BALTIMORE (AP) — Akai Alston was 13 when he was shot for the first time. It was during a robbery in East Baltimore, in broad daylight.
As he lay in his hospital bed, shaken and frightened, he knew he had a choice to make.
“I put it in my head that I’d rather be a suspect than a victim,” he said.
Ten years later, Alston faced another grim decision. He was dealing crack and hooked on prescription pills. He’d squeezed triggers, and seen friends and family members lose their lives to gunshots. After his last conviction, for accessory to murder, he knew was on the path to die in jail or die in the streets. This time, he rejected both.
Now Alston is a community outreach coordinator for U-TURNS, a project that tries to give Baltimore teenagers and young adults an alternative to the streets. They can find a safe space, food, job training, holistic health practices such as yoga and acupuncture, mental health services and — most important — mentorship.
The initiative’s been in operation less than a year and couldn’t come at a more pressing time. As of Dec. 3, Baltimore has seen 321 homicides this year, surpassing the 2016 total of 318. At least ninety-eight victims were no older than 25. Gun Violence Archive data show that from January 2014 to June 2016, roughly 7.2 teenagers of every 10,000 were shot. The figure, based on an analysis of news articles and police data, is likely an undercount.
This year, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis announced that he’d dedicate additional officers to street patrol. Two years ago, Davis launched a multiagency initiative called the “war room” to try and map the web of relationships among victims and perpetrators.
Still, the violence continues.
Alston and Kelvin Parker, 34, are both former drug dealers — and both victims and perpetrators of gun violence as teens. Now, in the early afternoons, they head to the same West Baltimore street corners where they used to deal. They try to persuade the corner boys to leave their posts. For about three hours daily, they walk through the Gilmor Homes projects and past blocks of vacant rowhouses in Sandtown, the neighborhood where the 2015 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray prompted protests and rioting. They wear black jackets with “Outreach” emblazoned in white on the back.
Building trust in a community where it’s in short supply is one of their main goals.
One 17-year-old who started dealing at 14 comes to U-TURNS almost daily. Dealing was his only option, he said, after losing his mother at…