One Year After Freddie Gray's Murder--Has Anything Changed?
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.
In 1964, after the death of a black man in his 20s at the hands of police, the city and state promised emergency efforts to improve health and economic conditions, raze dilapidated vacant homes and repair police-community relations.
There is big money coming into Baltimore, including projects like Kevin Plank of Under Armour's controversial development project Port Covington.
"There's money coming in," says Stevenson. "But it's not coming in to the folks most affected by policing, by poverty, by oppression. And they know it."
Vacant buildings line the streets of Sandtown, buildings that are so decrepit the city checks them every 10 days to make sure they don't fall.
If there's good news, activists say, it's that the Justice Department opened an investigation into the police department after the uprisings, including examining police policies and procedures, misconduct claims and brutality allegations. Activists have demanded this probe for years.
A Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that the city spent $5.7 million in 102 court judgments and settlements for alleged police misconduct since 2011. The investigation showed that city residents received battered faces, broken bones and other injuries during questionable arrests.
Gray sustained a spinal injury while traveling in a police van, allegedly the result of a "rough ride" where police intentionally leave a detainee without a buckled seat belt and drive erratically to jostle them around, often hoping to get a confession.
The city paid $6 million about a decade ago to a man who became paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a police van ride. In another case the family of Dondi Johnson Sr. was awarded $219,000 after a police van ride in 2005 left Dondi paralyzed and he died two weeks later.
The city agreed to pay Gray's family a $6.4 million dollar payout after a civil lawsuit. The settlement, and similar settlements, preclude the family to talk about the case.
Officer William Porter's trial, one of the six officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray, ended with a hung jury on Dec. 16th last year. The jury was deadlocked on all charges.
Subsequent trials have been delayed because of appeals requiring officers to testify against each other. Prosecutors won the right to have Porter testify against his five fellow officers and are in the process of a motion to call for Officer Garrett E. Miller to testify at the trial of Officer Edward M. Nero. Both Miller and Nero were involved in Gray's initial arrest.
The trials of three African American officers and three white officers, may set a precedent in these national police misconduct cases with a black judge, the honorable Barry G. Williams.
In a recent mayoral debate at Morgan State University, Freddie Gray was never mentioned by name.
Mayoral hopefuls Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh did not return calls for comment on their strategy for police reform.
Meanwhile at the Gilmor Homes, children race past their food farm and stand in line patiently while activists pass out treats for the celebration around the opening of the Tubman house, a youth facility which dons a painting of Harriet Tubman inside, created by local artist Ernie Shaw. Shaw taught the local kids about Harriet Tubman as he created the painting.
Squealing kids, police helicopters and occasional motorcycles riding past popping wheelies are the only sounds within the Gilmor Homes today. As two politicians, councilman Brandon Scott and mayoral hopeful Carl Stokes, meet with residents and activists — the national press that descended on the area during the protests are long gone.
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book 'Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train' is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.