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Baltimore, MD -- On the last Friday of a particularly murderous summer, and with the first day of school on the other side of the weekend, the men have come out for the boys. They will walk 75-strong through Park Heights, one of the city's distressed neighborhoods, as dusk gives way to darkness (and often death) in an effort to encourage black boys as they return to the classroom to attend, to excel, to thrive.
Women have been asked to stay behind, not out of disrespect, but because this is something the men believe they need to do alone.
It's the men's absence – particularly as fathers – that march organizers see as the primal wound that leads so many of the city's young black boys to fail to realize their potential. And when the boys fail, it fuels the violence, which many eventually fall victim to themselves.
This summer's staggering body count led Baltimore residents – often accused of being numb, if not apathetic to the city's plight – to come out from hiding and claim a role in trying to fix this.
Munir Bahar, who rallied the men tonight, is one of them.
At the end of June, after a killing spree in which 40 people were shot (20 in a single weekend) and 16 killed in less than two weeks, the 32-year-old social entrepreneur, community organizer, and martial arts instructor called for 300 men – an homage to Sparta – to join him in a march against gun violence down North Avenue. His message struck a nerve and 600 men showed up, including the mayor. They walked 10 miles for two hours. Since then, Bahar has been capitalizing on the momentum generated that night. He has trained and organized smaller units of 20-30 men to go onto the roughest corners and engage men and boys about their lives, their options, and the "beefing" that in turn leads to much of the violence. His efforts have been joined and supported by two young black city councilmen, Brandon Scott and Nick Mosby.
But if that first march in July was reactive, tonight’s in Park Heights is proactive.
"Black boys need to see strong men and know they care about them and have faith in their abilities," Bahar says.
The men on the march say they are trying to fill a void that is often taken for granted. Because fatherless children and adults are so common in their communities, not having a dad carries little stigma. Several men say that the absence of a father, or of strong male figures in general, led many of them down their own criminal paths before they found their way out.
This includes Bahar, who says that despite having a present and loving mother, he still went wayward. He first served time at the age of 15 for assaulting another minor. Then, while a student at Morgan State University, he turned himself in on an outstanding warrant related to drug charges. He gave away all his clothes before going to jail and served a few months on a suspended five-year sentence. When he returned to school, he founded Brother to Brother, a mentoring program that ran for five years and served approximately 200 men. He tracked his own father down through a Google search in 2004, when he was 23. Bahar says he was hoping to feel a connection, but didn't.
In 2007, Bahar opened COR (Committed Organized Responsible) Fitness, a for-profit community training center that works to improve the health and lives of the people it serves. In 2012, COR moved into the old 19th century Walter's Public Bathhouse No. 2 in East Baltimore. At the entrance, the word "MEN" is engraved in large capital letters into the limestone trim.
Bahar and others walking with him tonight admit that the systemic issues in Baltimore are real: there aren't enough living wage jobs, many public schools are failing, addiction rates are high, and the criminal justice system is rife with inequities – all of which contribute to the breakdown of black families.
But the men insist that they can no longer be left out of the solutions, especially when they have tread this path themselves and know it well. Engaging them only through the criminal justice system or for child support fails not only them and their families, but also entire communities.
While the discussion of black fatherhood is sometimes seized on as a way to place responsibility for the breakdown of the black family entirely on black men, Councilman Mosby – who has also been organizing weekly “Enough is Enough” marches in his district – says there is no reason to be shamed into silence.
"I'm ok talking about the breakdown of the black family," he says, "Because a lot of it was intentional – from slavery, to urban renewal, to certain social welfare policies to the war on drugs."
I wanted to give my kids what I didn't have, and I’m not talking about sneakers and money. I couldn't have my child out there and not have them be guided in the best way possible.
Tonight, the march begins in the parking lot of Pimlico, the famed track where horses race every year in the Preakness. The men will walk south, through neighborhoods that are home to African-Americans and Caribbean immigrants.
