Gunplay is all I know

As as young black male in America, I'd rather be caught with a gun than without one

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 13, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

 A photo of the author.  (Heezy Bear)
A photo of the author. (Heezy Bear)

The other night I got one of those 3 a.m. phone calls I hate. My homie Tip was on the other end like, “Wake the fuck up! Yo you ain’t gonna believe this shit!”

“Who got hit now?” I headed to the fridge, in search of a little wine or vodka or something to numb the blow I knew was coming. I know how this works.

“Free, yo! They killed Free!”

“Free! Free?”

I was just with Free the other week. We leaned on the fence at Bocek Park, watching wiry teens battle it out in a game of 50 on the court, laughing at how our hoop dreams faded.

“What happened, yo?” I replied, pouring the last of the Svedka into my cup.

Tip said some kids were arguing, one slid off, came back and sprayed the whole corner. When everyone came out of hiding, Free was lying on the ground face-first in a pool of blood with a big hole in his head. The argument had nothing to do with him; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I chugged my drink. It wasn’t enough to give me a buzz and definitely not enough to cover the hole that Free’s death had left.

* * *

Death hurts. East Baltimore guys like us hide behind our male bravado and pretend to be desensitized by murder, but it’s not really true. The thought of Free being gone left a pain in my chest that spread as I moved from room to room. Three gulps into another bottle of Svedka, and I still felt the same.

Free wasn’t supposed to be murdered. He was a 40-something-year-old dude who worked for the city. Free had two daughters he loved dearly. He wasn’t a gangsta, just a regular guy who loved ladies, and greasy chicken cheese steaks with extra provolone from Mama Mia’s. I don’t even remember Free breaking the law.

He was that older dude who hung around my friends and me when we sold smack on Durham Street back in the day. He’d crack jokes with us, and hit on every woman who walked by, like, “No disrespect but you lookin’ good today, Boo Boo!”

And now he’s gone.

A day or so after his death, I went and chilled on the same steps where he was hit. The blood had dried, and people had left teddy bears. Balloons that read I LOVE YOU and RIP FREE were taped to a street lamp. Slumped faces decorated the murder scene with red cups and lit Newports. Some T-shirts with Free’s face began to pop up. Every conversation on the corner that day began with “Remember when Free …”

* * *

A few weeks ago I had photo shoot with the Baltimore Sun. A local reporter named Julie Scharper was doing a story on my journey from reckless delinquent to published writer. I decided to take the photo for the article in front of Bocek Park, not too far from where Free was murdered.

The camera guy drove by slowly and squinted as I waved, giving him the signal that I was the guy waiting for him. He paralleled his Hybrid, exited and dragged his equipment my way.

“My apologies, sir. Who are you again and why am I taking your picture for the Sun?”

I told him about my rough upbringing and the events that led up to me leaving a life of crime. His eyes welled but didn’t spill. He was proud, and said stories like mine gave him hope.

Some days before my shoot, he had to document a candlelight vigil for a 14-year-old kid named Najee Thomas, who took a shot in the head in the Cherry Hill area of South Baltimore. While there he saw a small boy ask his mom, “Why did they kill Najee? He was a good guy!” His mom nodded and said, “That’s just how it is.”

The Sun cameraman looked me in the eyes. “Does it really have to be like that?” he asked.

I couldn’t answer his question. I never consider myself to be a shooter, but gunplay is all I know.

* * *

At 11, my cousin Don Don was murdered over a girl named Tracy he didn’t really date. It was a Sunday, and we had all been watching “Martin” before spilling onto the corner and imitating Otis, Sheneneh and the rest of the characters from the show. Tracy’s insanely jealous ex and an accomplice rained on our joy with blue flames. We scattered like roaches under a flicked light. When the smoke cleared, a teenage girl was hit in the back and Don Don was left staring lifeless beyond the clouds. His eyes were hollow, his shirt drenched with blood, which eventually smeared on us as we formed a preteen circle around his body, begging him to wake up. Cops pulled us away as ambulance workers covered him with a white sheet, his neon Nikes poked out.

Don Don wasn’t the first or the last. When I was 14, I wrote a 20-page paper for my history class titled “My Baltimore: The 15 times I Was Almost Murdered.” The paper gave a detailed account of the murders I saw and the shots I ducked. My history teacher Mr. Brown said, “I never thought I could give an A to a paper with so many grammatical errors, but the eastside is real!”

That same year my friends and I attended lusty preteen house parties every week. Baltimore club music ripped out of blown speakers while we grinded up against the prettiest-roundest-fastest-girls from our neighborhood. New sneakers got stepped on all night, but we didn’t care. We just wanted to be noticed by the girls we dreamed about all day. But egos led to more than one party being shot up. A group of dudes who called themselves “The Regulators” were the first to pop pistols at our house party followed by weekly shootouts between multiple crews. We didn’t stop going. We brought our guns out, too.

Pistols became part of our uniforms. We toted them religiously to our basketball games, to the shopping mall and everywhere else we went.

* * *

It’s easier to get a gun than a job in east Baltimore. I went to Fat Hands and Naked’s crib with $300 and came out with a two-toned .45 that had a cracked safety. For a few more $100’s I could got a Glock, or a dirty Desert Eagle.

And dudes with $1000’s to blow could cop vest, 50 shot Macs with cooling kits, HK’s or AR 15’s -- I didn’t need all of that, my four-fifth held me down through the bulk of my high school years. I aimed it at my own intense eyes in the mirror and imagined pulling the trigger as a hero or protector.

