BALTIMORE — Before the riots hit, Baltimore was already a troubled place. It is one of the most segregated cities in America, where boarded-up buildings line entire blocks. It was here that Freddie Gray lived for 25 years before he died in the custody of Baltimore police and the city erupted in protest this April. The last time riots broke out on the streets of Baltimore was in April 1968, in the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King.
A riot is an ugly thing. Its violence is too unfocused, too turbulent to be political, even if its origins are. The explosion in Baltimore’s streets started as an expression of the collective rage of black teenagers smashing cop cars and defiantly stepping up to lines of riot police, heaving bricks into their flimsy plastic shields from only yards away. Then it devolved into something else. Glass shattered and crowds poured out of the storefronts, turning their attention to what they could take for themselves. The rioters’ fury, however, didn’t come out of nowhere.
On April 19, Freddie Gray became the seventh person to have a fatal encounter with Baltimore police in the past year. He had been arrested and suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody on April 12 before falling into a coma from which he did not recover. The demands for answers would rise as those outraged over his death joined a chorus of communities engaging in a similar struggle around the nation. With this continuing unrest, Baltimore has joined the growing list of cities synonymous with an increasingly vocal national conversation around police brutality and a broken criminal justice system. Simultaneous protests in a dozen major cities around the time of the upheaval in Baltimore signaled that the issue isn’t going to disappear, and that a long summer lies ahead.
Justice in cases of police killings is hard to come by. Of the hundreds of officer-involved shootings every year, few make national or even local headlines. There are scarcely charges, much less convictions, for cops who kill unarmed civilians, frustrating community activists who see these incidents repeating themselves far too often.
Gray’s death has catalyzed calls for justice from a system that for years has favored police officers who kill in the line of duty in a city where the issue is painfully familiar. Comparisons to Ferguson abound, and a common thread connects the stories of unarmed black men killed by police. “This is a reminder that there’s a Mike Brown in every town,” said Deray McKesson, an activist, educator and Baltimore native.
“What happened around the corner with Freddie Gray was the epitome of something that’s happened to almost everybody out here in this neighborhood,” said Perry Hopkins, a community activist in West Baltimore. “We have accepted that behavior for so long, and when that young man lost his life, it re-opened those wounds to everybody in this community, because just about everybody has been a victim, been beaten or accosted by the police,” Hopkins added. “The overriding sentiment is, ‘enough is enough.’”
Living in Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray called home, many of the people describe the feeling as “boxed in.” Budget cuts have closed down two schools here, and 23 across the city, in recent years. Recreation centers where young people could go to be off the street have also been shuttered for lack of funds. Meanwhile, in 2011, the state of Maryland allocated $26 million to build two new prisons outside Baltimore.
The mayor of Baltimore and other civic and business leaders have started a “One Baltimore” campaign to reunify the city — but residents tell a different story of two very different Baltimores. “There are nice neighborhoods on the other side of town. We have our own little Hollywood Hills over there. But the ghetto is the ghetto,” said Michael Lowery. Working as a bail bondsman, he understands the environment many of his clients live in and came out to support the protests. “A lot of the younger men, they have to do what they have to do to make money and survive, because a lot of them don’t know anything better. They have to take it to the streets because they don’t know anything else,” Lowery added.
A study by Johns Hopkins University backs up what he is feeling: it ranked Baltimore the seventh most segregated city in America. Just six miles separate well-to-do Roland Park and Hollins Market, and there is a 20-year difference in the average life expectancy of their residents.
Baltimore was one of the cities hardest hit by the 2008 crash of the housing market, and thousands of homes stand abandoned, primarily in the city’s majority-black west end. Far from the downtown job center and underserved by public transportation, work and educational opportunities are thin. In some neighborhoods, as many as one in four residents are unemployed.
For some, there isn’t much to do but stand around on the corner, and crime and drugs are the biggest job creators. People speak openly about how on the day after the first riots, a black market of new low-cost merchandise appeared the streets. They are unabashedly pragmatic about this informal economy: the prices are a steal, there’s no shortage of customers and it’s pure profit for the brazen vendors that are looking for any possible way to “come up.”
Sandtown-Winchester is the city’s poorest neighborhood, with an alarming rate of incarceration and an unemployment rate double that of the rest of the city. There, Gray grew up in a house with chipping lead paint, in a neighborhood where the unemployment rate is almost four times the national average. Almost one in four households have an incarcerated family member. Indeed, many people belong to gangs — but those gangs are also part of the community.
In the days after the riots broke out, gang members who normally vie for control of the streets worked together to maintain order. “We don’t need the police, we can protect our own community,” said a man calling himself Legacy. “Probably the majority of people out here got kids. They don’t want to see their kids end up another dead victim of the police. We’re tired of it. We had to come together to prove that we’re tired of it.”