Most of the men are dressed in black, many wearing T-shirts that say "Baltimore 300 Men March." The brand has become familiar enough that cars wait patiently, giving way as the men approach, honking in support. A disheveled woman weaves through them, trying to see what it's all about, but soon just stands aside and watches in fleeting stillness, before wandering off again. Because of the unhurried pace of the walk, down the center of a broad avenue meant for cars, the shuttered and dilapidated homes, no longer blurred by speed, suddenly seem greater in number.
Men and boys walk together. Some are fathers, there without their sons, because of a relationship gone badly with the mother or because of their own other mistakes. And many of the boys are there without fathers.
The police, who have cordoned off the streets and stopped traffic so the men can pass, are also walking alongside them.
Not all the men marching are black. One white man marches while juggling balls as his companion spins a hula-hoop around his waist. Sometimes he stops to lend it to the kids who are watching from the sidewalk as the human current idles past. A Sikh-American is with his Greek-American friend; they are both from Baltimore.
Winston Bower, Jr, a 42-year-old construction company owner, is here with his sons – 14-year-old Winston and 10-year-old Bryson. Bower, who grew up "on the streets" in West Baltimore, and did time on a drug charge, has brought his boys so that they can feel part of a bigger movement, where black men are present and loving.
For Bower, his role as a father is central to his life. "I wanted to give my kids what I didn't have, and I’m not talking about sneakers and money. I couldn't have my child out there and not have them be guided in the best way possible," he says. "I'm not going anywhere. I can't leave them. I don't know why I can feel that and other dads can't."
Bower believes Munir is on to something, and has joined him on the other marches and in engaging black youth and men on the streets. "Things can change if we can get 300 consistently; the more we do it, the more people will support it," he says.
His eldest son says it feels good to make a positive influence in the community. "It's important for people to see us," Winston says.
For COR member Jahi Faw, a 30-year-old software analyst and father to two girls, visuals are indeed essential. "Why else is there so much money in marketing," he says. "Showing camaraderie around black men makes a difference. It says 'men are stepping up and care in the city of Baltimore' where the conventional wisdom is that men don’t care, especially about kids."
Unlike the others, Faw doesn't walk slowly or in line. He's constantly moving out to the sidewalks to where the residents are watching, from their porches, from their dirt bikes, or where they're sitting on the grass.
"What’s up brothers? Wanna march with us? Stop shootin'. Come workout with us; do some push-ups, train with us. Hi ladies. Young soldier, what grade you going into? We’re the 300 men march – we got 298, will you join?"
When asked why he's doing this, Faw says, "I have no other choice; I did a lot to mess up the community when I was younger," referring to his past selling drugs, for which he served 15 months. "Now that I have kids, it hurts more to see youth dying and failing."
Individually we can be great, but collectively we can forever change our corners, our streets, our neighborhoods and the city of Baltimore.
After walking for nearly two hours, everyone, joined by the women who had stayed behind, rally together back at Pimlico, and the crowd grows to over a hundred. A small soundstage has been set up in the parking lot. Councilmen Scott and Mosby and Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who represents Park Heights, all speak.
Councilman Scott addresses his comments to the adults. "The children have to see us so that they can understand they can be so much more, and not just at the beginning of the school year. We need to be supporting them all 180 school days." Then he looks at some of the boys in the group and says, "Even though school should be 280 days."
The boys let out a collective "No!"
Councilman Mosby follows him on the stage: "Individually we can be great, but collectively we can forever change our corners, our streets, our neighborhoods and the city of Baltimore."
When Bahar steps up to the mic, he looks right down at the boys, who have been given a choice spot close to the stage, because after all, this event is for them.
"You have to learn so much, that your head gets this big," Bahar says holding his hands out to show just how big.
"Your head should be filled with so much information that your head grows. You might have to get new hats, and shirts with bigger neck holes," he says, and the boys giggle.
"But," he says in all seriousness. "It is worth it."