceasefire.

To Bridgeford, Baltimore Ceasefire isn’t just feel-good activism. It’s about shifting the culture of Baltimore away from death, violence and retribution and toward love, life and hope. The perpetrators of violent crime, Bridgeford says, need healing.

The community seems to be hungry for her message. During the prayer walk in West Baltimore, the mood on the street was open and receptive. People going about their daily lives cheered the prayer group along, honking their horns and wishing the group a “happy Ceasefire weekend.”

“All right, all right, all right — that’s what we need to do: cease fire,” said one man who walked past the prayer group. Another man, carrying a plastic bag of liquor, approached the group and asked for a Ceasefire sign to put in his window at home.

It’s unclear whether Baltimore Ceasefire’s efforts will make a dent in the city’s problem with violence. David Kennedy, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, pioneered an initiative in the 1990s that has been successful at reducing violent crime in cities like Boston; Oakland, Calif.; and Cincinnati. But he said that when he tried to replicate it in Baltimore, first in the 1990s and again more recently, it failed. The city’s “dysfunctional political culture” inhibited cooperation between police and other key agencies, Kennedy said.

“The Baltimore Ceasefire people are out on their own” because city officials are unable to fix the problem, he said.

Meanwhile, participants and residents are hopeful Ceasefire can make a difference.

“Everyone is looking to the police to give a quick fix, but it don’t work like that,” said Kenneth Jackson, who was standing outside of his barber shop on Baker Street when the prayer group walked down the block last weekend. “It’s got to be a community fix,” he said. Jackson has owned the Hook Up Barber Shop for over 30 years and once saw two men try to kill each other right outside his door. Their bullets missed each other, but a nearby child was hit in the elbow, shattering bones in his arm.

Jackson, 64, is a fan of Ceasefire. “You have a lot of kids that are looking for love,” he said. “I’ve been father to a lot of these guys over these last some 30 years, maybe hundreds. And you just try to talk to them and talk to them and talk to them. And if you got one that’s got something crazy on his mind, maybe by talking to him you’re gonna save someone’s life,” he said. “Everybody has to play a part.”

Emily Esfahani Smith is a D.C.-based freelance journalist and a reporter for the Aspen Institute’s Weave project, an initiative seeking to highlight stories about Americans who are working to rebuild the nation’s social fabric.