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When the One Slain Was a Symbol of Hope

Published in The Baltimore Sun, September 26, 2008

Kenneth N. Harris Sr. could have very easily taken a different path. He could have been like so many other children of 16-year-old single mothers in Baltimore’s forgotten neighborhoods, and taken the route that eschews education and accomplishment for the lure of streets ruled by violence played out amid a cancerous drug epidemic. He could have spurned responsibility, assumed the mantle of a victim of limited opportunities, and fallen in with the crowd that wallows in nihilism.

But he did not. And so he did not allow us the luxury of ignoring his murder, as we do so many other acts of violence that are more commonplace than we wish to acknowledge.

When the victim is someone who rose up from the mean streets of our city to graduate from college and become a city councilman, and then a serious candidate for City Council president, a part of all of us dies with him. Because he was an example – and that example represented hope.

Ken Harris died at the hands of armed robbers while attempting to exercise the simple freedom of being out and about in his hometown. That is an entitlement denied to too many residents trapped by an all-pervasive culture of violence. Crimes in numbers so staggering that we have managed to accept them as the norm, with each reported case regarded not as a human catastrophe but as routine news.

We have accepted a culture in our midst that rejects the fundamental values on which our free society depends: hard work, personal responsibility, respectfulness, honesty, education, morality. They are replaced with the glorification of violence as a substitute for manhood, ignorance as a badge of coolness, and self-indulgent greed as a way of life.

When the members of this culture kill and maim one another, or forever change the life of a bystander in pursuit of their drug wars, we chalk it up as the inevitable byproduct of city life. What we fail to acknowledge is the extent to which we are all diminished by such barbarism.

But we cannot turn a blind eye to yet another death on our streets when the victim is Ken Harris. The story of his life speaks to possibility. It confirms that it is not inevitable that the economically poor be intellectually and spiritually impoverished as well. It dispels the notion that city life means accepting feckless lack of interest in our public schools and open warfare in our streets.

Ken Harris symbolized that part of our city that gives us hope – the part that is filled with exuberance and youth and possibility. The part that revives neighborhoods and spills life and vibrancy into our streets.

And so we hold vigils, and the public debate is filled with diatribes against troubled city youths and their frightening lack of respect for human life, as well as lamentations over how poverty and out-of-wedlock births breed violence.

But if we do not go further, and embrace the critical thinking necessary to change the state of our communities, we risk abandoning hope and succumbing to acceptance of the unacceptable as the norm.

We risk no longer being able to provide the venue in which vibrant and energetic lives can flourish. We risk making it less possible to produce a Ken Harris. And we will find ourselves watching hope slip away.

— Raymond Daniel Burke