With Life Sentence: The Brief and Tragic Career of Baltimore’s Deadliest Gang Leader, veteran journalist Mark Bowden—author of thirteen books including Black Hawk Down—returns to his hometown of Baltimore to dig into the city’s campaign against gang violence. With near-unprecedented access to police interview footage, FBI files, and court documents, Bowden focuses on the investigation and trial of Trained To Go, the Sandtown-Winchester gang led by Montana “Tana” Barronette, who received two life sentences at the age of 21 for his involvement in at least twenty killings.
Working with the US Attorney’s materials and his own extensive interviews with detectives, community members, witnesses, informants, and researchers, Bowden develops a fascinating crime narrative featuring a cast of complex, charismatic characters, with Tana as its troubling central figure. Making a case for the near-inevitability of Tana’s slide down the “greased path” into violent crime and imprisonment without denying or minimizing his brutal actions, Bowden outlines a damning indictment of Baltimore’s treatment of its most precarious constituents, writing, “gang violence and white indifference are two sides of the same coin,” and arguing for massive investment in public services and opportunities as critical steps toward ending the self-perpetuating pattern of poverty and violence.
I had the great pleasure of meeting with Mr. Bowden in the apartment of his former Baltimore Magazine editor, Stan Huisler, to talk about his long career in journalism and his approach to researching and writing about such a complex subject.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Every journalist has a different story about how they ended up writing for a living. How did you get into it?
Mark Bowden: I had a great professor at Loyola who encouraged my writing, and at the same time—this was in the late sixties, early seventies—there was this flowering of creative nonfiction writing, the New Journalists: Joan Didion and Norman Mailer and Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. I thought that was cool, and wanted to do it. I started out just doing nuts and bolts police reporting. It was fun, but I was interested in evolving into someone who could do the kind of work that I really admired. I was lucky enough that Stan Heuisler was the editor of Baltimore Magazine, and he gave me the opportunity to dig deeply into stories and write long profiles and pieces that really challenged me. That was a huge step for me to be able to do that, and it attracted attention. I eventually was hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer, a great newspaper in the eighties and nineties that was specifically looking for young reporters and writers who wanted to write creatively.
That was the most significant thing in my professional life. I worked for great editors, I was surrounded by fantastic reporters and writers, I was given opportunities to travel the world. I could pursue almost any story and write them in the style that I wanted to write. That’s how I ended up doing what I do now. I evolved into someone who wrote magazine-length pieces and then books.
BFB: Let’s talk about Life Sentence, which—maybe enjoyed is a weird word to use—but I was deeply compelled by it. But there even is an aspect of enjoyment to it because the figures in it are so charismatic.
MB: Aren’t they? I hope you also learned about Baltimore. I grew up in Baltimore and I learned more about the city and the history of the city working on this book than I did in all those years of working as a reporter and growing up here. I really came to a deeper understanding of the city and the region. So I hope that other people here will also enjoy that aspect of it.
BFB: You mention in the preface that it began with a request from the U.S. attorney’s office. They wanted to highlight the work that they’ve been doing on crime in the city. But that’s not really the book that you wrote. Had you ever intended to write the book that they were looking for? What changed your trajectory?
MB: Well, I wasn’t intending to do anything. It’s rare to get an invitation from a U.S. attorney to come down and talk, especially as a journalist—they’re usually running away from you. So I came down out of curiosity. They explained to me what was going on and what their office was doing, and they started telling me about TTG and Montana Barronette. I grew more interested because this phenomenon of “black-on-black violence” is everywhere in the country, and I’ve never understood it. I’ve always been aware of it, but I didn’t really know what’s going on there. Part of the reason I didn’t know is that I grew up in a segregated city, and so I had no experience in these neighborhoods other than as a reporter. I had only the faintest inkling of what the life of these kids was like. So I started thinking, this really interests me, I wonder if I can get hold of Montana Barronette, his family, these other young guys who were locked up, and if I can arrive at some better understanding of why this is happening in Baltimore the way it is.
I didn’t explain that to the U.S. attorneys. I just said, I’m really interested in working on this TTG story. Can you make the people from the FBI and the court files and everything—all that material—available to me? And they said yes, which is also very unusual. So that was a huge break, and I decided to take advantage of it. The piece of it that interested me most was trying to understand Montana Barronette and his buddies—who they were and why they were doing what they were doing.
BFB: You take all of the court documents and confession videos and interviews and turn them into novelistic scenes, with all the dialogue and action that entails.
MB: That’s the New Journalism—applying novelistic methods to telling true stories. And it takes a tremendous amount of reporting to be able to do that honestly. But when you have access to video and audio transcripts of interviews, you can bring scenes to life using that material and it’s accurate—you’re not making this stuff up.
I construct a story scene by scene by scene. I used to tell my students scenes are gold. If you have a moment in your story where there’s action, characters, dialogues, something happened—that’s a scene. When I write a book I’ll map out all of these golden moments, these scenes where something happens, and then I build a narrative that connects all of them together and arrives at an endpoint.
BFB: Were there scenes you wanted to write but didn’t have enough factual information about to commit them to paper?
MB: Oh, sure. When you write nonfiction you always make the most out of what you have and you lament what you don’t. I never got a chance to sit down with Montana Barronette and talk to him in depth, so I regret that. I tried very hard to talk him into it, but he wouldn’t do it. I did have great fortune in getting people like Rah, Pony Head—people who are not generally interviewed but who had wonderful stories to tell..
BFB: Those two specifically were some of the most interesting characters in the book. And it makes sense that you had so much access to them because they felt so immediate and real.
MB: If you work on a story like this for years, you develop relationships with your characters and then you’re texting them, phoning them, going to meet them again, asking follow up questions. I’ll learn something that I knew nothing about, and I’ll say, “Tell me about this. You didn’t mention this to me…”. Joe Landsman, who I just love, is a wonderful character and did absolutely everything he could possibly do to help me. If I was looking for a file in the Baltimore Police Department, he would find it for me. He would point me to people who could answer questions he couldn’t. If you’re lucky enough to form those relationships, then they’re like your tentacles out into the real world.
BFB: What was your way in? You were dealing with a lot of people who had reason to be pretty cagey about sharing this much.
MB: People want to tell their stories. If you talk to a defense lawyer, they’ll tell you the biggest problem they have with a client is getting them to shut up because they want to go to the reporters and they want to go to the police and they want to explain themselves. As a reporter, very often the answer to “how did you get that person to talk to you?” is I just showed up, started listening and asking questions. And if people trust you, if you can convince them that you don’t really have an agenda in what you’re trying to do other than trying to understand them, and they believe that about you, then they open up and they want you to understand them.
In my case, the only reason that I’m writing it is because I want to understand what happened. So I need to understand these people. I need to understand why they did what they did, why they chose to do this, why they said this, why they said that. And the only way you get answers is to stick around and ask questions.
One thing I always say to people is you may not like the story that I write, but I promise you will be accurately represented in that story to the best of my ability. Whatever you see of yourself in that story is what I understand from having watched you, talked to you, listened to you.
BFB: When you’re able to articulate the mindset of these kids there’s a very notable strain of nihilism. Most of them are really young and they just don’t seem to see a future. It feels like everything they do is just to make the most of what they can right then.
MB: I think you’re right. And I’m not in a position to say with certainty that that’s true, but that’s what I observe as well. That’s one of the reasons I would love to spend some time getting to know Montana and really getting in his head, you know, to try to understand, if he would be ready to let me. But, you know, you work with what you got.
Enoch Pratt Public Library
Thursday, April 20, 7:00 PM ET
In conversation with Justin Fenton, more info here