BALTIMORE — In the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, Antoine Bennett says he is what’s considered “an old cat.” At 44, he is an elder at his church and a mentor to the young men in his neighborhood. Short with an easy smile, Bennett sat at a picnic table in Bruce Street Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the first after a week of unrest sparked by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
“I am like a lot of these young guys here — a high school dropout, an ex-offender. The first time I ever left home was to go to prison,” Bennett said. “In many ways, we are taught that success is leaving this community. But I certainly respect more that man or woman who has the toughness to stay and change it.”
Bennett counts himself among those tough enough to change Sandtown, even after last week, when massive protests rocked the city after Gray’s funeral. Gray, who lived in Sandtown, died from a severe spinal cord injury on April 19, a week after being arrested by Baltimore police. On May 1, six officers were arrested and charged in connection with his death.
Bennett said that in addition to mourning Gray, there is frustration among older men in the community that they could do more to prevent it.
“I think Freddie, like many of our youth, was trying to enjoy his neighborhood and live his life as best he could. But he was also the product of an underserved neighborhood. And maybe if we had done something more, then the police wouldn't have seen him as a criminal but as a citizen,” Bennett said.
Bennett is no stranger to conflict with the police; he went to prison as a teenager for shooting a man. After getting out, he said, he committed himself to making sure other young men in his community don’t make the same mistakes.
“I knew very early on that I wasn't cut out for prison. Since my release 21 years ago, my goal has been to invest in folks and invest in this community,” he said.
Part of that investment was creating Bruce Street Park from a vacant lot a few years ago and employing local men as groundskeepers. He is the founder of Men of Valuable Action (MOVA), a leadership development organization that offers everything from talks on conflict resolution to know-your-rights workshops about police interactions. MOVA also helps connect men with job opportunities.
Full employment, Bennett said, is the key to changing Sandtown. According to 2011 Baltimore City Health Department figures, one-fifth of Sandtown’s nearly 15,000 residents are unemployed, and 30 percent live below the poverty line — double the percentage for the city overall. The median household income in Sandtown is just $22,277, compared with $37,395 for the rest of the city.
“Nothing stops a bullet like a good job,” he said, and as he spoke, two cars pulled up alongside the park. Two of the men he has mentored — now active in the group themselves — joined Bennett at the picnic table.
“If anything were to happen to me, these are the two who will carry this on,” he said, embracing Marvin Warfield, 29, and Jermal’e Gibson, 23.
Gibson said his decision to join MOVA came after watching too many of his friends become victims of violence. According to Baltimore Police Department statistics, the homicide rate in Sandtown was twice as high as the rest of the city — 45.3 homicides per 10,000 residents from 2005 to 2009.
“Right now, my homeboys I grew up with, some of them are dead. Some of them are in jail. We are trying to see another way out. We just want to help our communities, and we got kids. We don't want our kids growing up with the same thing we have going on right now,” he said.
Bennett said role models like Gibson and Warfield are crucial in helping show young men in the community that there are alternatives.
“The young man who gets thrown in handcuffs at 6 in the evening gets the coverage, not the young man who is getting up at 6 in the morning to take his child to day care,” Bennett said, and Warfield nodded. “We want people to know that there are beautiful African-American fathers in this community. There is beauty in our duty here.”
As Bennett spoke, neighbors whose yards face the park went out to greet him. Children zoomed by on bicycles, men washed their cars, and women hung laundry out to dry. The remnants of confetti from a birthday party were scattered on the ground, and fat yellow dandelions pushed their way up through the green grass.
Warfield said he left Sandtown to attend college but chose to return to work for change. He said it’s men like him who will do the real work long after the news media move on.