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Five Years After Uprising, Community Leaders Say The Needle Has Barely Moved

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

  Five years ago, Joe Jones, the director of the Center for Urban Families got to work early at around 7:30 a.m.  He managed to get a few hours of work done before it was time to head directly across the street to New Shiloh Baptist Church, where Freddie Gray’s funeral was about to start. 

“I could not believe the assemblage of the national media that had descended on a community that wasn't there when I got to work,” he remembered. 

Toward the end of the hours-long service, Jones noticed phones were beginning to ring: first one by one, and then all at once. He shrugged it off and went back across the street, expecting to spend the rest of the day working on jobs programs. 

Instead, he found his colleagues silently huddled around a television watching scenes of fires and protests. 

“I'm like, you know, “Where is that?” and my team turns to me and says ‘that's here,’ ” Jones said.

He was watching the beginning of the unrest: a weeks-long protest where pent-up anger and bitterness over gaping disparities rose to the surface after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody. 

Black people living in disinvested communities on the West and East sides have said for decades that there are two Baltimores: the haves and have nots, defined by generations of racist redlining policies, poverty and police brutality. In the wake of the unrest, something big happened: this reality became the center of a national discussion about structural inequality. 

The Department of Justice published a report that confirmed the police department used excessive force and acknowledged unjustified disparities in the rates of stops and arrests of black men. Politicians promised to deliver badly needed systemic changes, like reducing violence.

But years later, those systematic inequalities remain, violence has risen, and those promises are broken, said Lorece Edwards, a native Baltimorean and Director of Community Practice and Outreach at Morgan State University.

Just look at the amazing amount of turnover City Hall and the Baltimore Police Department has seen since the unrest, she said. 

Baltimore has seen three mayors since 2015: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was at the helm during the unrest and who decided not to run for a second term; Catherine Pugh, who touted herself as an ethical problem solver but was sentenced to three years in federal prison for crimes committed in public office; and Jack Young, who as City Council President automatically rose to the mayor’s office without campaigning.

Even more police commissioners have cycled through BPD: Anthony Batts was fired shortly after the unrest; Kevin Davis was fired by Pugh after beginning to implement the earliest stages the BPD’s consent decree work with the Justice Department; Darryl DeSousa lasted all of four months before he was charged with failing to file federal tax returns and was later sentenced to ten months in prison; Gary Tuggle held the top job for ten months in an interim capacity, saying midway through his tenure that he wouldn’t seek to remain; Michael Harrison was appointed to the office in March of last year after leading the New Orleans Police Department during a consent decree.

“And you’re asking for hope,” Edwards said. 

“People haven't seen any changes,” she said. The turnover and corruption “continue to dig the hole wider and deeper, and then it takes us back to that generational piece, where we have one generation after the other generation experiencing the same thing.”

Edwards and Jones said the needle of progress has moved slowly: Edwards points to the partial demolition of the Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray lived and where residents were lead poisoned, while Jones points to the greater inclusion of people of color in nonprofit positions throughout Baltimore. 

“We shouldn't despise small beginnings,” Edwards said. “But when you have a people who have been waiting and deserving of change and nothing is getting better fast enough, then it looks like nothing is being done at all.”

In order to undo the impact of decades of racist redlining policies and the effects of generation after generation living in poverty, the system itself must change, Edwards said.

“We need to dismantle these decades of racial policies that have kept people confined in caste systems,” she said. “People need to see consistent, compassionate and authentic change.”

That kind of change can’t happen without leaders both inside and outside of City Hall working with instead of for disinvested, vulnerable communities, said Jones, who leads his nonprofit by sitting down with community residents to intimately understand them and their needs. 

“There is no higher priority... to have them as a part of the co-designer of services and interventions that are intended to impact them,” Jones said. “We have got to get away from people just thinking they know what people need and making decisions about that, as opposed to saying ‘Your voice is critically important. We want you at the table.’ ’

That inclusion and empathy is also what’s missing from philanthropic funding in Baltimore, said Donald Gresham, the president of the Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment, a grassroots organization that advocates for affordable housing.

“How can you make it better if you're not talking to the people who are affected by it?” he said. “We have funders that don't even know the community environment or the culture that they try to serve, who don’t live here in Baltimore.”

If communities themselves aren’t involved in the efforts that try to reach them, Gresham said, then people’s needs won’t be met and the cycle of generational poverty and trauma will continue. 

Grassroots leaders like Gresham “know what the needs are,” he said. “We’re here at the ground level, we are seeing the pain and how people feel, and how they want their lives to be better.”

Five years after the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents are once again being hit the hardest, this time by the coronavirus pandemic. Zip code data shows that 21215, a poor, predominantly black area in northwest Baltimore, has the most cases, while residents in more affluent areas are less affected. 

Edwards calls the pandemic a crisis on top of a crisis. 

“Your most vulnerable people are the ones who are hit the worst,” she said. “This is the question I have for people: Why do we have to have a pandemic? Why do we have to have an uprising?” 

She asks: in Baltimore, why does it take tragedy to shine a light on problems that have always been there?


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