Writing Samples

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Advocate

Roll Call of Victims Never Ends as Killing Continues

 

By Gerard Shields

The Baltimore Sun

     "Brandon Mullens, 19 ...Eric Carroll, 24 ...James Gillyard, 37... "

     Rashida Simmons' voice doesn't quiver anymore when she reads the names and ages of people murdered in Baltimore in the past week.

     Unlike most American government bodies that begin with a solemn prayer and patriotic Pledge of Allegiance, Baltimore City Council meetings start with the chilling ritual initiated a year ago to accentuate the city's perpetual bloodshed.

     "Hugh Jackson, 17 ...Wayne Rabb, 15... Nelson Holland, 22..."

     The duty of reading the names falls to the 23-year-old receptionist for City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III. Simmons grew up in the city's Auchentoroly Terrace section and feels the sting of the murders, especially when she reads ages of victims younger than she is, which is often.

     Of the 31 names read during the past month -- an average of a killing a day -- none of the victims was older than 43. During the past year, Simmons has read 362 names of murdered Baltimore residents.

     "Half of these people are my age or younger," Simmons said.   "Sometimes there are just so many names."

     As much as the name reading serves as a reminder of city carnage, it also stands as a weekly political jab at city leaders.

     The first reading occurred in January 1997, shortly after the fatal shooting of James "Boo Boo" Smith III. James died in a barbershop near Hollins Market from a stray bullet that struck him while he was waiting for a haircut on his third birthday.

     Bell and Councilman Martin O'Malley, a former prosecutor from the city's 3rd District, wield the weekly names to vent their frustration with Baltimore's crime-fighting plan. Unlike cities such as New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans, where the murder rate has plummeted, Baltimore's remains fairly constant, with more than 300 murders a year since 1989.

     "John Jones, 7 months... Dante Powers, 18 ...Curtis Young, 35... "

     The names also scroll across the city's cable Channel 21, keeping pressure on Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. Bell and O'Malley want the city to adopt the "zero tolerance" stance taken in other cities, where even the most minor offenses are prosecuted strictly.

     Prosecuting career criminals committing lesser crimes, such as assault or shoplifting, can prevent future killings, the councilmen say.

Zero tolerance debate

     Schmoke and Frazier don't fully support zero tolerance, instead taking a la carte pieces of the plan and calling it "limited tolerance."

     The commissioner adopted Crimestat, a computer and mapping system that pinpoints arrests geographically to locate hot spots.     During the past four years, he has also increased street patrols, raids on gun toters and drug dealers and captures of criminals sought on warrants. Frazier has also expanded the city's Police Athletic League.

     His latest effort involves tracking gang activity to pre-empt murder strikes. The steps have worked. Overall city crime dropped last year by 11 percent and has fallen 26 percent since Frazier took over as commissioner. Shootings in the city have dropped by 60 percent in recent years, and Frazier believes a drop in killing will soon follow.

     On March 6, police arrested 29 people suspected of drug dealing and shootings in the Cherry Hill and Brooklyn sections of the city.

     "You have to work in your environment," Frazier said, staring down at 10 guns recovered in the raids. "We made a policy two years ago to focus on guns and gun violence."

     Supporters of Frazier's tactics criticize the zero tolerance approach sought by O'Malley and Bell. Locking up criminals for minor offenses costs money through increased police patrols and jail expenses, in a city where slightly more than half of the black males between the ages of 18 and 34 are already in jail, on probation or facing charges, according to Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson.

      And Maryland jails are already at capacity.

     "You don't need to stick any more in there," Beilenson said.

     Drugs and rehabilitation

The solution lies in rehabilitation, Beilenson said. The city is home to 60,000 drug addicts, one of every 10 residents. Locking up criminals costs the government $20,000 per person a year, while rehabilitation requires spending an average of $5,000, Beilenson said. The city recently increased drug rehabilitation funding from $14 million to $30 million.

     Many of the murder victims are caught in the cross fire of gang warfare over drugs, Beilenson said, making young black males the city's most endangered group. The average city killer arrested last year was 18. Eight of the 31 names Simmons read in the one-month period from Feb. 2 to March 3 were teen-agers, including one youth who was shot to death by a stray bullet while he sat in a van at a traffic light on his way to church.

