There is a pastor in Baltimore. His name is Michael Phillips, he is the pastor of Kingdom Life Church, and he often talks about how problems show up in our lives so arrogantly, with so much confidence, as if there is just nothing we can do about them. And the murder rate in Baltimore had been doing that. Year after year, it just kept showing up as this big thing that there was nothing any of us could do anything about.
But the thing about Baltimore is that it has never been the one to just be defeated. So the story about the Baltimore Ceasefire is that Baltimore looked the murder rate in the eye and said, "What you're not going to do is snatch our greatness."
So two years ago, I'm at a 300 Man March meeting. At the time, I was a leader in that movement. And this guy named Ogun—he's like a godfather of hip-hop in Baltimore—he came over to me and he said, "Yo, I have this idea about calling a ceasefire in Baltimore, and I feel like you are somebody I should talk to about that." And I was like, "I'm absolutely somebody you should talk to about that, because that's something we should do." And so we played phone tag and meeting tag, and two years went by and we never really sat down and talked about it.
So now we're in May of 2017. My son Paul, he's 19 years old, he's driving me home from work one day, and he says, "Ma, did you know that the murder rate in Baltimore is higher than it's ever been?" And I said, "What you mean it's higher than it's ever been? How is that possible? Like, I mean, what about people who say they have connections to the streets? Why won't they use those connections and call a cease-fire or something?" And on and on I went from my own feelings of helplessness about what other people weren't doing.
The next morning I woke up and I realized that what I was really angry about wasn't about what other people weren't doing, it was that I had heard this message years ago, and I hadn't moved on it. So it was about what I was supposed to be doing. So I got up and I'm going, "OK, if we could just have three days where everybody in the city was committing, nobody is going to kill anybody, and we're going to celebrate life instead, when can we do that?" So it's May, I look at my calendar, all right, I've got some free time the first weekend in August, we'll do it August 4th through August 6th, right?
So I'm all excited, I start driving to work, and the more I drive, the scareder I get. And so I start going, "Never mind...I won't say this thing out loud. Nobody will ever know I was thinking it if I don't say it." But it wouldn't let me go, because God loves to show up as us, and because I look broken and I'm always called to stand in my wholeness, there was a call on my life to say this thing out loud. And because my city looks broken and is always yearning to show up in its wholeness, there were hearts that morning calling all through my chest that people around this city wanted to do something great together. And people who had already been killed in my city were calling to me up through my gut and my chest, as a knot in my throat, "Yo, E, you cannot just let us be dead in vain when you know how to say this thing out loud."
And I responded to them with my fear. "But somebody might get killed anyway that weekend." And that was the moment where I had to accept that maybe while we're out spreading this message—"Hey, nobody's going to kill anybody. We're going to celebrate life!"—maybe somebody will be plotting to take a life right then and there, but now they would have a rumbling in their spirit. And so I knew it was time for my city to have a collective rumbling in our spirit.
So I got on the phone, got around to Ogun, and I said, "Yo, you said you wanted to do a cease-fire? What is it? I'm ready." So he said, "You know, when I hear about the Israelis and Palestinians at war, I'm like, that's too bad, they should stop that, but when I hear the word 'cease-fire,' that makes me pause and stop and really research what's going on." And he wanted Baltimore to get that same kind of attention from the outside, but introspection from the inside about what was going on with us. And we talked about how it couldn't belong to one person. Not one person or one organization should call a cease-fire. The whole city had to own it and do it together.
So we had our first meeting in May. About 12 or 15 people show up, and this is where it gets named the Baltimore Ceasefire, because you know what that means when you hear the word "cease-fire." Just don't kill nobody. And this is where the Baltimore Peace Challenge was born. Because it's not just about not being violent. It is about being purposefully peaceful. What is going on in your thoughts? What kind of petty things are you not saying out of your mouth? How are you responding in your behaviors to conflict? I grabbed up five people who I trusted, and the six of us became the organizing squad. So let's give them props real quick. On the count of three, I want you to yell "squad." One, two, three: squad!
And it's Shellers's birthday. Happy birthday, Shellers.
