Robbie Ponsi didn’t like crowds.
The 29-year-old restaurant server wouldn’t want anyone to throw a parade in his honor or get excited about seeing his name in the newspaper. In the event of his death, he didn’t even want a funeral and said he preferred to be cremated.
Robbie was killed Saturday night as he rode his bike home from work in Baltimore, a city beset with violent crime, pervasive poverty, and a myriad of other social maladies. Surrounded, he reportedly tried to defend himself by waving his bike at his attackers, before he was jumped and beaten. Robbie was kicked and punched. And then one of the assailants drew a large knife and stabbed him.
What happened to Robbie could have happened anywhere. But that the incident unfolded in Baltimore, where six police officers are awaiting trial in the death of Freddie Gray, where fires erupted late last spring amid community-wide uprising, and where unemployment among young black men is nearly 40 percent, surprises almost no one.
There were 344 homicides in 2015, the deadliest year—per capita—that the city has ever known.
Some will point the finger at less than rigorous policing, purposely slowed in the wake of the protests surrounding Gray’s death. What if Robbie had a gun, some will counter. Others will point to the community itself—a dearth of strong and present black fathers, a broken education system, a lack of adequate affordable housing, and a paucity of economic development.
The city cannot pull itself up by its bootstraps because it frankly has no shoes.
The truth is Baltimore—like St. Louis and Washington, D.C., and whole swaths of Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles—has been broken for a very long time. Economic segregation in Baltimore, almost entirely based on the strictures of race, created rivers of poverty as deep as the Patapsco River. Street violence is among the ugliest of Jim Crow’s stepchildren.
That isn’t an excuse. That’s the history.
Tuesday would have been Robbie’s 30th birthday. But instead of a quiet dinner with friends, and maybe a little cake, 100 of his closest friends, family and others he’d never met gathered for a vigil on the same corner in the Waverly neighborhood where Robbie was attacked and robbed.
“He was always willing to help people, a natural born leader,” his grandfather told The Baltimore Sun. Robbie had a big a heart and a “near-perfect IQ.”
Three teenagers—ages 15, 16 and 17—suspected in the knife attack were arrested. Prince Greene, the 15-year-old who allegedly stabbed Robbie, is the son of a community activist. His mother Thomascine, an anti-violence advocate who has been pressing for more local resources, was at home when officers came to arrest her son.
“It’s not hard for me to wrap my head around it, because he’s a kid in the community,” she told The Baltimore Sun. “It’s hard to wrap my heart around it.”
Prince, along with Antwan Eldridge, 17, and Daquan Middleton, 16, now faces armed robbery, assault, and murder charges. Eldridge and Middleton have been ordered held without bond and were charged as adults. Ironically, Prince made it home before his 9:30 p.m. curfew that night, around 20 minutes after he allegedly stabbed Robbie. If convicted, they will spend the rest of their natural lives in prison.
Thomascine is not ready to convict her son, but she isn’t ready to let him off the hook either. “You know how you know your child, but you don’t know your child?” she told The Baltimore Sun. “My eyes don’t go around corners.”
At least two of the suspects have reportedly confessed. And with more than a third of Maryland’s prison population coming out of Baltimore, one has to wonder how many more will die before we realize what is really happening.
How long will it be before we understand that over-policing and mass incarceration will not solve, but exacerbate the cast of dilemmas before us? How long before we understand that even the most devoted and engaged parents are no real match for the pathologies our children face? How long before we understand that our unstated domestic policy of containment is not only unsustainable, but also dangerous?
This is not a Republican or a Democratic problem. Nor does it come down to something as simple as black and white, or rich or poor. This is an American problem, one that each of us must begin to grapple with honestly.
The solution is not slamming the door on whole communities. We won’t find our way by writing off entire generations just because they live in a certain ZIP Code. We can continue sending law enforcement with soiled bandages or we can begin, for the first time, to treat the wound.
Thomascine Greene surely did everything she could to save her son. I never want to know what it is like to lose one of my boys to the justice system. But Robbie Ponsi did not deserve to die. He should have been as safe on the streets of Baltimore as he would have been tooling along the beach in Ocean Pines.
“We’re in this thing together,” Thomascine told the newspaper. “We are one family, and we need to pull together.”