     The city homicide rate has remained constant because teens are relying on big guns fired repeatedly at point-blank range, trademark assassinations from less than 2 feet away, Beilenson said. When they shoot, they don't miss.

     "Rasheed Harris, 19... Jerry Walley, 18... Tina Marie Poole, 19..."

Deadly cities

     Despite the drop in overall city crime, city leaders haven't had much success denting the murder rate. For the first time last year, Baltimore murders exceeded by eight the 301 murders in Washington -- once known as the murder capital of the nation.

     "Kenneth Davis Jr., 17 ...Rotanwa Dickerson, 25 ...Tyrone Boldin, 29... "

     Although city leaders boast of the drop in overall crime, critics say the resilient murder rate makes Baltimore one of America's deadliest cities.

     Bell acknowledges that reading the names of murdered citizens each week isn't great publicity for a city promoting itself as a tourist destination. But unless the homicide rate is reduced, tourism will suffer, he said.

     "The perception is there. We did not create this problem," Bell said. "These are not names, statistics or numbers, these are real people.

     "These are members of somebody's family and we will not be satisfied."

     "Will Lawson, 29... Marquin Bradley, 22 ...Rodney Jones, 43... "

     Schmoke lauds the council for trying to humanize the problem. But the 10-year mayor who has watched drugs push the city crime rate higher since he took office in 1987 also feels the political slap.

      "It is important to get beyond statistics to let people know that it's real people with real families," Schmoke said. "I just hope that the council will work with us and the commissioner to come up with effective solutions."

Political purpose

     Henry Brownstein, a criminal justice professor at the University of Baltimore, wrote a book last year documenting homicides in America, "The Rise and Fall of a Violent Crime Wave." Brownstein has never heard of the name-reading practice in other cities, he said.

     "It clearly has some political purpose rather than some practical purpose," Brownstein said. "The police can't operate alone. There needs to be some community involvement in getting to these kids."

     When will the reading of the city's murder roll end?

     Not anytime soon. Last week, Simmons announced two more names of citizens killed during the week of March 2 to March 9. And City Council members such as Bell and O'Malley vow to keep the ritual going until a significant and steady drop in city murders is visible.

     Last year, the rate of solved city murders dropped by 5 percent, equaling the national average of 65 percent. Police attribute the drop to witnesses' fear of coming forward in drug-related killings.

Council members can't get beyond the fact that other cities are doing what Baltimore can't seem to do.

     "You've got to agitate to get some sort of change," O'Malley said. "Is it political? Yeah, it's political. It's life-and-death political."

     “Maybe it will help,” he said.

     "Paul Smith, 36...Wayne Graves, 21... Craig Williams, 39... "

     When reading the names started to get easier for Simmons, it bothered her. Then she received calls from two family members of victims who saw the names read and scrolled on Channel 21.

     "People call and say, `Thanks for reading my son or daughter's name,' " Simmons said. "If people start thinking about it, maybe it will help."

     "Sidney Young, 31... Arnold Loney, 24... Robert Bennett, 24..."

                                "Velvet and Steel”

    Louisiana's Political Grand Dame Lindy Boggs 
                                     By Gerard Shields

                           Advocate Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - They told her to wrap it in plain brown paper and not let it out of her sight. Since she was traveling on a commercial plane, the most important thing was to not draw attention to it.

     And that's how former Democratic U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs, of New Orleans, smuggled the original Louisiana Purchase document into the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair.

     "There was great concern about whether it would be stolen," Boggs said.

     The first woman ever elected to Congress in Louisiana took her job so seriously that she initially refused to hand it over to the awaiting armored car and police escort.

     The Jefferson Parish sheriff intervened.

     "Harry Lee had to come to talk me out of it," Boggs said.

     The grande dame of Louisiana politics will mark two milestones this week. On Tuesday, she will be honored at Loyola University during a special tribute as part of Woman's History Month. And on Friday, the New Roads native will celebrate her 93rd birthday.

     Boggs still maintains her house in the French Quarter, refusing to sever ties with her beloved New Orleans. But she spends most of her time in an apartment in Washington, a city where she dominated political and social circles for six decades.

     Boggs has had a privileged life whether it was plantation workers who doted on her as a child or Washington society parties as an adult. But it has also been one pock-marked with immense tragedies on almost every level.

