BALTIMORE -- Diondre Jackson-Henderson does all the right things: He focuses on poetry, music and his grades while applying to engineering programs at colleges. But that doesn’t stop the 18-year-old East Baltimore resident’s mother, Tasha Stennett, from worrying that her son may end up with the same fate as Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries sustained two weeks ago while in a police van, an incident that set off mass protests in the city. Diondre, who learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer at 2 years old and created a makeshift stun gun out of a disposable camera in the fourth grade, also has a penchant for wearing hoodies. Stennett is concerned that police may profile him.
“My fear for him is something happening to him while he’s out here,” said Stennett, 40. “He feels like I baby him, but it’s not a babying aspect. My fear is the situation he’s put in because he’s a young black man in Baltimore.”
Stennett, who used to work for a bank but has been unemployed since August, has been a constant presence in her son’s life, but his biological father has been in and out of jail on gun and drug charges. He’s not that close to his stepfather, who maintains signals for transportation company CSX, a job that takes him away from home frequently. A member of the Baltimore Citywide Youth Poetry Team, which participates in national and international competitions, Diondre is one of the few members who has a parent that supports him. Of his 20 teammates, about only three have parents who show up to their events, Stennett said, adding that she has become a mother to the whole team.
“These kids are doing poems about being molested, being raped, being abused and their overall living situation,” she said. “The things they see as a normal life isn’t a normal life. You shouldn’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. It’s not normal to be raising yourself.”
Even though Diondre doesn’t face all the same challenges as many of Baltimore’s youth -- his home near the county line has a backyard and is part of a neighborhood association that fines residents for not keeping their lawns well-manicured -- it doesn’t mean he's spared the risk of police harassment or even being killed, Stennett said. Gray’s death “made me feel a little more wanting to hold the reins a little tighter,” she continued. “But he stepped up right away and said, ‘This can’t continue to happen,’” Stennett said of her son, whose outspokenness led him to huddle with his friends to figure out ways to organize protests in response to the Gray incident.
On the other side of the city, in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton, near where Gray was arrested before dying, Drew Ragsdale-Smith, 17, doesn’t have the same comforts that Diondre enjoys. Upton was described as an “old, crime-infested neighborhood,” by his father, 43-year-old Cheyenne Smith. “A lot of ‘The Wire’ was shot in our neighborhood,” he said, referring to the hit HBO drama that depicted the grittier side of Baltimore. “There’s so many vacant homes.”
Drew’s mother in Oklahoma pleaded with a judge for Drew to stay with his father in Baltimore because he was caught up with the wrong crowd, according to Smith, 43. “He was a member of a gang there, so he came to move with me,” Smith said. “Through my intervention and my family he made a turn. We’re still not fully over the hurdle, but it’s constant talking.”
While Diondre has a mind full of potential business ideas, such as how to make cars drive without gas and powerful guns small enough to fit into a soldier’s backpack that can be fired from glasses based on a soldier’s eye movement, Drew is not as focused on his next steps after graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, which Diondre also attends. Smith, a claims specialist for an insurance company who also serves in the Maryland National Guard, said he would like his son to get a federal job in nearby Washington, D.C., but he's not sure how keen the youth is on that possibility.
“I’m so worried about his future,” Smith said of Drew. “I don’t know if he’s prepared for his future. I think about will he have to struggle and will he have to live in this neighborhood. There’s no blueprint to surviving this neighborhood. Some people survived by the grace of God.”
Living in the neighborhood means Smith and his son are constantly followed in local establishments by store clerks and security guards who suspect they may steal and police who assume they are up to no good. “We’ve been black our whole lives, and cops are just different with black people, and we know we have to act accordingly,” he said.
Drew has mulled going back to Oklahoma to work in the family’s funeral home business, but the move back may also risk the temptations of getting reacquainted with his former gang. However, Smith said his son has not gravitated to that lifestyle since moving to Baltimore, in part because many of his former gang buddies are dead. “We talk a lot about the economics behind the gang and how you’re pawns to them, and he gets that,” he said.
Even though Diondre doesn’t live under a constant threat of violence, his mother pointed to the case of a former football teammate who was gunned down last year. The boy, who was in the ROTC program, was shot and killed shortly before his cousin was supposed to testify in a case. “That’s what I use as an example to Dion,” Stennett said. “You never know when it’s somebody else’s issue that affects you because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Both Smith and Stennett have also preached the same lessons to Diondre and Drew, respectively, about how to respond during any potential confrontations with law enforcement. Stennett has advised her son to scream her phone number so witnesses would call her, while Smith has urged his son to comply with officers. Both also were sympathetic to Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother who gained sudden national fame for slapping her son as he was about to engage in the riots that gripped the city on Monday.
Stennett discussed Graham's reaction to her son, who started laughing during the discussion. "He was like, ‘That’s you right there.’ I felt her pain right away," she said. "I told my son, ‘Something will happen to you based off a decision you have made that can cost you the rest of your life.’”