“Let me start this with the fact that I was a baby having a baby,” Walker Gladden III says to me as we sit in the sun-drenched, sparsely decorated old townhouse that he helped convert into the Rose Street Community Center.
Walker was only 16 when his first child Walker IV was born. The elder Walker was born and raised in The Murphy House Projects in Baltimore. His parents loved him, he knew that, but they didn’t always have the resources or the tools to guide him. Walker’s father spent most of his adult life in prison and his mother, essentially a single mother, struggled to pay bills, put food on the table, and provide for her children. No one was there to offer support to Walker’s mother and her children. Each day was a struggle.
The birth of his first child forced Walker into the position of providing for someone else. Needing help, he turned to the only people in his community he felt could help… drug dealers. They had the answer to the daily question of how he would feed his family, diaper his infant, and put food on the table. Like his parents, Walker loved his child and wanted the best for him. Like his parents, he had no idea how to provide his child with the life he envisioned for him.
Walker entered the juvenile justice system as a result of his criminal activity, which he was part of out of necessity. The cycle spiraled downwards from there. “In my heart, I wanted to do something different. I wanted a way out,” Walker says, shaking his head. “But there was no path.”
When he left juvenile detention, he tried to enroll in job programs but officials required a birth certificate that his mother could not find and that he didn’t know how to obtain. He became increasingly more frustrated as more authority figures told him his history of substance abuse or his criminal past disqualified him from a variety of programs promising help and hope. So he returned to the only people willing to offer him assistance. “I hustled. It was the only thing I knew to do,” Walker says. Less than a year after his son’s birth, Walker was charged as an adult with assault and armed robbery.
At just 17, Walker was thrown into prison with men who had spent decades behind bars. “I was among wolves. I had to protect myself so I wouldn’t be eaten alive,” he recalls. Among the wolves were also some inmates who took Walker aside and tried to instill in him some of the life lessons they learned too late. One older man gently chided him, “If you keep living your life like this, you are going to be living with me for the rest of your life. Neither one of us wants that.”
While there were individuals in the prison who provided support, the bureaucracy that promised rehabilitation had failed him. “I didn’t expect to live past the age of 18.” Walker welcomed death. Death would provide eternal life and an end to the constant suffering in his daily existence. Death was his only hope.
Walker continued to bounce between the streets and prison, scraping together an existence for his children and waiting for the day someone would kill or arrest him. Then he met Mr. Clayton.
Clayton Guyton has a deep, gravelly voice. It is as soothing and commanding as he is wiry and strong. His greying hair highlights his piercing light green eyes. Mr. Clayton listens more than he speaks, sitting back and observing Walker and me talk for the better part of half an hour before he enters the conversation.
Like Walker, Mr. Clayton was born in Baltimore. Like Walker, Mr. Clayton’s childhood was far from ideal. “My story ain’t pretty, but it prepared me. He…,” Mr. Clayton lifts his gaze upwards, “prepares us according to his will. I had an early father. My dad did the best he could. God put other men in my life. Those other men taught me. They taught me about love, care, and concern. Internalize those three concepts and you have all you need in life.”
Walker credits Mr. Clayton with saving his life. Mr. Clayton walked up to Walker on the streets and said, “Look, young man, I’ll help you. If you want to go to school, I’ll pay for it. If you want to go to work, I’ll get you a job.” Walker didn’t believe Mr. Clayton. “I thought he was bluffing,” Walker laughs. “I was still afraid of the unknown. I was just learning to practice to walk on life’s side.” Mr. Clayton didn’t give up. He continued to approach Walker on the street and offer him a different path.
What did Mr. Clayton see in Walker? Mr. Clayton knew Walker was a good candidate for mentorship because he watched the way that Walker loved and tried his best to care for his children. “Once you find what a person loves, you put down the breadcrumbs,” Mr. Clayton said. The breadcrumbs – his love for his family – led Walker to Mr. Clayton and the Rose Street Community Center.
Initially, Walker was suspicious. Why would anyone want to help him and want nothing in return? Mr. Clayton didn’t ask for a birth certificate, demand Walker sell drugs, or hold Walker’s criminal past against him. Mr. Clayton simply offered hope, resources and an opportunity for real change in Walker’s life.Walker continued to bounce between the streets and prison, scraping together an existence for his children and waiting for the day someone would kill or arrest him. Go #BehindtheStatistics with WalterClick To Tweet
Mr. Clayton approached Walker a number of times before he agreed to meet with him. “It didn’t take me long to learn that Mr. C was genuine. God used Mr. C as a vehicle.” Walker entered school, found employment, and no longer considered death his best option. Before long, Walker was deeply entrenched in the Center and worked to claim the life he always envisioned for his children.