     She was born Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne on the Brunswick Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish where her family raised sugar cane. From the outset, the life of the only child had its setbacks. Her father, Roland, was a New Roads lawyer who died during the 1918 influenza epidemic when she was 2 years old.

     A nurse, who thought she looked like her father when she was born, nicknamed her Rolinda, which was eventually shortened to Lindy.

     Boggs describes an idyllic childhood on the plantation where grandmothers and plantation workers doted on her, answering her every need. She attributed it partly to the people feeling sorry for her being without a dad."It was a wonderful life," Boggs said. "You just had everybody who just loved you so much."

     Her mother eventually remarried when she was 7 years old, and they moved to another plantation, this time a cotton operation known as Moreau. At 9, she was enrolled at the St. Joseph's convent school in New Roads, what is now Catholic of Pointe Coupee.

     The boarding school grounded her in her views about the role of women, because Boggs saw that nuns were presidents of colleges, hospital directors and principals of high schools. "There was really nothing the nuns couldn't do," Boggs said.

     There, she also rooted herself in devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was roused one night in the convent and escorted outside as it was destroyed by fire. A more devastating fire occurred two years later when a blaze swallowed her home at Moreau.

   Almost 80 years later, Boggs remembers standing outside the house shouting at plantation workers to get off the roof, where burning timbers eventually crashed in. To this day, she is petrified of fire.

    Because she had her own private tutor, Boggs was able to graduate from high school at 15 and applied to Newcomb College at Tulane University in New Orleans.

   The school had a rule that you couldn't be admitted if you were younger than 16. But Boggs employed what would become a trademark in her life: sweet talking. Quoting Shakespeare, she convinced school officials to let her in.

     At a 1934 freshman dance at Tulane, a boy cut in on her dancing. As they made their way around the floor, he delivered a bold statement. "I'm going to marry you someday," he said.

     Boggs panicked.

     "I said 'who is this crazy man? Somebody come quick,'" she recalled. "It would have been OK, but he was a terrible dancer."

    She eventually fell for the 6-foot-tall strapping fellow with the wavy brown hair in an unconventional way.

     "It was when he started dating a girlfriend of mine," Boggs said. "I thought 'this guy must be OK.'"

     "This guy" was her eventual husband, Thomas Hale Boggs. The two entered a Jimmy Stewart, soda-fountain romance that culminated with their marriage in 1938 when she was just 21.

     Starting out in politics

     After graduating, they started their first political activity, helping to form The People's League. The group provided campaign funding and support to candidates willing to take on the ingrained and corrupt political leaders left in the wake of the assassination of Huey Long in 1935.

   Boggs remembers pushing her first daughter in a stroller and ringing doorbells. Three years later, her husband was elected as the youngest member of Congress.

     During that time, Boggs suffered another blow when she was diagnosed with uveitis, high tension in her left eye that led to temporary blindness on occasion and was caused by food allergies. The ailment was so serious that she missed her husband's swearing in.

    Being new to Washington, Boggs realized that she quickly had to learn Capital protocol. She participated in the activity that was simply referred to as "calling." The group of congressional wives would visit wives of other governmental officials - the Supreme Court on Tuesdays, the House on Wednesdays and the Senate on Thursdays. Fridays were reserved for makeup calls.

  "You really made some wonderful connections and wonderful friends," she said.

    During car rides from New Orleans to Washington to return to congressional sessions, Boggs felt the personal sting of racism. A black housekeeper traveling with her growing family was not allowed in most restaurants, hotels and even gas stations.

   So the Boggses searched until they found open accommodations for the woman, who had previously worked as a schoolteacher.

     "She was so much more refined and educated than the people who wouldn't let her in," Boggs said.

     Boggs was no Southern hayseed coming to the big city. Her family had been involved in politics almost from its outset. In her formal sitting room in her Washington apartment, a giant family tree hangs on the wall. It includes William Claiborne, who arrived in Jamestown around 1631, and William Charles Cole Claiborne, the first governor of Louisiana. Herbert Hoover once visited her childhood home during the Great Flood of 1927.

     Her closest friends among congressional wives were Lady Bird Johnson, who would become first lady, and Pauline Gore, whose son, Al, would become vice president.

     In 1946, Boggs suffered what she would call one of the most painful periods of her life. She lost a newborn child, Billy, to lung complications days after his birth. Doctors told her she could have no more children than the three she had.

