Walking around Baltimore with Erricka Bridgeford is analogous to walking the streets with a celebrity. People stare at her from afar and snap pictures of her. Some of the braver admirers approach her to thank her for her leadership and tireless work to make Baltimore a safer city. Erricka leads Baltimore’s Ceasefire.
The goal of Ceasefire Baltimore is simple, but novel: 72 hours without a homicide in Baltimore City. The work for Erricka and her “squad,” as she refers to the men and woman who toil alongside her to bring peace to the streets of Baltimore, extends far beyond the scope of a long weekend. They are in the streets everyday spreading the message of peace and conflict resolution in communities with some of the highest homicide rates in the country. Every three months, Ceasefire Baltimore calls upon the city to embrace 72 hours of peace. The first weekend this November will mark the second Baltimore Ceasefire.
Erricka is no stranger to violence. This photo is taken at the location where her brother David Thomas was shot and killed. David was known as Corny. When he was born he “looked like a little fat country boy,” Erricka laughs. Their parents nicknamed him Cornbread. Erricka, just a toddler at the time, started calling her beloved baby brother Corny.
Erricka had not returned to the location of her brother’s death in almost a decade. Her mother has never been able to walk on the ground where her son was shot down in broad daylight. Since the August Ceasefire, family members have asked Erricka to honor the locations where their loved ones died and Erricka felt it was past time to make her brother’s location “sacred.” Erricka pulls out a sage smudge stick. She explains how the ritual began.
Forty hours into the Ceasefire, Lamontrey Tynes was shot and killed. “When Trey died, the media was just waiting. They were all there, surrounding the place where he was shot, waiting for me to come.” She pauses for a moment. The emotion from that moment still radiates from her. “I was walking in front of my mother, but I could feel her waver. I turned to see her knees buckling and there was this moment of uncertainty: Do I go to my mom or to the people who have been waiting for me?” Erricka’s mother mouthed for her daughter to continue on and address the media. “When I reached the spot, you could feel the energy of the murder.”
She smiles momentarily and says, “Now, you have to understand I’m no nature girl. I’m the last one to take my shoes off and run through the grass to be ‘one with the earth,’” she says, rolling her eyes and using finger quotations. “I hate dirt. But I was compelled in that moment to sit on the spot where Trey was shot. I put my hand to the earth and sent love. Trey was transitioning to another realm and I wanted to ease that transition.” Since that first time, Erricka has sat on many dirty, often bloodstained, streets.
Erricka returned to the image of her mother staggering. While Mrs. Thomas never visited the location of her son’s murder, she was well aware of its condition in the days after his death. Unlike Lamontrey, there was no media waiting to report David’s death. There was no need for the Baltimore City Sanitation Department to quickly erase the evidence of yet another grisly death. David’s blood soaked the sidewalk for days. The residents called and complained, but Baltimore City officials did nothing. “My brother’s blood was there until nature washed it away. That’s why my mother struggled as we walked. She said to me, ‘They didn’t wash the blood for my son, but they washed it for my daughter. They washed it because my daughter is making sure no murder in Baltimore goes unnoticed.’”
There were no national news cameras to capture David’s blood for the world to see, but Erricka was determined that the country would not remain uninformed about the daily carnage in Baltimore.
Erricka lights the smudge stick and walks the route that she imagines her brother ran that day. She sits in front of the house where David was shot, closes her eyes, places her palm on the ground and breathes deeply.
A man, quietly and respectfully, slips by her, opens the gate to the house and walks inside. After about 15 minutes, Erricka opens her eyes, tear stained and swollen and says, “Ok, I’m ready.” She stands as the man emerges. We exchange pleasantries with the stranger and Jen begins to introduce Erricka. The man stops her, “Oh, I know who this is. This is Erricka Bridgeford.” Erricka smiles and asks his name. “Kenny,” he says.When her brother wasn’t using, he was helping other people get clean. Go #BehindTheStatistics w/ ErrickaClick To Tweet
She tries to extinguish the smudge stick as Kenny begins to speak. “Your presence here is confirmation for me,” he says, then pauses. “I bought this house and I am converting it into a halfway house for men in recovery.” Erricka turns her attention away from the smudge stick to Kenny. “I’m 25 years in recovery and I’ve bought homes to rent before, but I knew I needed to give back,” he says. Erricka is overwhelmed, “This?” She’s unable to continue for a moment. We all wait for her. “Corny was an addict,” she says. She shakes her head, smiles and turns to the house. “No wonder this smudge stick wouldn’t go out.” She asks Kenny if she may walk up on the stoop and smudge the door. He tells her the place is hers.
David was many things: a star football player, a great friend, a loving brother. He also struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine. Erricka remembered, “What’s crazy about him to me is that when he wasn’t using, he was helping other people get clean. He was an angel, a teddy bear.” David’s gentle spirit would quickly change once he started using drugs. It was a pattern the family was accustomed to confronting. David was terrified of his addiction. “It was like the monster under his bed,” Erricka remembers.
He wanted so badly to stop and yet he couldn’t. There were so many times that she and her parents combed the streets of Baltimore looking for David when he would go missing. They would go to street corners, crack houses, and drug dealers asking if anyone had seen him. Erricka’s mother would always warn her, “If you see him, be prepared for him to run.” David was ashamed that his sister and parents risked their safety for his wellbeing and embarrassed that he wasn’t able to overcome his addiction.
One day, Erricka did see him from afar. She knew he saw her and that he was on the verge of running. She called to him softly, “Baby, come here. Come on just let me talk to you. Mommy and Daddy are looking for you.” David didn’t run but he told his sister that he was beyond their help. “No, baby, you aren’t beyond anyone’s help. Remember when I was in the hospital?”
Several years earlier, Erricka had attempted suicide and was hospitalized. She laughed as she remembered David coming into the hospital room and saying, “You look so good. Everyone should have a breakdown.” David was one of the few people close to her who had the ability to reach out to Erricka during that crisis in her life and wasn’t afraid to “meet me where I was,” she recalls. She reminded David of that moment when he was on the street and told him that their father had a bed arranged for him in the hospital. He told her that he needed a few hours to get some things together and that he would return to meet her. She was skeptical that he would return and told him, “David, I am going to be on that corner at 3 pm and if you don’t come, I’ll be on that corner all night alone.” Erricka returned to the corner at 3 pm. No David. Fifteen minutes passed and still no David. All the men who hung out on the corner teased her for waiting for her brother. Shortly before 4 pm, Erricka saw him. “Until this day it was the best sight of my life. I saw this little skeleton of my brother walking up the hill to me.”
At the time of his death, David had just relapsed. “He still looked good. He was big and strong. He’d not been using long enough for it to turn him into the skeleton we’d seen before.” The morning of David’s death, he put on his finest clothes and a pair of Nike Air Force 1 sneakers. He looked good. He left the house and entered the cold without a coat. He knew he wasn’t welcomed in the neighborhood where he was shot. Multiple friends told Erricka and her family the same account, “He came to their homes to say hello, check in on them, but refused to let them follow him.” Erricka is certain that David was determined to die that day.
Erricka finished smudging the front stoop and walks down to Kenny, Jen and me. “This is going to bless my mother’s life,” she says. This November, for the second Baltimore Ceasefire, Erricka plans on bringing her mother to this place where her brother died. There will be no blood on the streets. There will be a home of hope.
David Thomas: May 26, 1975 – January 22, 2007
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence