Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Dante Barksdale was playing the game in Baltimore—dealing drugs, toting guns, making some money—there was a process to killing people. “You couldn’t shoot someone without asking permission from a certain somebody,” muses the former gangster, on a tour of the abandoned row-houses and broken roads of West Baltimore, the most dangerous streets in America. “It’s become like, “I’m going to kill whoever’s got a fucking problem with it.”
Mr Barksdale, who spent almost a decade in prison for selling drugs, speaks with authority. His uncle, Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, was a big shot in the more hierarchical Baltimore gangland he recalls. Avon Barksdale, a fictional villain in “The Wire”, a TV crime drama set in Baltimore, was partly inspired by him. The younger Mr Barksdale was himself fleetingly portrayed in it. (“‘The Wire’ was a bunch of bullshit,” he sniffs. “I got shot in the fourth episode and I didn’t get paid.”) Now employed by the Baltimore health department, in a team of gangsters-turned-social workers known as Safe Streets, he uses his street smarts to try to pre-empt murders by mediating among the local hoodlums. This also gives him a rare vantage onto the city’s latest upwelling of violence, which is concentrated in poor, overwhelmingly black West Baltimore—and is horrific.
Hours after Mr Barksdale conducted his tour of some of Baltimore’s most troubled streets on June 12th, they witnessed another six murders. That raised the number of killings in the city to 159, the highest recorded so early in the year at least since 1990, even though the city’s population was much bigger then than it is now. If weighted to reflect the fact that the murder rate always climbs in the hot, fractious summer months, this suggests Baltimore may see more than 400 murders this year. That would smash the existing record of 344 killings, which was set in 2015, fuelled by violent rioting over the death in police custody of a drug peddler called Freddie Gray.
This is catastrophic. A 50-minute drive from Washington, DC, black men aged 15 to 29 are as likely to die violently as American soldiers were in Iraq at the height of its Baathist insurgency.