BALTIMORE (AP) — In an alley where a teenager became one of Baltimore's latest bodies to fall, Erricka Bridgeford whispered prayers and directed smoke from burning sage in a gathering intended to transform spots where people are slain into a kind of sacred ground.
The spiritually minded activist began to cry, letting her tears fall on asphalt where the 17-year-old boy she didn't know was fatally shot the night before. She called out "You matter! You matter!" in a raw voice that came from somewhere deep inside her 5-foot-2 (155-centimeter) frame.
Over the past year, the African-American woman from West Baltimore has become the city's clearest voice calling for people to lay down their weapons. A professional conflict mediator, she's the main organizer behind "Baltimore Ceasefire," a citizen-led effort to reverse one of the worst homicide rates in the United States.
"You can get really overwhelmed by the numbers. But if this city is going to heal, we'll all have to do our best to start being better people from the inside," said Bridgeford, 45, the public face behind the movement launched this past summer with the motto "Nobody kill anybody."
Held in August, the first cease-fire weekend was marked by peaceful marches, cookouts, community events, and pledges by gang members to refrain from violence. The event, advertised on social media and with posters in shop and home windows, attracted international attention — and was lauded even though it ended with two homicides that led cynics to belittle the effort. A second event was held last month.
Bridgeford hasn't stopped there. Plans call for cease-fire weekends to be held four times a year, and she also leads near-nightly gatherings in the hope of transforming homicide sites into places alive with meaning. But she's hardly naive. Bridgeford knows firsthand how ingrained violence is in the city: Her brother, a stepson, and three cousins have all died in shootings. When she was just 12, she saw a neighbor die from a gunshot.
Baltimore is not alone in its suffering; violent crime is up in a number of cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland. What some researchers say sets Baltimore apart is a violent-crime rate that has returned to the high levels not seen since the early 1990s, when U.S. cities grappled with a nationwide crack cocaine epidemic.
In fact, with 2017 not quite over, Baltimore has already set a city record for killings per capita, with roughly 56 slayings per 100,000 people. The highest overall annual total was 353 slayings, or 49 homicides per 100,000 people, in 1993, when Baltimore was home to more than 700,000 residents. The city is currently home to 615,000.
"Many cities experienced an increase in violence in 2015 and 2016, but very few have gone all the way back to where they were 25 years ago," said Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, who described Baltimore as an "anomaly" in the national crime landscape.
Baltimore has seen 343 homicides so far this year, only one less than 2015's 344 killings. The number was 318 in 2016.
While deadly violence has plagued swaths of the mid-Atlantic city for decades, Baltimore has been in the throes of a crime surge since 2015, when the homicide rate spiked after the city's worst rioting in decades and the arrest of officers involved in a police-custody death. The city also is hobbled by the opioid crisis, with 694 overdose deaths in 2016.
Bridgeford's anti-violence efforts haven't been able to stop the deaths, per se, but they have made residents think about their city's slayings as something more than grim statistics.
One of the major aims of her quest is to humanize the victims, most of whom are young black men from neighborhoods awash in drugs and marked by crumbling housing, a scarcity of decent opportunities, and deep inequality.
Lisa Miller, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied anti-crime politics for more than 20 years, said the work of black community organizers like Bridgeford has too often gone unnoticed.
She said a flawed narrative that black citizens aren't doing anything to reduce violence can feed into a persistent view of too many white Americans that the conditions of generational poverty in which many African-Americans live is entirely within their control.
"This racist narrative remains alive and well, unfortunately. It defies empirical reality in every sense and is not hard to debunk, which tells you something about its durability," Miller said.
New research suggests grassroots organizers like Bridgeford have a real impact on lowering crime rates. In late October, Sharkey published research in the American Sociological Association journal that suggests grassroots groups may become increasingly central to efforts to control violence within communities vulnerable to crime spikes.
A sometimes bubbly presence with an infectious laugh, Bridgeford is an inspiring figure to many. That includes Baltimore's mayor, Catherine Pugh, who describes her as an "incredibly energetic, incredibly focused" woman who is able to attract people to anti-violence causes.
Recently named "Marylander of the Year" by The Baltimore Sun, Bridgeford says she hopes all residents will take ownership of the city's violent crime problem. Her work ties in with one of her social media slogans: "Don't be numb."
"I want the cease-fire to become an institution in Baltimore until everyone is truly paying attention to the waste of human life," she said. "We can't continue like this."