     During her time in the hospital, she also contracted hepatitis from a transfusion. To help cheer her up, her husband brought home a fellow congressman named "Jack" who also once had hepatitis. The Massachusetts representative was John F. Kennedy.

     "It was wonderful," Boggs said. "It was really the start of a wonderful friendship."

     Like most people in America, Boggs remembers where she was the day Kennedy was shot, working alone in her husband's Capitol office answering phones. She was crushed.

     "It was not only that he was my friend, but that it could happen in the United States of America," she said.

Her husband's power in Washington grew. He was elected as the House majority leader, and the Boggses became fixtures at all things Washington from garden parties to embassy events.

Fateful plane trip

       In 1972, her husband got on an airplane with fellow congressman Nick Begich to travel to Alaska to campaign for his friend. On Oct. 16, the plane disappeared. Boggs was sitting alone in her kitchen when she received the phone call.

     Family members, including her children, told her not to fly to Alaska because the experience would be too tough on her. Her answer? "If you were missing in Alaska, daddy would go looking for you."

     Through all the footage from that time, Boggs is never seen without a smile on her face. When talking about the worst time of her life today, Boggs breaks into song.

     "When you're smiling, keep on smiling, the whole world smiles with you … "

     Boggs said that she never thought about crying in public and slipped into a mock high society voice.

    "That's a disgrace to the Claiborne name," she said smiling.

    She was elected to her husband's seat, which encompassed New Orleans, in 1973 and made one request: She wanted to serve on the House Banking and Commerce Committee on which her husband had served. After having her wish granted, Boggs reached a seminal moment in her congressional career when the panel was crafting the Equal Opportunity Act of 1974.

     The bill to make it easier for people to get loans failed to contain a provision for women, who were treated less favorably than men, so Boggs slipped into a side room and wrote an amendment right there that added the words "sex or marital status" to the legislation.

     She still remembers what she said when she sweet-talked the committee into accepting her proposal, capitalizing on a lesson she learned from her grandmother as a child: You can succeed in anything if you give somebody else the credit for doing it.

     "Knowing the composition of this committee, I'm sure that this was an oversight," Boggs said.

     It became trademark Boggs. House Speaker Thomas Foley nicknamed her "velvet and steel," which was noted in the title of a 2006 documentary on her life. Louisiana's former U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston once likened Boggs' graceful persistence as the political equivalent of Chinese water torture.

Difficulties of the job

     Boggs, however, found congressional life more difficult than supporting her husband. She had to vote yea or nay.

"You had to disappoint people, and I didn't like that part," she said.

     In 1976, Boggs became the first woman in the nation's history to run a national political convention. As she took the podium for the Democratic National Convention, she staked her claim.

     "I stand on this podium tonight not only as a Democrat, or a member of the House of Representatives, but as a woman."

     In 1984, her name was circulated as a possible vice presidential nominee, a nod that eventually went to Democratic U.S. Sen. Geraldine Ferraro, of New York. Boggs knew she couldn't get the nomination but thought it was important to leave her name in the mix.

     "I tried to make the best of it by keeping the idea alive that a woman could be nominated as vice president," she said.

     Boggs served in Congress until 1990. In the 1980s, a new minority district had been carved out, leaving Boggs as the only white member of Congress representing a black majority constituency. But she announced in July 1990 that she would not seek re-election after 17 years in Congress for two reasons.

     Another painful lossHer daughter Barbara, the mayor of Princeton, N.J., had cancer. Three months after Boggs announced that she would not seek re-election, her daughter died, leaving her again to be a parent burying one of her children. She said it is one of the most painful experiences anyone has to go through.

     "It's the wrong order of things," she said.

Boggs also felt it was time for a minority to represent the seat. She once called her successor "brilliant." That man is William Jefferson.

     Jefferson has pleaded innocent to 16 counts of public corruption including bribery, conspiracy, racketeering and money laundering. Federal prosecutors allege that he steered millions to himself and family members in exchange for pushing business proposals in Africa. Boggs gets somber when she talks about Jefferson's plight.

     "It makes me very sad," she said. "He had so much potential."

    In 1994, Boggs published her book, "Washington Through a Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Southern Woman." But Boggs' service was far from over. President Bill Clinton made her the ambassador to the Vatican in 1997.

