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Stopping the cycle of violence

Changing the community from the ground up
Posted at 6:56 PM, May 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-24 18:56:01-04

"I try my best to provide and take care of my children. I raised him. He knows right from wrong," Dawnta Harris' mother Tanika Wilson said in a press conference Thursday.

16-year-old Harris is one for four teens charged in the killing of Officer Amy Caprio in Perry Hall Monday. Harris was waiting in a Jeep Wrangler, and when Officer Caprio told him to get out of the car, he allegedly ran her over and then drove away.

He didn't have a record until six months ago, and along with concerns over the role the juvenile justice system should have played, some are calling on the community to take responsibility to stop stop the cycle of violence.

"I'm stunned. It’s really unfortunate," city librarian Marvin Tiller said. 

He taught Harris last fall at Excel Academy in West Baltimore, and two of the other teens arrested at other schools years ago. 

"These were not bad kids that I taught. I just wish there was more that I could do to continue to guide them," Tiller said. 

He didn't see any warning signs and says this tragedy shows that the community needs to be more involved in raising teens. 

"Look at where we are now. We’re losing our rec center, we are losing community things; things that I grew up having that really could have helped to grab ahold of them. I can only do but so much in the time that I have with them. I feel like I’ve planted a seed and it’s up to other stakeholders and other community leaders to help to water those seeds," Tiller said. 


Community leader Munir Bahar puts it this way: the community has failed and he's frustrated. 


"That’s too often picture that we see with some of the most heinous crimes. Young black boys that have made a decision, such a dangerous and destructive decision to take somebody’s life, and it's just being repeated," Bahar said. "I can see a pattern, a consistent pattern. When they get to the age of 15, 16, 17  and they start identifying with a need of wanting to make money and there's no legal option for them to do it, I see a lot of guys get pulled to the streets. In some cases, 'I gotta help mom pay BGE.' 'I gotta help pay rent.' 'I gotta buy food for my little brothers and sisters,' so guys are going to robberies, crime, carjackings. It’s all for money."


He knows firsthand. As a teen, he was in and out of the system and after an arrest during college, he made a promise to himself that he was never going back to jail. When he got out, he started his Brother to Brother mentoring organization. 


"To do exactly what I wanted done with me. To go in and engage some young guys that had already gotten in trouble, to help them get out of trouble," Bahar said. 


Fast forward 15 years and he has transformed a vacant drug block in East Baltimore. He opened COR Community Center in the fall to help change the environment kids grow up in. 


"What these kids live through is heartbreaking. But how desensitized they are to their own messed up conditions just makes you like... wow," Bahar said. 


He gives kids food and drinks and offers free boxing and martial arts classes, as well as a strong role model. He estimates over the years, he's helped at least 450 kids.


"I have more kids around here now who are eating a little healthier, drinking more water, doing more push ups, learning more respect for authority through our martial arts training," Bahar said. 


One of the kids he helped has grown up to continue Bahar's work. Eric Williams who opened up the restaurant Nacho Bangers on Monument Street at just 19 years old because he was "angry about being broke." Like Bahar, he chose not to let his past determine his future. 


"I had no father, no mother growing up. I had a rough struggle but I had mentors in my life that gave me the understanding of how to be able to grow," Williams said. 


So he couldn't help but relate to Harris. 


"This is someone who was just like me," Williams said. "I actually hired two kids, 11 and 12 years old, just because of that. To give them an understanding of how to actually work in a work environment instead of being out there and getting in trouble."


This is something Bahar is working on as well. He has secured land on the same block as his center to redevelop into a construction company and training school. 


"So that way, I can have a pipeline for when they are ready to make money, I can hire them with the construction company and keep them engaged because I’m keeping them financially secure," Bahar said. 


He wants to build more centers in other neighborhoods too. His goal is to put himself out of business. 


"I don’t just want to save a kid anymore or work with 10 kids, I want to stop cycle. I want to put my organization out of business. We don’t need mentoring programs anymore." Bahar said. 


He has raised all the money to build his centers on his own, and says if people want to help leaders involved with kids, they can donate money or services. 


"Having businesses who could volunteer accountants, volunteer grant writers, volunteer marketing professions, saying, 'look, we can lend you our expertise'," Bahar said. "We can make a difference. Not in 10 years but actually today. We can save this young guy today. We can provide an alternative to pull this young kid out of the gang today if we had the resources."