About the Book by Mark Bowden Titled “Life Sentence: The Brief and Tragic Career of Baltimore’s Deadliest Gang Leader”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Matthew Hennessey of the book by Mark Bowden titled “Life Sentence: The Brief and Tragic Career of Baltimore’s Deadliest Gang Leader”:

Baltimore, like most of America’s large cities, fell to pieces in the late 1960s. Crime and disorder skyrocketed, forcing businesses and middle-class residents to flee to the suburbs. Anyone who stayed, either by choice or by necessity, learned to live under a cloud of menace.

For decades the intellectual class has made a habit of excusing urban violence, explaining that crime is an entirely rational response to the social forces at work in the inner city. Systemic poverty and the chronic underfunding of schools, it is said, have created an underclass for whom selling illegal drugs is an economic necessity and street violence a form of revolutionary expression. By such lights, urban crime is a protest against what Mark Bowden calls “a time-honored American project, Keeping the Black Man Down.”

In “Life Sentence: The Brief and Tragic Career of Baltimore’s Deadliest Gang Leader,” Mr. Bowden chronicles the exploits of Montana Barronette, aka Tana, a gang leader of fearsome reputation who, in the late 2010s, bid to rule the drug trade in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood. This is the same broken milieu depicted in David Simon’s TV series “The Wire.”

It’s a sad, and sadly familiar, tale. When we meet Tana he is a “likable” fatherless boy in a rough neighborhood. When we leave Tana he is in federal prison, serving a life sentence for racketeering and multiple murders. In between he is up to his eyeballs in what Mr. Bowden insists on calling the Game. “Selling and using drugs was the family way,” Mr. Bowden says. “The Game paid handsomely.”

Tana’s crew, known as TTG, or Trained To Go, is ruthless, as adept at killing people as they are at rapping about their crimes in “expertly produced” YouTube videos. Mr. Bowden seems impressed by the artistry. One clip, for the track “Be With God,” he describes as “a well-crafted short story.” He offers a sample of the lyrics: “He gon’ be with God / If he disrespects my squad. . . . / I’m from the Murderland / This is how we live . . . / It’s all about The Game / Selling drugs, banging bitches / It’ll never change.”

The pages of “Life Sentence” are filled with the outlaw escapades of a hard-to-differentiate cast of characters. Neighborhood baddies with names like Fat Guy, Hell Rell, Beezy, Scratch and Pony Head come and go in a blur of bullets and blood. But Tana plays the lead, murdering his enemies with cold nonchalance. In one incident, he targets Dirty, a high-ranking member of the gang Black Guerilla Family. After one of Dirty’s associates takes a potshot at Tana, the TTG crew springs into action. A hail of bullets eliminates Dirty along with two innocent bystanders. A fourth victim survives. “These three had just been sharing a stoop with the wrong person,” Mr. Bowden observes.

The author, whose books include “Black Hawk Down” (1999), about the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, tries mightily to flesh out his sketches of these dead-enders—to give us a fuller sense of their backgrounds and inner lives—but he doesn’t have much to work with. Most of his information about TTG seems to come from the cops who busted up the ring. The book’s later chapters feature extensive verbatim passages from the police department’s interview room.

For long stretches, Tana goes missing from the story as the biographies of various snitches and TTG associates are elaborated. Tana’s sister Shanika provides perhaps the book’s best line: “People in the streets, where we live at, it’s like a bucket of crabs.” The scene describing Tana’s arrest provides the only flash of personality we get from our star. Cops and task-force agents swarm Tana and his girlfriend as they emerge from a movie theater. “Man, you all treat me like I was John Dillinger,” quips the gang leader.

One thing Mr. Bowden knows for sure is that the fate of the TTG crew was written in the stars. From Tana on down, the fix was in. Like Mr. Simon, Mr. Bowden sees the members of Baltimore’s criminal underclass as victims of social and economic forces. The Game, he says, “was irresistible” to the neighborhood’s young men. “The pull was gravitational.”

What to do? Neighborhoods like Sandtown, Mr. Bowden says, need “more counseling and community involvement, stronger gun laws, more employment opportunities.” So it’s the same old story. Without addressing the root causes of crime—with familiar policies that routinely fall short—it’s unreasonable to expect safe streets.

Like many others these days, Mr. Bowden seems eager to forget the revolution in public safety that saved many U.S. cities in the 1990s. In New York, Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg achieved a large and sustained drop in street crime, and the city’s law-enforcement methods—including “broken windows” policing and Compstat, the data-driven model for deploying the police and measuring their effectiveness—were widely admired and imitated. Both mayors insisted that nothing was inevitable about crime and disorder, that with the right policies inner-city residents could get a reprieve from the violence that shaped, and often shattered, their lives. Envious mayors brought New York’s methods to Miami, Philadelphia and elsewhere, including—for a brief, shining moment—Baltimore.

In 1999, Martin O’Malley became Baltimore’s mayor on a promise to make the streets safe. He hired as his police commissioner Ed Norris, who had been a key part of Compstat’s success in New York. Mr. Norris worked quickly to lock up the city’s most dangerous criminals, producing a dramatic drop in Baltimore’s murder rate and major reductions in violent crime.

Mr. Bowden dismisses this result as “mostly luck” and asserts that “stern tactics” served only to aggravate “the old friction between cops and Black citizens.” He concedes that Mr. O’Malley “had been doing something right,” but the reformist mayor couldn’t “undo the image—buried deep in Baltimore’s past—of police as enforcers of the racist status quo.” When Mr. O’Malley left Baltimore to become Maryland’s governor in 2007, crime came roaring back.

How to reduce crime is no longer a mystery. The law-abiding residents of Sandtown, themselves serving a life sentence, deserve better than to be trapped inside the Game.

Matthew Hennessey is the deputy editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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