     Then U.S. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., nominated her for the post. Boggs' competition included candidates who were able to speak fluently in exotic languages. Breaux interjected: "I don't know about that, but Lindy speaks fluent Catholic."

     As a devout Catholic, Boggs cherished the appointment. And once again she was using her Southern grace to win over new admirers. Whenever she was in a diplomatic pinch, she reached back to New Orleans.

     "The main thing to do was to get turtle soup from Commander's Palace," she said. "I could get any cardinal to come to dinner."

     Boggs' service ended in 2001, and she is the only woman in Congress to have a room in the nation's Capitol named after her. The reading room for congresswomen, located near the historic National Statuary Hall, was once the Speaker's office and is the room where John Quincy Adams died

     Today, Boggs still keeps track of the happenings of Congress through CNN. Most important to her are her 18 great-grandchildren. And the Boggses' power in Washington remains. Her daughter Cokie Roberts is a famous political commentator for ABC News. Her son, Tommy, runs the most successful lobbying shop in the capital.

     Boggs and her family recently celebrated the election of Mark Begich to the U.S. Senate from Alaska. Begich was 10 years old when his father disappeared with her husband.

     Looking back on her life, Boggs sums up her front-row seat to America and the hardships that she has overcome in one word: amazing.

     “When you're smiling, keep on smiling, the whole world smiles with you … "

PHILADELPHIA

     INQUIRER

Friend Struggled to Find a Drug-free Future
 

By Gerard Shields

The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

     He walked down the middle aisle of church weeping, his shoulder-length hair matted, his face in anguish.

     Robert was the first homeless person I could remember in our Kensington neighborhood. We watched him for weeks attend services in his ragged vinyl coat, begging for money from the elderly and old friends.

     Here we were a congregation of 3,000 who couldn't help one man get off the streets. So, at that moment, I vowed to resurrect Robert.
He agreed with his gap-toothed smile to go to breakfast, and I looked for common ground to establish some rapport. I found it in rock-and-roll, remembering seeing Robert at Tower Theater rock concerts.

     His breakfast plate was a mess of egg yolk spilling over the potatoes and stained napkin crumpled on top resembling his life: one big mess. I told him of my plans to get him into a drug treatment program.

     " It's going to be a great day," he replied.

     "Why's that?" I asked.

     "Because it's my birthday," he said.

     Robert spent years hanging on a notorious street corner where working-class British rock music blared constantly from a boom box, the scent of marijuana a permanent perfume. The guys there lived their anthem, "My Generation," by the Who: "Hope I die before I get old." Several died of drug overdoses, including Robert's younger brother.

     I found a place for him with Gaudenzia, which opened its doors in the region to people with substance-abuse problems in 1969. The day that I planned to take Robert to the appointment, I found out he was stealing money that I had used for tolls from my car.

     "This is it!" I screamed. "You get into this treatment program today or you die on the streets!"

     Robert entered and I began getting letters like the one where he told me of winning the prize for lip-syncing the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil."

     "I had a ball, Gerry, and there wasn't a drug or joint in the place," he wrote.

He completed the program and stayed for a year in a halfway house before going back to the streets, drugging and drinking again. I did what I could to get him back into treatment, but realized that I could only lead him to the water, not make him drink.

     Years went by and my job took me to Orlando. I came home one Christmas and spotted him in church. I sneaked up behind him and grabbed him tightly as we hugged.

     "Geerrrrryyyyy!!!" he shouted.

It was like watching Lazarus smile. We walked to a diner, where he told me that he had returned to Gaudenzia and had remained clean. He looked great in a sport coat and debonair mustache, his teeth fixed.

     We talked of rock-and-roll and joked that we should write a movie together about his life. He would be played by Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino would take my part. I put him on the elevated train to West Philadelphia, where he was living, watching the silver chariot overhead take him into his drug-free future.

     Close to 20 years has passed since then, and I thought of Robert recently, wondering what ever happened to him. His brother told me that Robert passed away in 2011 from heart failure.

     I spent the following days somber, as if his death were fresh. I was most saddened that I didn't get to say the three words I wished I had been able to relay before he died:

     Farewell, my friend.

© 2016 by Gerard Shields. Proudly created with Wix.com