Sign of the times: When honoring a Baltimore homicide victim can mean glorifying a drug trafficker | COMMENTARY

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Before reading another sentence of this editorial, please take a moment to first digest reporter Tim Prudente’s insightful article published Thursday, “Pigtown street sign at crossroads of race, class.”

Rarely have we encountered so simple a debate — whether or not to have a block of Washington Boulevard named after a 27-year-old victim of gun violence — that so well encapsulates the very complex issues underlying Baltimore crime. How do we define victimhood? How do we judge those caught up in the distribution of illegal drugs? And exactly how do we set the standards for public memorials? There are no easy answers, at least not if you have an ounce of empathy.

At first blush, the street sign decision seems a straightforward call. Like too many Baltimore neighborhoods, Pigtown is battling drug dealing and other crime, so it was more than a little bit disturbing for the city transportation department to erect a sign memorializing Anthony “Mo$” Covington on the block where he was shot in the back and killed in March of last year. The late Mr. Covington was hardly unknown to law enforcement. He was arrested as a suspect in armed robberies in 2013, though the case was never prosecuted, and in 2014, he was caught with 15 baggies of crack cocaine, enough for a distribution charge. In 2017, he was sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in a drug ring from which police confiscated heroin, cocaine and guns. We don’t know why he was killed (three others were also injured in the shooting), but it’s probably not a stretch to assume it was a product of the same culture of drug trafficking and gun violence in which he was imprisoned as a participant.

To City Hall’s credit, the sign was removed quickly after neighbors complained about its presence, and officials say they have suspended the city’s ceremonial signs program to consider adopting new standards. Good luck with that. It’s not difficult to see a deep rabbit hole ahead. If those honored with street names are to have personal histories above reproach, where will that leave the various Baltimore streets named after historic figures with their own attendant controversies, including slave owners? Considering that Johns Hopkins is among them (a point officials from his namesake school continue to grapple with), this may prove a more challenging assignment than it would first appear. So much for Hopkins Plaza.

But here’s the more difficult problem: We must not lose sight of how Anthony Covington was himself a victim. As his sister Aniesa Covington, the city worker who arranged the tribute (at a cost of $150), told The Sun, she was deeply hurt to now have his name dragged through the mud. “My brother was the baby of my family, and I was just trying to give my family a little piece of something to hold on to,” she said.

She might also have observed what choices were available to a young Black man growing up in Edmondson Village, a neighborhood with too few economic opportunities and too many negative role models. As Anthony Covington’s lawyer further observed, a man is “more than his rap sheet.”

It’s easy to look down on those who choose the criminal life when you live in more privileged circumstances. The disastrous war on drugs, the incarceration of a young Black men from an ineffective and historically biased criminal justice system, and the more fundamental challenge posed by the concentration of poverty in red-lined city neighborhoods — these are no minor obstacles. The man’s life did not take place in a vacuum. The scales were already tilted against him on unsafe streets, where human life had become devalued before he was even born.

We posit that temporarily renaming thoroughfares to honor the dead is a problematic exercise for bureaucrats. In the future, if the City Council wants to name a street after some individual, living or dead, on a permanent basis that’s up to them to weigh the individual circumstances. As for Mr. Covington, we suggest that there might be a more appropriate way for families and friends to remember those swept up in city crime and violence: through donations to schools or public libraries, funds to support college scholarships or drug rehabilitation programs, or perhaps youth recreation centers or counseling. Such contributions made in the names of those lost could help others navigate a better, safer passage.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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