Oversize clothes helped me conceal as I trudged through three of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city to get to my school. I almost missed prom because I misplaced my gun and wasn’t going without a strap. My friend and our dates were outside yelling, slamming the horn, like, “Hurry the fuck up! That picture line gonna be long as shit!”

They forgave me when I explained what happened. Imagine slow dancing with your high school crush, while trying not to drop your pistolgat, hammer, ratchet, son, tool, torch, banger, flamer, iron, steel, biscuit, Roscoe, heat, burner or whatever we called it at the time.

I thank God I never had to use it. We weren’t killers and didn’t even think about dealing at the time. We were just scared kids who didn’t want to lie dead in the streets like our brothers, fathers, friends and the rest of the black dudes who get murdered all over the country.

* * *

African-American males are being hunted from multiple directions. We kill each other; we are killed by sociopaths like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn and then the cops.

Officer Friendly was the only hero cop I ever met. He spoke at my school back when I was 7. He’d come through with a big grin, give a speech about saying no to drugs and even shared his doughnuts and juice afterward. He made being a cop seem honorable, like a job based on helping people. A guy you could call or lean on for anything at any time.

Within a few years, Officer Friendly turned into Officer Asshole and multiplied by thousands. He never came back to our schools. He and his gang of blue uniformed dickheads would invade our neighborhood kicking in doors, robbing drug dealers, clotheslining us off our dirt bikes, cursing out church grandmas, not sharing their doughnuts, spitting at our food and cracking the shit out of anyone who disagreed, leaving me to believe that cops hated me, even when I was an innocent kid. I know cops hated me when I was a notorious dope dealer and now they hate me as a law-abiding, taxpaying citizen who pulls kids off the corner. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t being harassed or profiled.

Last fall, I was walking around the neighborhood with Nathan Corbett, an actor who played Donut in HBO’s “The Wire.” He was walking a scooter down my alley. A city truck burst into the opposite side, almost knocking us over. The driver glanced at us, saw we were OK, and kept moving. Nate continued walking as I waved my middle finger toward their rearview. Seconds later, we hit my garage, and I began to slide my key into the lock.


I dropped my keys as Nate yelled, “What the fuck!” Two white cops with beet-red skin aimed pistols at us.

“Why are you breaking into that house? Where is your ID?” said the shorter, redder one.

Nate told the cops his dad was a cop and they yelled for IDs again. I told them I owned the house and they inched forward, index fingers massaging their triggers. My neighbors watched without saying a word, which was just as disturbing to me as these officers.

“He’s a fucking actor, and I’m a teacher. Go chase real crooks and leave us the fuck alone!” I yell. I dropped my wallet on the ground and kicked it toward him. He looked at my Hopkins student ID and said, “Oh Hopkins, must be nice,” while giving his partner that “they check out” nod.

The taller cop tucked his gun as he said, “Stay out of trouble!” They left my ID on the ground, and didn’t apologize.

And this type of shit happens every day, especially in Baltimore. Bullets have no name, professions are irrelevant, age doesn’t matter and anyone can be shot. One false move and any one of these officers could’ve decorated my garage door with my and Nate’s blood.

* * *

Murder culture seems to be as permanent in African-American culture as hip-hop, cookouts and the black church. I see young Chicago rappers like Rondo Numba Nine, L’A Capone (who died last year) and Chief Keef waving pistols on most of their rap videos and then see more established acts like Beyoncé and Jay-Z doing the same to promote their tour. And then I see murder on the news, normally before walking out of my front door and seeing the same. Real or fake, everybody is slanging pistols -- and being a young black makes owning one mandatory.

I’m not a gangster and could not care less about weapon shows or trips to a shooting range, but I have two guns. I don’t want them, but I need them to protect my family. I need them for the multiple Second Amendment abusers who foolishly think pulling a trigger isn’t cowardly. I need them because African-American murderers are a diverse group, and most important, I need them because the media and mainstream America only get emotional over mass suburban shootings that involve non-blacks while we are in slums getting popped every day.

I’m naive to be surprised by Free’s murder. Or my cousin Damon who was 36, my friend Nard who was 24, or Dev at 20, or DI at 17, or Bip at 18, or Man Man at 16, or Bryant at 12, or Don Don at 22, or LA at 35 or the countless other people I could name.

I’m still in east Baltimore and even though I signed a book deal, I’m nowhere near rich and my essays can’t block bullets. I still frequent some of the worst neighborhoods in my city because that’s my home, where I live, and where all my family and friends reside.

I could easily be Free. I could easily be sitting out on Caroline Street on a nice summer day smashing some fried lake trout and collards without a fork when a Chevy Corsica bends the corner and lights the block up like July 4.

Any day, I could be in the wrong place at the wrong time catching slugs that are meant for another person who looks just like me, from another person who looks just like me.

Some woman would scream, “That’s my baby!” I’d get a small mention in the obituary section or maybe a larger write-up because of my Internet fame. My good friends would light blunts and pour out a little liquor, and just like the dudes before me, my face would glow on T-shirts and all over Instagram. There would be teddy bears, balloons and empty liquor bottles decorating the corner where I had my last meal.

The hood would mourn, and then it would happen again.

And again and again.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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African Americans Gun Control Gun Culture Guns Life Stories Murder Violence