Who is going to save Baltimore’s kids from the ‘Killing Fields?’

BALTIMORE – As we flip the calendar to a brand new year, this city’s mayor, Bernard (Jack) Young, calls for a brand new level of civility. In the wake of 348 homicides in 2019, his words are heavy and heartfelt and revealing.

Among those killed “in recent years,” Young said last week, “several of my own sisters have had to prematurely bury their sons – my nephews – due to gun violence.”

What Young hinted at there – but left us with only a hint – is the overwhelming, and heartbreaking, amount of the gunplay that covers this city’s African-American community like a funeral shroud.

According to Baltimore police figures, of the 348 people killed in this city last year, a total of 9 victims were white. And you can go through the killing fields, year upon year over the past decade and more, and the racial breakdown remains consistent.

Mayor Young never mentioned that racial distinction, nor has any mayor in memory. To bring race into the homicide discussion is to risk accusations of scapegoating.

But it also risks skirting the central issue – and therefore never fully dealing with it.

The homicide racial breakdown is a reflection of the ongoing, and widening, economics separating haves and have-nots. Those economic disparities are reflected in the enormous frustration and hopelessness felt in minority communities, where kids in elementary school have already figured out the game’s been rigged, and they’ve been cut out of it.

It’s instructive that a man named Maurice (Peanut) King got out of prison in the closing days of last year. He did 37 years for heroin racketeering. He’s also the guy who enrolled  this city’s kids in the game. He was the godfather of child labor in the narcotics field.

Back in the 1980s, King started hiring kids barely into their teens. He’d buy them mopeds, which cost him $950 apiece, and hand out thousands of bucks on top of it. Big deal – the cops said he ran a $25 million a year operation, maybe bigger.

He had dozens of kids running dope for him. His thinking was: Who’s going to suspect a kid? And, if they did catch a kid, what judge would get rough on him?

The child-labor idea caught on with heroin dealers everywhere. And memory is still vivid of a fellow named Gary Childs, who was a city homicide cop back then, in a state of despair one afternoon over these child battalions.

“You tell a kid, ‘Listen, this is no good for you. Go back to school and learn a trade,’” Childs said. “And the kid says, ‘You gotta be kidding, right?’ They don’t think they’re hurting anybody. It’s just a delivery service they’re running. They don’t see the addict shaking and his nose running. All they see is the brown bag they’re carrying, and the house they’re carrying it to.”

These young guys doing most of the shooting and killing today – they’re the direct descendants of the Peanut King child’s brigade. The killing is one drug operator shooting another over turf, over money, over hurt feelings, over respect.

Peanut King now says he wants to help fight narcotics traffic. Should we believe him? Years ago, when he was employing dozens of kids, and buying them mopeds to make their deliveries, he also bought them a bunch of T-shirts.

The shirts said, “Save Our Children.”

That was Peanut’s wry sense of humor. Only it’s not funny that so many of those kids wound up doing time, or getting shot, and they evolved into today’s drug traffickers knocking each other off – and that so many of them, year after year, are young black men who believed in their hearts they had no other way to go.