Activist 'squatters' take over home near Gray's arrest a year later

Activists take over a vacant home with plans to make it a hub for good works in West Baltimore

A coalition of activists has claimed a vacant red brick rowhouse at the site of Freddie Gray's arrest, though the city has marked the home for demolition and says it's not the activists' to use.

The self-described squatters say they want to use what they call the "Tubman House" — named after the underground railroad organizer Harriet Tubman — as a hub to organize food gardens and giveaways, host community cookouts and orchestrate art and occupational training courses, mainly for residents in and around neighboring Gilmor Homes.

On Tuesday, a crowd of more than 50 activists and Gilmor residents, some of whom witnessed Gray's arrest a year ago, gathered at the same Presbury Street corner.

"We've been asking for permission for far too long. Now is the time to act," said organizer Brion Gill.

Speaking to the crowd over the music of a passing ice cream truck, members of the coalition said they've tried to work through official contacts to acquire the house on the corner of Presbury and Mount streets, but have had no success.

"We have the power to save ourselves," said Lawrence Grandpre of the group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a member of the coalition. "That's what this project is about. The question is whether the city, and whoever the mayor is — will they be amenable to these types of grassroot efforts."

City councilman and mayoral candidate Nick Mosby said he generally supports the group's effort and helped them determine the status of the home through the Baltimore Housing.

Tania Baker, communications director for the Baltimore Housing, did not comment on any meetings between the group and city officials. She said officials plan to inspect the property to determine its next steps.

The City's Department of Housing and Community Development acquired the property last year for $24,700 and relocated its residents as part of a plan to demolish and renovate that entire block of Presbury Street under the "Vacants to Value" program, Baker said.

She noted that Baltimore has lost a third of its population since 1950, "resulting in major concentrations of blight in areas."

The 1600 block of Presbury St. is one among thousands in the city that has vacant buildings, some of which have started to crumble to the ground. While the house claimed by the activists went vacant just last year, other homes on the block have been abandoned "for years," said Gilmor resident Alethea Booze.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has tried to speed up work on vacants, quadrupling the budget to tear down abandoned houses, but has acknowledged it's not enough, given the sheer volume of vacants that have built up over decades.

"I don't have a secret money tree in the basement," she said after the first of several houses recently fell down as severe winds swept the area, including one a block away from the Tubman house.

Dominque Stevenson, director of Friend of a Friend, a prison mentoring program run by the Quaker-based American Friends Service Organization, said the city should be overjoyed to work with their coalition.

"Some of these houses have been around for years with no action from the city. Aren't they worried about them becoming stash houses?" he asked.

In addition to American Friends and Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle, the "1619 Coalition" — named for the Presbury Street address — also includes members from Communities United, a Baltimore-based group advocating social, economic and environmental justice.

American Friends worked on food drives and other projects in the neighboring Gilmor Homes for more than a year before Gray's death last April from injuries suffered while in police custody.

Eddie Conway, former leader of the Baltimore Black Panthers, is one of the organizers of American Friends' efforts. Conway was released in 2014 after serving nearly 44 years for his conviction in the shooting death of a Baltimore police officer. He had maintained his innocence, and his conviction was nullified because of a court procedural issue. He immediately started working in Gilmor through the Friend of a Friend mentoring program.

In the crowd Tuesday was another American Friends volunteer, George Waite, 71, who helped Conway build new basketball goals in Gilmor Homes shortly after Gray's death. Waite said he and a group of friends tried to work with Baltimore Housing Authority to build the courts, but received little response, and ended up raising funds and building them.

Donnail Lee, a Gilmor resident whose daughters play in the courts, said he admires the work of Waite — a man he calls "uncle" — and others who have reached out to help the community.

Also in the audience was Harriet Tubman herself, or rather a 2015 version of her. Dr. Ruth J.K. Pratt, a 94-year-old former Baltimore educator who was awarded the 2015 Harriet Tubman Lifetime Achievement Award from the State of Maryland, sat in her wheelchair, observing the younger generation.

"I think it's wonderful what they are doing," she said.

Pratt described how Tubman helped friends of friends reach safe passage, and noted: "She did it with the help of whites and freed slaves."

Pratt, who grew up on Baltimore's McCulloh Street, recalled when some streets were restricted to "only blacks" or "only whites," and she has seen tremendous change in the city.

She sees the efforts of the coalition connecting to Tubman's legacy in that "they both let us know that all things are possible. If you don't get it the first time, try and try again."

crentz@baltsun.com

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