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Four years after Freddie Gray's funeral, a parade to promote peace in West Baltimore

Four years after Freddie Gray's funeral, a parade to promote peace in West Baltimore
Second from left, Gregory Marshburn, director of Safe Streets Sandtown, leads a parade on Pennsylvania Avenue on the fourth anniversary of the civil unrest following Freddie Grey's death. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

On April 27, 2015, Greg Marshburn stood near the burning CVS that would become an enduring symbol of Baltimore’s unrest.

The image broadcast to the world that day — the day Freddie Gray, who had died of injuries sustained in police custody, was buried — was one of a city in pain and on fire. On the fourth anniversary, Marshburn wanted to show a different picture of West Baltimore.

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He and more than 200 others marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday to promote peace. The group was led by a marching band and dancers swinging silver pompoms. Fathers carried children on their shoulders, and dozens held signs that read “Stop shooting, start living.”

“Four years ago, we had havoc and mayhem,” Marshburn, 50, said. “This day is always going to be remembered for what happened, but we have to move forward. We have to heal.”

The parade was sponsored by Safe Streets Sandtown-Winchester, a violence prevention and interruption program that works to reduce shootings and homicides. In the past three years, Marshburn says, he and other members of the group have intervened to prevent hundreds of acts of violence in the neighborhood.

“We can’t let Freddie Gray die in vain,” he said. “We’re letting people know that homicides and shootings are not normal under any circumstances, nor can we allow them to become normal.”

The city has dealt with unrelenting violence since the unrest in 2015. In each of the last four years, there have been more than 300 homicides. Among the dead is Shatina Ashe’s cousin. He was shot in 2017, a decade after her brother was also shot and killed in the city.

“It will get better,” Ashe, 33, said as she prepared to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. “If everyone sticks together and works together as a team, the violence will go down. … This is gonna be the year.”

Even during the joyful event, reminders of the city’s pervasive violence were everywhere. One man carried a blown-up photo of Taylor Hayes, the 7-year-old girl shot and killed last year while riding through Southwest Baltimore in the back seat of a car.

Midway through the march, as the group passed Dolphin Street, they walked across faded graffiti reading “No Shoot Zone” — a tag drawn by an anti-violence activist at the site of homicides.

This one was scrawled right across the road from Furman L. Templeton Elementary School. The crowd would walk by several other versions of the tag before the 1.2-mile march was over.

Tiffany Randolph promised that the group would continue marching, each year, until people in Baltimore stop killing each other.

“I’ve been to 20 funerals in a year,” she told the crowd through a megaphone. “I’m sick of dressing up.”

Jaquetta Graham, 30, said Saturday’s march showed her how much strength there is in the city. The unrest four years ago exposed deep-seated issues, she said, but it also shone a light on the grassroots organizations worked to ameliorate them.

“There is so much unity here,” she said. “We can overcome so much when we come together.”

As the group worked its way down Pennsylvania Avenue, families came out of their apartments to join in the parade. Volunteers ran up to them to give out orange T-shirts emblazoned with the Safe Streets motto.

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As the march wrapped up, 62-year-old Warren Rymes said he felt hope. Children were running around, unafraid. They were dancing to drums and eating snacks on the sidewalks.

“That’s the way,” he said, “this city should be.”

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