One year after unrest, Baltimore takes stock

Reflection, rebukes, hope for reconciliation at events marking one year after riots following funeral of Gray.

One year ago, the voices of Frederick Douglass High School students were barely heard as they were depicted as the spark that ignited the riot after the funeral of Freddie Gray.

One year ago and across town, the Mary Harvin Senior Center under construction was burned, the blaze becoming a symbol of a city on fire over the 25-year-old black man's death from spinal injuries suffered in police custody.

The students and those involved in the center marked the anniversary Wednesday afternoon, as did a group of officials who staged a Day of Reconciliation near Mondawmin Mall. They looked back on the day when what had been mostly peaceful protests against police brutality erupted into rock-throwing, looting and fires — but also forward to how the city is rebuilding.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan joined a crowd in Broadway East for the grand opening of the rebuilt senior center.

"What was once a symbol of violence and destruction is now a beacon of hope and an example of the resilience that truly defines the amazing people of this great city," he said.

The crowd included some who had won primaries on Tuesday, such as City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, and those who hadn't, including the district's councilman, Carl Stokes, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who took over after his predecessor was fired last year, and Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, who filed criminal charges against six officers in Gray's death, sat in the audience together.

Neither Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake nor the Democratic nominee to replace her, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, attended. Rawlings-Blake, who came under criticism for her handling of the unrest, decided not to seek re-election. On Wednesday, the crowd was told she had fallen ill.

Both Rawlings-Blake and Pugh spoke later in the afternoon at a Day of Reconciliation event at Liberty Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road near Mondawmin Mall.

"We were determined not to let the hours of unrest be the last word, be the end of the story," Rawlings-Blake said.

Pugh said she remembered leaving her office that afternoon a year ago and going to Mondawmin.

"I stood on the corner and asked the mothers to get their children and the fathers to get their babies," she said.

Anthony W. Batts, the city's police commissioner at the time of the rioting, gave an exclusive interview to CBS Evening News that aired on Wednesday in which he said the rioting last year exposed deeper problems in Baltimore.

"It was just the straw that broke the camel's back that unleashed that," he told CBS News' Jeff Pegues. "You gotta talk about the racial issues in that city. People don't like to talk about those things, but you got 'separate but equal' taking place in that city."

Batts said neither he nor Rawlings-Blake ever told officers to "stand down" during the unrest. The department "just didn't have enough time to get prepared the way that we should have," he said. "And that falls on me. And I take that accountability for that protest."

With most of the riot centered in West Baltimore, the burning of the Harvin senior center in East Baltimore shocked those involved in its construction. Many speakers noted their surprise at seeing the half-built structure in flames as they watched television coverage of the unrest.

But the destruction only made them resolve to finish what they had started: a public-private partnership to bring affordable housing to a previously blighted block.

"We were simply and absolutely determined to build, and we did," said Kevin Bell, senior vice president of The Woda Group, the developer of the center on North Chester Street. "And now this community, it has a jewel."

The 61-unit center is named after a founding member of Southern Baptist Church, which is across the street, and who would have turned 100 this year. The Rev. Donte L. Hickman Sr. told the crowd that the center represents Baltimore's rebirth after the riot.

"We are celebrating more than bricks and mortar, and more than a building," Hickman said. "This is a celebration of a city, Baltimore City, that has endured a national stigma from 'The Wire' to the fire. ... This is a celebration of a continuation of our collective vision of a community transformation."

On Thursday, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives plans to provide updates and a reminder that agents are still seeking tips on the senior center blaze and other fires set a year ago.

"We have multiple investigative leads we're following," Dave Cheplak, special agent and spokesman for the Baltimore ATF office, said of the Harvin fire.

Four people face federal charges in other fires set April 27, including the one at the CVS pharmacy in Penn North, Cheplak said, and the agency has paid $20,000 in rewards for tips.

Hogan touted state actions over the intervening year, such as funding programs to increase opportunities for youth, closing the city jail, developing a plan to demolish vacant buildings and investing to transform the city's public transit system.

He did not mention his decision to abandon the city's proposed east-west Red Line light rail system that many hoped would provide construction jobs and transportation to other work.

Hogan said that after the riot, his administration "immediately moved our entire operation to Baltimore.

"We walked the streets of Baltimore, we listened to the concerns of residents and community leaders," he said. "We knew then that even when those dark days had ended that the work of healing and revitalizing Baltimore was just beginning."

At Douglass, a panel discussion on the events of last April turned into a dialogue filled with pain and pride. Students from the historic West Baltimore high school tried to reclaim the narrative of those days, the events that they say have continued to overshadow their successes.

"It opened a lot of students' eyes to see that we can [be] suppressed, and we have to rise above what people think we are and their perceptions of us," said De'Asia Ellis, a senior at Douglass. She will attend Goucher College on a full scholarship next year.

Police said the riots that roiled West Baltimore last April started after about 100 students walked out of the school in protest. Soon, a violent standoff between youth and residents unfolded at neighboring Mondawmin Mall, where students catch the buses to go home.

It was later revealed that the Mondawmin transit hub had been shut down, leaving Douglass students and more than 5,000 others who pass through it stranded. To this day, no agency has taken responsibility for the shutdown.

"We deserve an explanation, too," said Jesse Schneiderman, who teaches government at the school. "I want to know who stranded 1,100 of my students."

Ebony Cooper, who also teaches government, said this year has been her most successful year at Douglass because it has given students a real-world example of civic engagement.

But she said a lot of false promises have been made in the past year.

When schools reopened two days after the riots, a parade of news media, city leaders and celebrities, including former Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis and the Washington-based rapper Wale descended on the school.

The students were promised lights for their football field, frequent check-ins, even offers to work on an album. Not one promise has been fulfilled.

"We need to hold those people and organizations accountable who came here a year ago and promised our kids the world ... and we haven't seen them," Cooper said.

Kids were noticeably absent at the reconciliation event near Mondawmin, which drew instead city leaders, clergy members and film crews.

Still, there were signs of protest. One person held a sign, "1 year later still no justice." Another: "1 year later still no investment."

Rawlings-Blake announced that 9,400 young people, ages 14 to 21, have applied for work in a summer jobs program, a significant increase from previous years. The Annie E. Casey Foundation pledged $500,000 for the jobs program and offered to give another $500,000 if the mayor can find matching donations. Rawlings-Blake urged the crowd to help.

The Parks & People Foundation announced plans to begin construction of a career center at Reisterstown Road and Liberty Heights Avenue.

Davis, the police commissioner, told the crowd the last year "has changed everyone."

"It changed our community," he said. "It certainly changed our Police Department.

"We realize we can't police our neighborhoods in a one-dimensional way. We're equally tasked with building a relationship that's built of trust and respect."

jmarbella@baltsun.com

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