The fragile dream of the Next Baltimore cracks

Mistrust of police, violent protests crack a dream for a better Baltimore

Saturday afternoon, when things were still peaceful and the Freddie Gray marchers first reached Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, that long asphalt barrier that separates some of the poorest neighborhoods of West Baltimore from the central part of the city, first boys on bicycles, then men with raised hands brought traffic to a halt at the busy intersection with Pennsylvania Avenue.

Car horns blared — some in annoyance, some in solidarity with the marchers. A man with a bullhorn asked drivers to slow down and stop. A woman on the sidewalk screamed for the boys on bikes to get out of the road.

Then the traffic suddenly froze and the car horns stopped. In the next minute there was a great gathering of people in the intersection — men and women carrying signs that said, "Quit Killing Black People Damn It," and "Justice 4 Freddie Gray" and "Jobs Not Killings."

A woman with golden hair and a portable loudspeaker led a chant: "All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray." Little girls held their mothers' hands and tried to keep up. A tiny boy next to me blew a whistle and held a handmade sign: "RIP Freddie."

The protesters marched down Greene Street, toward the downtown University of Maryland campus — the law school and the hospital. And at the hospital, a block from the Shock Trauma Center where Freddie Gray died last Sunday, the marchers stopped and raised their hands and shared a moment of silence. Drivers and passengers in their cars and trucks — at least those I could see along Lombard Street — seemed to accept the reality before them, and they seemed to do so without grimace.

West Baltimore had broken across MLK Boulevard and entered the city's sweet spot, down to Camden Yards and over to City Hall and then to the Inner Harbor.

A couple of summers ago, we had the anti-violence 300 Men March along North Avenue, and that was impressive, an important push to make Baltimore a better city, to get us to the Next Baltimore.

And though the Freddie Gray protests carry a different message — bitter anger toward police, outrage over Gray's treatment, demands for quick justice against those responsible for his death — you can still hear the earnest voice that says: "We deserve better than this."

While it's probably unwise to ascribe anything too grandiose to a particular event or moment in a city's history — especially here, in the first rough drafts — you can't help but feel this is a big moment, Baltimore at some tipping point.

"It is a big moment in Baltimore history, I would not hesitate to say that," said the Rev. Harold Carter Jr., whose New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore will be the site of Gray's funeral on Monday. "What has happened here has called on political leaders, black and white, to speak out, and people — not exclusively African-American people, either — to take to the street. I've been watching that carefully. There have been whites and Asians, too, joining in.

"Baltimore is having its own call to action," Carter added. "We've had any number of these unfortunate incidents across the country, but now it's come to roost in Baltimore. And what previously might have been swept under the rug has been brought — with social media and videos — to light in a big way."

You can't look at the death of Freddie Gray in isolation, certainly not in post-Ferguson America. But you can't separate it from Baltimore's history either.

You can't look at this moment, and the story of Freddie Gray, without thinking of Baltimore's long struggle — its loss of middle-class population, starting more than 50 years ago; the riots of the late 1960s and white flight; the loss of manufacturing jobs; the concentration of poor, black families on the east side and the west side and in the public housing high-rises. Children, like Freddie Gray and his sisters, were poisoned by lead paint in substandard houses. Add heroin to the mix of debilitating problems. Add crack cocaine. Don't forget the spread of HIV and AIDS. Add the war on drugs and a period of zero-tolerance policing.

Why should anyone be shocked at this anger?

There was a hard fight to instill some pride in a city that was rapidly losing population and prestige. Baltimore started to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, but the road from there has been rocky and winding, and it did not travel through much of West Baltimore.

As hard as the last week has been, there's hope in that we-can-do-better sentiment you hear among some of the protesters. It's the same expression I hear in the young professionals who have started to inhabit the city in greater numbers: We can do better. We have to, or the fragile dream of the Next Baltimore will never be a reality.

And as I write those words, the Freddie Gray march turned violent ...

The dream of the Next Baltimore is cracked.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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