Walker estimates that 90 percent of his childhood friends are either dead, gravely injured from a bullet, or in jail. He counts them off on his hand: dead, jail, dead, dead, jail, paralyzed. He firmly believes that the only thing standing between him and the fate of most of his peers is Rose Street Community Center and Mr. Clayton.
“So many people are afraid of the young generation. People were afraid of me, but Mr. Clayton saw me for who I was,” Walker remembers.
I ask the men if they believe, as do so many academics, that the destruction of the nuclear family plays a large role in the problems their community faces. Mr. Clayton responds with a succinct “No.” There is a pause as he stares intensely at me.
“Not at all?” I ask.
“It’s a lie. A boldfaced lie. We know how to extend and create our family structures.” Mr. Clayton explains it isn’t the nuclear family or the lack thereof that keeps people of color in Baltimore City from succeeding. The power system is the key factor in people’s inability to succeed. “What we need isn’t a nuclear family. What we need are lead-free homes and good education and real rehabilitation. What we need is a JV system that doesn’t graduate kids to prison. What we need are police that respect the community.”
Walker jumps in and talks about how long it took him to learn to trust the police. As a young man, Walker was beaten by the police on multiple occasions. He will readily admit he deserved to be arrested for some of his actions, but no one deserves to be dragged into a deserted alley and beaten. “The police need to be educated,” Mr. Clayton states. “They need to understand that they aren’t being paid just to keep the Inner Harbor Safe and our communities in check.”
“So much of this can be traced to the concept of zero tolerance. A kid spits and an officer arrests him. A kid talks back to an officer and he beats him. The kids learn and internalize this concept of zero tolerance. Someone looks at him the wrong way and what does he do? He shoots you. Zero Tolerance. The concept of zero tolerance transferred from the power system to the street.”
The attention turns back to Walker. I ask him about the dog tags hanging from his neck. One has a picture of his son, Walker IV. The other has a photo of all three of his children. When I ask him how old his children are, he still talks about Walker IV in the present tense. “He’s 26.” Even though his child died more than two years ago and would have turned 29 this December.
“We are all gifts to one another and we have to remember that gifts are not permanent,” he says. It is clear that Walker IV is still very much alive in his father. Walker beams with pride as he talks about his son’s sense of humor. “He was a natural born comedian.”
Walker III and Walker IV shared a love of music and wrote songs together. The elder pulls out three sheets of aging loose-leaf paper with “Walk with Me!” written at the top of the page. It is a poem he wrote for his son. “I use this song as a healing mechanism. It is dearly important to me”, he tells me. One line reads, “My son, he got shot. I was trying to save. The only thing I hear from the streets is he got sprayed.” The police have never found the person who killed Walker IV. “When it comes to homicide in the black community, there are so many cold cases,” Walker shakes his head in exasperation. “My community isn’t a priority. It says a lot about unsolved cases that so many of them are young black men.”
Walker IV was shot and killed on Rose Street, the same street the Rose Street Community Center is located. He had called and told his father he needed to get to the hospital, but it was too late. The physicians told Walker his son would have survived had he not been a diabetic, had the bullet not pierced his pancreas, or had he not lost so much blood.
Walker IV left a son Walker V who was only four years old at the time. Walker is determined that the cycle of pain and loss will end with Walker V. The fact Walker IV died in the shadow of the institution his father, Mr. Clayton, and many others lovingly built over the years has not deterred Walker from his determination to save his community.
Rose Street Community Center partners with Baltimore City Health Department on a Program to reduce juvenile incarceration. The program is called “Walk with Me!” as a tribute to Walker IV.
The elder Walker talks openly about his anger after the death of his oldest child and the fact that he considered retaliation, but Walker wanted to invest in something substantive and life-changing. Instead of turning his anger into violence, he took his passion and further invested it into bettering his community.
The Rose Street Community Center is modest, but you feel the love the moment you enter. There is only one piece of art on the walls… a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. A little girl danced around the office as her mother helped a young man who lost his identification card. Community members brought in trays of food to share with men and women who needed a warm meal. Young people come here for the unconditional support that they so often lack in the community. And at the center of this life-giving institution are two men who once doubted that they would ever escape their teenage years… alive.
Walker Gladden IV: Dec 14, 1989 – October 4, 2016
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence
Photo by Jen Pauliukonis, President, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence