'300 Men March' Aims For Calm In Baltimore
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. After the death of Freddie Gray last month, some of Baltimore's peaceful protest descended into riots and looting. A few dozen men stepped into the fray to try and defuse the conflict. They wore trademarked black shirts that identified them as part of the 300 Men March. From member station WYPR in Baltimore, Christopher Connelly takes a closer look at the group, the men behind it and their message.
CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: It's recruitment night for the 300 Men March. As a few dozen men and one woman straggle into this West Baltimore gym, Munir Bahar and a few other guys in black take turns lifting weights.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Four, five, come on, five more. Six, let's go.
CONNELLY: Bahar cuts an imposing figure as he steps to the front of the room - black fatigues, black T-shirt, serious. He thanks them for coming, then pauses.
MUNIR BAHAR: You know, I'm just saying it to be polite. Thank you for coming. But, you know, all that s*** doesn't mean nothing to me. You know, what means something is dedicated, consistent involvement. That's what means something to me. That's what means something to the community.
CONNELLY: Then he launches into an hour-long orientation spiel that's as much about what the 300 Men March does as what they are not. They're not an advocacy group. They're not political. They don't coordinate with the police. Their one, simple message is emblazoned in white letters on the back of their black T-shirts - we must stop killing each other.
BAHAR: You know, are we going to have a bunch of guys in the hood singing "Kumbaya," loving each other, holding up the peace sign? No. But we can get some guys away from the guns, away from the knives, away from this killer mentality? You know, then, yeah. I'm going to shift to that. Then we can work from there, but at least let's go there first.
CONNELLY: Every Friday night during the summer, they go out into the community unarmed and engage with people. It's about being a positive, peaceful force on some of Baltimore's hardest streets in the city's most violent months. For the past two years, they've focused on one East Side neighborhood, which did see a drop in shooting.
BAHAR: We don't come in with our chest out trying to step on nobody's toes. We come in with love. And I don't care the hardest, most thorough-est gangster killer, whatever - every human being recognizes love to some degree, especially when it's genuine and when it's pure.
CONNELLY: Late last month, violence broke out after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody. Seeing the 300 Men March respond to the crisis made 53-year-old Michael Allen wants to join.
MICHAEL ALLEN: All of the violence and stuff that when on in the neighborhoods, it was actually where I grew up. So it really touched me as I was sitting watching it on television. I had to get out here and get involved.
CONNELLY: Michael Williams was 12 when his father was murdered so joining the 300, he says, is personal.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: For me, I want to just spread the word more so that we're not going to stand for violence in the city. We just want to engage with people. I mean, we're just trying to spread the word that, you know, we must stop killing each other, and it needs to happen right now.
COUNCILMAN BRANDON SCOTT: Men need to do more in Baltimore.
CONNELLY: That's Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott. He met me in the plaza outside of city hall where the TV crews and protesters have mostly packed up and gone home. Scott helped found the 300 Men March, and he says men in Baltimore cannot go back to business as usual.
SCOTT: You can't be a man just because you're, you know, successful, you go to work all day, you take care of your kids. But what are you doing for the community? What are you doing for other people's kids? What are you doing every day to improve the lives of young people in our city?
CONNELLY: The new recruits will start a month-long training next week. If enough men step up, the 300 Men March plans to hit the streets in Freddy Gray's neighborhood this summer. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Connelly in Baltimore.
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