The family of Erricka Bridgeford, director of training for Community Mediation Maryland, and organizer of the, “Baltimore Ceasefire,” from August 4-6, has grappled with violence and homicide for decades. However, Bridgeford, her mother and brother have all chosen to work on the frontlines to combat the epidemic of violence and murder, which imperils our city.

The family of Jerri Thomas, with her children Nathan Thomas and Erricka Bridgeford, has been dramatically impacted by violence in Baltimore, while battling to deter it. (Photo credit: Raniya Holmes)

Erricka Bridgeford remembers the night gunshots woke her from her sleep when she was 12-years-old. She scurried from her bed to her window where she witnessed someone running into the court where she lived, screaming he had been shot. Pleading for help, the young man frantically knocked on her neighbor’s door, but no one answered. Bridgeford recalls him collapsing on the ground until help arrived.

“When the ambulance [got] there, I can hear him from my window [say] ‘God, please don’t let me die. Please don’t let me die,’” she remembered. “ I watched the ambulance take him away and when I got home from school the next day the whole story in the neighborhood was that Mike [the young man who was shot] had died.”

Throughout her life, gun violence would become a hard reality for Bridgeford’s community and ultimately her own family.

Jerri and Mike Thomas, Bridgeford’s parents, moved her and her younger brother David to the Rosemont community in West Baltimore in the early 1970s. As they settled in a small public housing complex, the Thomas family would eventually grow to include two more boys, Nathan and Jonathan.

For years, they spent a lot of time together at church and family dinners. Jerri and Mike  sought to provide stability and structure for their children rooted in their Christian faith, personal accountability, and social consciousness. However, the bond between them would be tested as they struggled to combat the challenges that gripped their community.

“It was difficult. My husband and I felt like you’re raising your kids with your thoughts and your values the best you know how. And the rest of the world is telling them something completely different,” Jerri said. “The world is telling them that, `That’s not cool, it’s not cool to be smart. It’s not cool to get good grades. Actually, violence is the way.’”

The Baltimore drug trade was dominant throughout large swaths of the city, an enticing enterprise in mostly Black, mostly poor neighborhoods in the early 1990s. The culture offered many impoverished communities like Rosemont a means to make fast bundles of money.

David and Nathan, the two oldest sons of the Thomas family, began to venture into those perilous streets when they were teens, like so many other young Black males. And as young adults, both sons had a series of encounters with the criminal justice system, as David struggled with a crack cocaine addiction and Nathan sold drugs.

“Love and patience…,” said  Jerri Thomas when asked how she and her husband responded to losing their sons to the streets. “The love is unconditional but we’re not going to support that lifestyle because it’s hurtful. It’s hurtful to people. It’s hurtful to the community. It’s not productive. Surely, you’re going to the graveyard or you’re going to prison,” she added.

In 2001, a disagreement with a family friend would result in Nathan being shot and rushed to the hospital where he was initially thought to be dead on arrival. He survived and returned to the streets angry with the friend who shot him.

“I went right back out selling drugs and I wanted revenge on the kid who shot me,” admitted Nathan.

Instead of revenge, the experience of nearly losing Nathan, pushed Bridgeford in a different direction. A conflict management training experience at a previous employer, led her to join the Baltimore Community Mediation Center. Founded in 1999, the non-profit organization helps mediate conflict between residents in the community.

Bridgeford has worked with Community Mediation since 2001 (Jerri Thomas joined the organization in 2002) and she sees mediation as a pragmatic tool to prevent violence. “I’m sure that mediation saves lives. I’m sure that some people don’t get stabbed and shot [or even] punched in their throat,” Bridgeford said. “Because they had mediation, they had a chance to have that conversation [and] it didn’t escalate there.”

However, tragedy would revisit the Thomas Family yet again when Nathan discovered his older brother David was murdered. “I was broken at this time,” he recalled. Yet again, Thomas sought revenge, before he would ultimately leave the street life once and for all.

NEXT WEEK: A Family on the Frontlines Part 2.