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Opinion Crime, punishment and redemption in a tough Baltimore neighborhood

The Rocky K. Brown Sr. mural in Baltimore's Bocek neighborhood. (Richard B. Karel)

Richard B. Karel is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

The prospect of redemption is a hope dashed time after time, so it is worth celebrating when someone lives a redeemed life after a life of crime — and a decade in a federal penitentiary. That was the life of Rocky K. Brown Sr., who died Aug. 8 in Baltimore at 68.

His stature in the community is clearly evidenced by two murals in East Baltimore’s Bocek neighborhood, which he helped transform after his stint in prison. A dramatic, two-story mural adorns the side of a rowhouse just off Monument Street, the major east-west thoroughfare bisecting the neighborhood. Brown’s likeness stares intently into the distance as a lion looms over his shoulder. The mural was created in 2018 by artists Elise Victoria and Justin Nethercut of the Baltimore-based Arts & Parks organization. The pair painted a similar image of Brown’s sister, Maxine Lynch, on a rowhouse at the other end of the block.

It was in his Bocek neighborhood that Brown caused, in his own words, “chaos and corruption.” Repeatedly arrested and facing a potential sentence of 30 years-to-life in a federal prison, Brown vowed that if he ever got out, he would do everything he could to give back to the community where he had caused so much harm. He was released after a decade for good behavior, and he made good on that promise.

I came to know Brown early last year when he moved into a rental house I own in the Ellwood Park neighborhood of East Baltimore. Brown and his longtime companion, Bernice Moreno, and her son needed stable housing when the dilapidated house they were renting a few blocks away in the Bocek neighborhood was put on the market. I did not initially realize that Brown had become a near-legendary force for good in his Bocek community.

At the time Brown moved into my rental home, he had suffered a stroke and was in declining health, but his powerful and caring personality remained vibrant. At his funeral in August, I said that whenever I encountered Brown (always in my role as a landlord), he projected love and gratitude. That is not an overstatement — and, as any landlord could tell you, those are sentiments rarely encountered in the landlord-tenant relationship.

Before he was arrested, Brown had commanded respect on the street, but he kept his family at arm’s length from his criminal activities. When he got back home after a decade in prison, he began doing everything within his power to help his community — earning for himself an entirely different kind of street cred.

Brown learned to lobby political, nongovernmental and business leaders to take an interest in his neighborhood. The community recreation center had been closed, and the field behind it was overgrown and enclosed by a locked fence. Brown cut the chains on the fence and brought various city officials there to make his point. He personally undertook cleaning up that and other areas around his community, sometimes using a borrowed lawn mower to cut the grass.

Not a day went by when he was not doing something to make life better for himself and his neighbors, Lynch, his sister, said. On many days, he was out patrolling the streets and alleys for trash by 5 a.m.

Brown’s life led me to reflect long and hard on the theme of redemption. Like many who are imprisoned, Brown became well-versed in the Bible, and it is fair to say that helped him through his ordeal and subsequent acts of grace for his community. At his funeral, there were many expressions of faith surrounding the notion of afterlife redemption in the Christian tradition. But Brown chose to redeem himself in this life, every day, in a poor, tough neighborhood.

When I was asked to speak at his funeral, I said I could not speak to life after death, but that Brown would live on through the many lives he had touched in a positive way after his release from prison.

Brown — who had once feared law enforcement — coordinated with local police officers, who in turn, took an active part in mentoring kids in the community. In December 2014, the Bocek/Madison East End Community Association was formed, and in early 2015, Brown became its first president.

As someone who once struck fear in his neighborhood, Brown brought an authority borne of experience when he decided to focus on at-risk youths as a path to a better future. He received many commendations in the years after his release from prison. And, at his funeral, dignitaries and government officials, including the Baltimore City district attorney, praised him as an example of someone who had truly turned his life around.

One anecdote heard at the funeral came from Bill Atkinson, a public relations executive. Atkinson recalled meeting Brown at a community cleanup event. Then-13th District Baltimore City Council member Shannon Sneed had helped secure a $130,000 beautification grant from Coca-Cola, a client of Atkinson’s, to improve the community. Atkinson took a personal interest in Brown’s efforts, and one day, coming straight from work and wearing a suit and dress shoes, he stopped by to see how things were going. Brown stuck a rake in his hand and told him to pitch in and help — dress clothes notwithstanding — which, of course, he did. As Atkinson recalled, nobody said no to Brown.

In his later years, Brown told many friends and acquaintances that he wanted to see the Bocek Recreation Center reopened before he died — and on April 22, 2021, that dream came true when he cut the ribbon at the recreation center’s official reopening.

Redemption may be in the eyes of the beholder, but it is clear that in his community at least, Rocky K. Brown Sr. was redeemed.