And so we put out a press release, and the media told us, this is not really a story yet, we will get with you on August 7th to see how the cease-fire went. So we went, "Oh, word? Oh, all right then." And Baltimore got to work, and not only did people send money to the PayPal account so we could buy flyers and posters, people came and got the flyers and posters and they put them all around the city, and people were having conversations with each other. What kind of resources do you need? What are you going through? What has happened to you? Because we understand the root causes of violence in this country. People who said it wouldn't work still ended their sentence with "but please keep trying. Somebody needs to do something anyway." Teenagers who would tell us about the stuff they were doing in the streets all day asked, "But can I have a poster to put it on my wall at night so I can see it on my way to bed?" Gangsters were calling, saying, "I can tell you where violence is not going to come from, because we're committing to the Peace Challenge." And they kept their word. When people said, "It's not going to work, because somebody's going to kill over West or over East," we said, "That doesn't matter. It's about self-determination, yo. You telling me you can't keep this three- or six-block radius safe?" And they would say, "Don't get it twisted. It's going to stay safe around here." And they kept their promise.
Four songs—and I know it looks like I'm holding up five fingers, but I have four fingers, so this is four for me—four songs got made about the Baltimore Ceasefire, and the one that most exemplifies it, where a bunch of artists came together and made a song, that one is currently nominated for a Grammy out here. Right? And so now what was happening was from the most beautiful corners of crack houses to the grimiest corners of politicians' offices, everybody—was talking about this thing Baltimore was doing together. Right?
And then, the weekend came: events all over the city, people yelling "Happy Ceasefire Day!" Over 200 people got their records expunged and got jobs, and people went into drug recovery programs because of what was happening in our city that weekend. People were going, "But the air feels different in Baltimore. Nobody's mother got that phone call last night. I didn't hear any gunshots." And on Saturday, Trey went to go get a job and was excited about it. At 24 hours of no killing, we were singing Kendrick Lamar. "We gon' be alright. We gon' be alright." And then at 4:59 on Saturday, we get a message that somebody was killed. We didn't know his name, but it turned out to be Trey. So we rushed over to Sargeant Street, and we held hands in a circle and we looked at the pavement, and we said, "This is sacred ground because we make it so, because everywhere in our city where people lose their lives to violence needs to be sacred ground." And it wasn't just about upholding Trey and his transition and sending love to his family. It was about us pausing to really think about what must it feel like 20 minutes after you kill somebody? Can't we pour love into that? Because until we do, we will not heal this epidemic.
Later on in the day, we get another call. Dante is murdered. So by the end of this day, we were shook. In real life, we were shook, because we had opened up our hearts together and changed the atmosphere of this city, and now our hearts were broken together. And we had to be honest about the fact that last weekend, when we lost six people to violence, it didn't feel the way it felt this weekend when we lost these two, because now we were paying attention. Now we were all hoping together that nobody got killed. And so we had to make a vow with ourselves not to be numb anymore when we lose people in our city. These two lives were going to remind us to vibrate higher and to move forward.
So as we move forward into Baltimore Ceasefire 365, because there's work that needs to be done all year, and there's another cease-fire happening next weekend, November 3rd through 5th. Mark your calendar.
Right? And we expect the same thing. It was news media from all around the world, Australia and Norway and China. Everybody wanted to come get this work from Baltimore, and y'all could come get it. Right?
So as we push forward, we don't need to keep asking now "What can we do?" We have seen the power of collective consciousness. Y'all were the ones who misunderstood Baltimore. Y'all thought Baltimore was just "The Wire." When we lost Freddie Gray, y'all saw the Baltimore uprising, and people around this world mischaracterized it and misunderstood it. What you failed to realize is Baltimore is the power to rise up, and that is what we continue to do.
And so as we move forward, we see you, America, with your systems of violent oppression trying to beat us into the ground, and still, we rise. We rise and stand with cities all over this country just like us who are handed, through no fault of their own, criminal conditions in which to live, and then they get labeled savages for how they live. We stand with them. We remind them we are an example of what you can do when you say, "No, I don't have to accept these conditions that you are trying to hand me. I get to decide what the greatest vision of myself looks like."
And so the next time you are faced with a dilemma, with a problem, you can say, "Let me be like Baltimore, let me look it in the face, let me tell it." But what you're not going to do is snatch my greatness. Please believe it.