One week before the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray‘s death (today, April 19th) activists and community residents were working together in Sandtown, Gray’s old neighborhood. Police helicopters whirred noisily overhead staking out the area as children ran to ice cream trucks and activists barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers. On some days, residents of Gilmor homes, which is painted with a somber mural of Gray’s face, are interrupted by tour buses that troll past, snapping pictures and remarking on the rows and rows of vacant houses.
“People come in and tour as if it was a zoo, but they don’t bring any benefits or resources, ” said Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther party member, activist and journalist.
“The good part of the increased attention is that it has allowed us to have a bigger platform, ” says Adam Jackson, CEO of the activist group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. “The downside is that people have become obsessed with the spectacle of black suffering.”
According to residents and activists not a lot has changed in this neighborhood, since the civil unrest sparked by Gray’s death, propelling Baltimore into the national spotlight after the National Guard was called in and a controversial citywide curfew was imposed.
In the wake of the uprisings, some of the teenagers involved are facing lengthy prison sentences. The police commissioner was fired and replaced and the mayor decided not to seek re-election. There was a record 344 murders documented by the city last year. In January, Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Project C.O.R.E. — a $700 million initiative that would use $100 million to demolish vacant buildings in Baltimore City and $600 million in financing incentives to encourage developers to redesign the community with new homes and green areas.
Youth activists protested in Annapolis and won the right to have the waiting period decreased from ten days after a death happens in police custody, requiring them to give a statement in a more timely manner. A bittersweet victory, nonetheless, as the time was reduced from ten days to five that police have before they have to give a statement, rather than zero.
Both activists and residents say there has been little headway and that politicians are just providing lip service. Residents are looking for lasting progress. And this lip service, they say, is no different from decades past.
“There hasn’t been much improvement. If anything there has been more police surveillance in the area,” said Taalib Saaber, a member of Friend of a Friend, a mentorship program for incarcerated men coming out of prison. “There’s issues with maintenance of the buildings, rats, lead paint, it’s a food desert. Just today the police beat up somebody on Penn and North.”
Friend of a Friend has been working with the Sandtown community for over twenty years, according to co-founder Dominique Stevenson. It’s a neighborhood that has the lowest income and the highest incarceration rate in the state. The program has given lunches to children in the area, hosted family food giveaways, built a basketball court, created a farm, helped men that were recently released from prison to get jobs and hired artists and videographers to teach kids skills, among other programs.
Most recently, they took over an abandoned property in the area after years of trying to meet with the housing authority to purchase a space to teach art programs, farming and agriculture, construction and carpentry and to teach kids how to handle aggressive policing.
According to a Baltimore Sun report, fifty years ago, Baltimore was in the same mess.