Article by Barry Michael Cooper, Photography by Robin Graubard
(Spin Magazine, May 1986)
God Almighty, you can get killed in Baltimore—for no reason at all. Say that to yourself a few times. Gargle it, and choke on the terror. If you look at a kid too long, or the wrong way, you could get killed. For no reason at all. If you bump into a kid on the street, even if you only lightly brush up against him, and even if you apologize, it could be the last thing you ever do.
In Baltimore, 14- and 15-year-old boys are killing each other on rundown basketball courts, in high school gyms, in poolrooms, on row-house porches, in garbage-strewn back alleys. In the last 14 months there have been almost 20 murders of young kids by other kids.
Baltimore is known in the tourist trade as Charm City. But do not come down here looking for charm right now, and whatever you do, don't disrespect the killer children on the corners.
The media in Baltimore have hardly covered this story. True, the TV news reports the murders, but it does so statistically, dispassionately, on its way to the weather; the newscasters appear numbed by it all. Black congressional leaders, pastors, and concerned citizens address the problem by generalizing it and in a sense dismissing it as a black-on-black crime situation, by making defensive comparisons to other cities crime rates, by covering up, and sometimes by lying.
…Here, in Baltimore, the killing never ends. It goes on, a reign of terror. Over the past few months, much of my time has been spent watching these kids. Moving from club to club, hanging out on street corners, I've met the killers, and sadly, I think I've also met kids who will most likely be victims. Now do I describe for you the real terror, the real horror of all this? Is it by reams of graphic police reports? Do you need to see block upon block of bloodstained sidewalks, curbs, and stoops? Should I tell you about the mothers who wake up in the middle of the night, hearing what they imagine are the screams of their children being shot down in the street? Or on a playground?
…On a Saturday afternoon there are 10 of them on the northeastern corner of Pulaski and North. Their walk is a cross between a hard looping bop and a crippled pigeon's wobble. When they stand still, they hunch their shoulders and karate-chop the ice-cold air with dramatic gestures that underline the fearlessness they want to portray. They're dressed in low-cut black Fila sneakers with two white-red lines around the sole, sweat suits in black, white, red, green—hard, sharp tones that complement the night, that flash warning signals—and oversized coats and hunting parkas with big pockets on the chest and at the waist that hold bullets, when necessary. On the insides are even larger pockets—”gun pockets”— that can hold several handguns at once, even an Uzi.
They move like vultures on the corner, in a circular death pattern, waiting for something to happen.The thick gold chains around their necks signal success, but at the same time weigh them down. They're the dogs of war. Sitting through a Saturday-night movie marathon, they want to live twisted interpretations of Al Pacino's Scarface and Schwarzenegger's Terminator. In the balcony of the dilapidated Hippodrome Theater, absorbed in the moving shadows on the screen, sniffing $20 caps of “cane” (cocaine) to bring the images to life, their visions are of blood lust—$5 boys looking for million-dollar manhood in the barrel of a gun. Their dreams are to have it all, like Scarface Montana—”The world and everything in it,” yaw—even if it means going down, kicking it live, in a barrage of gunfire. These are the Yo boys.
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