Communal moments that brought a human warmth to streets that have seen so much violence helped to soothe the stunned feelings hanging over Baltimore after the riots. Meanwhile, an inspired generation of newly politicized activists debated strategy and how to build organizational capacity with community leaders, clergyman and organizers. New coalitions have formed, hoping to turn Baltimore’s crisis moment into a new movement to effect change.
One of these efforts is a coalition of both new and old community-based organizations called Baltimore United For Change (BUC). A partnership of old guard black leaders, radical faith leaders and seasoned police brutality activists, BUC tells newcomers that they are in for a long fight. One of the groups in BUC, the Tyrone West Coalition, has been pushing for transparency from Baltimore police since the summer of 2013, when unarmed Tyrone West was severely beaten and died in police custody. Two years later, his family says it still has not received a full autopsy report, and an investigation led by a Virginia-based law enforcement consultant cleared the involved officers of any wrongdoing.
“Everyone is part of the equation. No one is left out, not old, young, gangs — everyone’s affected. We’re gonna do this with everybody,” said Reverend Jamal Bryant. Speaking at Freddie Gray’s funeral at New Shiloh Baptist Church, he and other preachers gave impassioned speeches, declaring that the protests calling for justice were a righteous cause. He said that on the weekend after the riots he saw more people in church than he had in years, and many familiar faces had returned seeking fellowship.
A Boost for the Grassroots
Existing grassroots organizations are also getting a much-needed boost in attention to the work they have been doing in Baltimore communites as a result of the media presence around the riots. Chris Goodman, now a community leader and a hip-hop artist, started working with the Baltimore Algebra Project while he was in eighth grade, tutoring students a year younger than him. He saw the new wave of young people coming out in the streets as an opportunity to gain visibility, recruit new people and bring them into something meaningful.
When support started pouring in from around the country, the Algebra Project managed to raise $80,000 from crowdfunded donations to expand its tutoring programs and work toward improving the quality of life in West Baltimore. Following their motto of “No education, no life,” activists like Goodman hope to empower young people and keep them out of trouble by arming them with knowledge.
“In any community that’s dealing with poverty, there’s a natural fear of the police. It’s real,” Goodman described. “It feels like a constant pressure, knowing that, and feeling that the world is against you — and just trying to figure out that puzzle, how to break through, how to survive.”
The violent tactics of the Baltimore Police Department have left city taxpayers to pick up the tab — about $5.7 million in legal settlements involving more than 100 cases against the department since 2011. With this in mind, activists are skeptical of authorities’ promises of justice for Freddie Gray and meaningful changes in their communities. “The mayor has not attempted to enact policies that dramatically improved the quality of life for black people here in Baltimore,” said Dayvon Love, research director at the grassroots organization Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.
While the fault lines in Ferguson became notorious for the city’s predominantly white city government and police force in a majority-black township, Baltimore is different. Its mayor and police commissioner are black, as is a large part of the police force and even the state attorney who has decided to charge the officers involved in Gray’s death. But activists still see work to be done in combatting racial oppression in their city’s political landscape.
“Our mayor is someone who has capitulated to the corporate structure of the Democratic Party and the corporate interests in our city,” Love said. ”What happens in our society is often times individual black people are put in positions of power within white-dominated institutions, which brings more black people into those institutional arrangements, undermining our ability to develop communal, independent black institutions.”
When prosecutors announced there would be charges for the six officers who arrested Gray, ranging from official misconduct to depraved heart murder, the protests became a celebration, at least for a moment. Still, protesters remain skeptical about whether the system can produce justice in the courtroom or in their embattled communities. Deray McKesson expressed his view of it bluntly: “Justice is a living Mike Brown. Justice is a smiling Tamir Rice. Justice is no more death.”
After the first night of riots, authorities including President Obama and the mayor of Baltimore hurried to draw a line between acceptable, legitimate forms of protest and breaking, burning and tearing into places of business. Few on the protesters’ side rushed to condone, but it was just as hard for them to condemn what happened without looking at the bigger picture.
“What we’re saying,” argued McKesson, “is ‘you’re killing us, and we will continue to disrupt until we get to live,’ and I think that’s only fair.”
For now, an uneasy calm holds in Baltimore. The public mourning, spontaneous riots and daily marches have subsided, and the television cameras packed up and left. Old problems haven’t dissipated — the poverty, the lack of opportunity, the seemingly inescapable struggle to survive in a city with one of the country’s highest murder rates. But the feeling of community gathering lingers, and the people of Baltimore continue to discuss and debate recent events and whether the inspired words of protest will prove to be fleeting rhetoric or if the city can move forward and resolve its long-standing problems. What remained to be cleaned up after the riots subsided was more than two days’ worth of destruction — but that pales in comparison to the injuries that need healing after years of violence.
Take the Chains Off: The Struggle for Racial Justice Continues
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