BALTIMORE – 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 3.
"The only way I knew that I could be somebody or have money in my pockets or accomplish anything was by turning over to the drug life," he said.
At 15, he was stabbed in the stomach. When he recovered, he decided he needed a change.
Now he's in therapy and helps care for children at Kids Safe Zone, an afterschool center that houses U-TURNS.
"I've learned that not everything revolves around violence, that not everything revolves around you," he said.
Alston and Parker, he said, are "my role models. They've been through what I've been through."
Parker grew up in Sandtown with his grandmother and a dozen others in a two-bedroom apartment. At 7, a gun was pulled on him for the first time, and he saw two men beat another unconscious with a 2-by-4. With his father in jail and mother too busy to raise him, Parker looked up to an older cousin, a notorious dealer.
"Guns on the table, guns in the cabinet, guns in the bathroom — that was my normal," he said. "Coming up in a place where no one else values life, where no one else really cares, it's hard not to become what you're around."
By 12, he'd started selling drugs. The lifestyle had a price — jail time.
"I didn't see a whole year on the street until I was 21," he said.
Alston also grew up fast. Born in 1991, at the height of the crack epidemic, his mother was addicted, leaving him and his sister to fend for themselves.
"I didn't have little army men," he said. "I had colored vials."
Alston said he spent most of his childhood bouncing from one house to another. Although he didn't start selling drugs until after he was shot, he admired neighborhood dealers for their clothes and cars, and ability to provide.
Alston fired his first gun at 14, in retaliation for a punch in the jaw so forceful it made his ear ring.
Parker had never fired a gun before he was struck. After he was shot, he knew he'd have to.
"Retaliation was a must," he said. "It made me feel like a man, or what I thought a man was."
Parker said he didn't realize until he started training as an outreach worker how much of what he endured as a child influenced him. He only recently came to understand trauma, he said, and is working to move past his own.
In group therapy sessions, Alston and Parker use an approach to processing trauma that focuses on safety, emotions, loss and the future. One afternoon, they gathered a half-dozen teens, all boys but one, and screened a "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" clip in which Will Smith's character discusses growing up without a father. Alston and Parker asked the teens to share an experience; almost all said they came from broken homes, with drugs and violence commonplace.
At another session, Alston led a discussion with a dozen teens about fear and danger, and explained how trauma can manifest in the body and mind.
Keeshanna Mobley, 17, bounced her baby nephew on her knee. She'd been coming to U-TURNS for a few months, since an arrest for fighting. She's on probation, and feels safer now that she spends time at the center instead of the streets, she said.
"There was a lot of stuff I was getting into before this, trouble, getting locked up, getting myself into the wrong situation at the wrong time," she said. "Since I joined U-TURNS, it's been a lot less, because I'm here."
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