Race, Crime and Despair in Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City

An investigation into soaring homicide rates, a failed war on drugs and urban despair in the US city of Baltimore.

The election of the first black US president in 2009 offered hope to millions of African Americans across the country, and the eastern city of Baltimore was no exception. But did the Obama presidency manage to spark actual positive change for black communities in inner cities?

In 2012, Fault Lines went to Baltimore, one of the most dangerous cities in the US, to try and understand the fundamental interplay of race, crime, poverty, incarceration and economics.

The investigation revealed that a decades-long ‘war on drugs’, which began with President Richard Nixon and gained traction during the Reagan years, has perpetuated cycles of violence and economic repression, especially among poor minority neighbourhoods.

According to African American author and law professor, Michelle Alexander, “even in the age of Obama, something akin to a caste system is alive and well in America.”

“The mass incarceration of poor people of colour is tantamount into a caste system specifically designed to address the social, political and economic challenges of our time … We have a school-to-prison pipeline operating in Baltimore and other cities across the nation where young people believe, with some good reason, that their destiny lies behind bars and they too will become members of the under-caste,” Alexander told Fault Lines.

I go out there in the gang members' face and say what it is … I say 'if you really run it, these are what areas not to shoot in. You decide what areas have suffered enough'.

by Tyree Colion, former gang member and founder of no-shoot zones

In 2015, riots erupted after a young black man, Freddie Gray, was killed in police custody. The National Guard was called for more than a week to quell the riots that included sporadic looting and arson. And, against the backdrop of urban flight and a shrinking population in Baltimore, the city recorded 343 homicides – the highest number of any American city per capita. 

In 2018, REWIND went back to Baltimore to discover that not much had changed for the city’s black communities. Through successive US administrations, increasing numbers of black males have been arrested on drug-related charges. With bleak future prospects, many men have come to expect prison and violence a part of everyday life.

But 42-year-old Tyree Colion, a former gang member, has set up a number of “no shoot zones” in the city. His aim is to reduce homicide rates, one negotiation at a time.

“I go out there in the gang members’ face and say what it is … I say ‘if you really run it, these are what areas not to shoot in. You decide what areas have suffered enough. You decide what area a little girl got shot in and the neighbourhood was traumatised, so now you put up a ‘no shoot’ zone. You either deal with it or you get dealt with’, and they listen,” he says.

Ernest Shaw, a muralist and educator who grew up during the Reagan years and through Baltimore’s crack epidemic, says federal policies have offered little help and prospects for African American men remain bleak. 

“I believe Obama did what he could. I didn’t have any unrealistic expectations of the first so-called black president. But those folks who are really catching hell are going to catch hell regardless of who is in the presidency.”