It was only when my nephew, Christopher Cummings, an honor student at Old Dominion University, was killed in a home invasion and double shooting last June that I began to fully understand the relentless pain that the families of crime victims experience.

Christopher was a wonderful young man, determined to build a life helping others, and our family was devastated by his loss. He was our shining light, a young person who seemed destined to be great.

In our time of tragedy, we were grateful for the many, many friends who have prayed for us. We have been assured that we will recover with the passage of time.

I wish that I could honestly respond to them that we are beginning to heal. That, however, would not be the truth that our friends and well-wishers deserve.

Nearly six months after this wonderful young man was taken from us by an act of violence, no charges have been filed. With each passing day that Christopher’s murder remains unsolved, it is as if more salt has been poured upon our wounded hearts.

I should hasten to add that I do not share our personal tribulations with you in order to gain sympathy. Sympathy we have received in abundance – and with sincere appreciation.

Rather, I am being candid about our family’s suffering because our personal story exemplifies a very real challenge – and danger – to communities everywhere.

We can no longer continue to live in a culture of intimidation and fear. We must stand up to those who attempt to convince our neighbors that, somehow, it is disloyal to cooperate in the apprehension of dangerous criminals.

This year, Christopher was killed. Next year, the victim could be anyone.

For our family, our response to Christopher’s murder included offers of rewards for information about the crime and televised pleas for assistance from his local community. The modest response suggests that something powerful is keeping good people from helping us.

Something dangerous and even deadly is denying Christopher justice – and preventing his community from living in greater safety.

Increasingly, I am convinced that the “stop snitching” culture and, quite possibly, witness intimidation are standing in the way of justice for our family. Tragically, we are far from being alone.

Here in Baltimore, less than one year from today, we will mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy that claimed the lives of the Dawson family. In response to Mrs. Dawson’s heroic efforts to report intense drug distribution activity in her neighborhood, her home was firebombed, taking the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Dawson and their five young children.

Two years later, a DVD produced by criminals entitled “Stop Snitching” surfaced in Baltimore, going so far as to depict grotesque images of three bullet-ridden, bloody corpses accompanied by the phrase “snitch prevention.”

The following year, in the North Baltimore community of Harwood, Ms. Edna McAbier had her home firebombed in apparent retaliation for her work to purge her community of criminal activity.

These assaults on our safety are graphic illustrations of home-grown terrorism that we must confront, and overcome, as a united community. The violent drug culture and the code of silence on our streets can paralyze entire neighborhoods that are seeking nothing more than justice and personal security.

Three elements of a successful public response to this narco-terrorism seem clear.
First, our police and prosecutors must work more effectively to protect those of our neighbors who have the courage to provide the essential testimony that can take the predators off our streets.

Last week, for example, I was honored to join our Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Gregg Bernstein, and his colleagues from the Baltimore Region, Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C., in a “summit” designed to forge the partnerships and fashion the best practices that can strengthen public safety in all of our local communities.

Second, state and local witness protection programs need more resources. This is why, once again, I have introduced my proposal for a $30 million annual “Witness Protection” grant program that would make the federal government a stronger partner in protecting our communities.

Third, and perhaps most important, we must find the way to better unify our local neighborhoods in shared self-defense against those who would terrorize us and deny the victims of crime justice.

Americans of Color have defeated reigns of terror in the past – and, as a united community, we can defeat the terrorism on our streets.

The safety of our families is a civil right, perhaps the most important civil right of all.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.