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Every Murder is a Tragedy

August 15, 2012

In the past couple months since I started as editor of City Paper, one of my grimmer duties has been to edit Anna Ditkoff’s Murder Ink column. Every week, in an effort to make sure our readers are aware of the weekly toll of deadly violence, she details the facts of every murder that takes place in Baltimore City—128 so far this year. Among those details, she includes the race of every person murdered, and, when applicable, the race of people arrested for those murders, which demonstrates that African-Americans are the overwhelming victims of murder in Baltimore City: Of 128 people murdered in Baltimore so far this year, 125 have been African-American. The people arrested for those murders are also overwhelmingly African-American.

Last week, Joseph “Alex” Ulrich Jr. was killed, making him the third white person killed in Baltimore this year. I didn’t know Ulrich any more than I knew any of the other 127 victims. But, now that I’ve been following the stories of those murdered week in and week out, I’m struck by the drastic difference in the public reaction to this death and virtually all the others.

The vast media coverage as well as the attention on social media and at a well-attended vigil in Mt. Vernon last night, where the shooting took place (depicted in a front-page photo in the Sun today), are a striking contrast to coverage of other murders, which sometimes merit no more than a Sun blog post.

Even more striking, I think, are the comments and actions of the police in response to the murder. Immediately after the shooting, the Baltimore Police Department announced that they would step up foot, mounted, and bicycle patrols in Mt. Vernon. That certainly sounds like a good idea, but I wonder if police responded in a similar way after the other 127 murders this year, many of which also involved wholly innocent victims, like Ulrich. In a Sun story yesterday, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi commented on the incident, saying, “The community needs a show of force, and we need to find out who’s responsible for this violence. We’ll pour in everything we can to figure that out.” Again, I wonder if other neighborhoods got the same show of force after murders there, or whether police promised to “pour in everything we can” to solve the other 127 murders. I certainly haven’t heard a police representative say so.

It’s a familiar pattern to anyone who follows crime news in Baltimore City. Week in, week out, people are killed—seven people were murdered in Baltimore City in the week before Ulrich was killed. The stories are given little coverage in the local media—did you hear anything about those seven people killed last week? If I wasn’t editing Murder Ink, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have. But when a white person is killed or is the victim of a serious crime, as with the hapless tourist whose beating and robbery were captured on downtown security cameras earlier this year, it is front-page news, and the source of angst: Is our city safe? It’s hard not to translate the subtext of that angst to, Is our city safe for white people? Because if the general population was concerned about whether or not the city was safe for black people, there would be a whole lot more vigils and angst.

In today’s Sun story, Justin Fenton sums up the feelings of those at the vigil: “Many of the hundreds gathered Tuesday at Mount Vernon’s Washington Monument had their perceptions of safety shaken last week,” and goes on to quote attendees explaining that they’re scared the shooting could happen again, that it was so random, that the victims were such upstanding community members—and they, no doubt, were. I truly don’t intend, in writing this, to downplay the awful tragedy of Alex Ulrich’s death. By all accounts, he was a good person, new to the city, and my heart goes out to his friends and family. I honestly cannot fathom what it would be like to lose someone close to me to such an awful violent death.

It may be easy for those of us who live in relatively safe neighborhoods where murders are rare to look away from African-American murder victims from poor neighborhoods, who are often killed by other African-Americans, assuming that most or all were involved in some criminal enterprise, guilty in some way. One might assume that Ulrich is unique among this year’s murder victims in his innocence, his status as a totally random victim of violence.  As someone who has been reading and editing the details of every murder that’s taken place in Baltimore in the last two months, I can assure you, he isn’t.

Certainly some of the other 127 murder victims this year have been involved in criminal activity, but many, probably most, have not. For example, three weeks ago, on July 23, Brandon Spruill, a 23-year-old African-American man—who had been a star basketball player at Walbrook High School, starting for the 2006 state championship team—was hanging out with friends in Sandtown-Winchester when he was approached by two unknown men who robbed them and shot Spruill in the head, killing him instantly. Three days later, just four blocks away, Franklin Morris Jr., a 34-year-old African-American man, was approached in his home by men looking to rob him, police say, shot numerous times and killed. Later that same day, Hamin Bridges, a 34-year-old African-American student at Coppin State University, parked his van at his home near Chinquapin Park when he was approached by a group of men. Hamin struggled with the men and then tried to run away. As he fled, he was shot repeatedly by the men, who stole his van, a 2004 Honda Odyssey minivan.

Each of these men was presumably as innocent as Ulrich, each murder just as tragic. But there have been no vigils, minimal media coverage—certainly no promises from the police to “pour everything we can” into solving the crime. And that’s particularly unfortunate, because areas like Sandtown-Winchester could use added police patrols much more than Mt. Vernon, where murders are blessedly few and far between.

Yes, every murder in Baltimore is a tragedy. Let’s treat them all that way.