A group of activists led by Rev. Jamal Bryant (center) hold a press conference on Martin Luther King Blvd. and Washington Blvd. last May. Bryant is planning peace march on April 24 to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray.
A group of activists led by Rev. Jamal Bryant (center) hold a press conference on Martin Luther King Blvd. and Washington Blvd. last May. Bryant is planning peace march on April 24 to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant is calling for as many people as possible to descend on West Baltimore on April 24 for a peaceful march to mark the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray's death and the subsequent unrest.

Bryant, pastor of the 12,000-member Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore whose national profile rose amid the unrest, said he wants to challenge the systemic problems in West Baltimore that have persisted in the last year despite promises of change — including the lack of job opportunities, thousands of vacant homes, and high rates of drug addiction and high school dropouts.

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"It is amazing that we're coming up on a year and, regrettably, not much has changed," Bryant said in a message posted online. "We're still looking at a whole lot of things that we believed would have been corrected by now. But because they have not, then we're going to have to take alternative measures."

In an interview Tuesday, Bryant said he did not know how many people to expect at the march, but said he really wanted to see "a strong contingency of congregants and community members." He also said that "those who want to be mayor should be out there marching" as well, because "it is so important for us not to become apathetic and lethargic in this election process, as there is a whole lot that still needs to be done."

In his online message, Bryant asked those listening to invite as many people as possible, and to come from all across the region.

"Come in from D.C., from Virginia, from Delaware, from Philadelphia, from New York. Come on, y'all. Stand with Baltimore. Let's make a change. Let's change this city. Let's change the narrative. Let's change the generation."

Bryant said the Sunday march would begin at 2 p.m. at Mondawmin Mall near Frederick Douglass High School, where clashes between police and mostly-young protesters spiraled out of control on April 27 — the day of Gray's funeral — and precipitated a night of rioting, looting and arson in West Baltimore and other parts of the city.

The march is scheduled to go from Mondawmin Mall to the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues, where much of last year's unrest occurred and a CVS pharmacy was burned. It will then move on to City Hall, Bryant said.

"We're praying for jobs and we're praying for justice. It's an old and familiar thing, but one that still rings true a year later," Bryant said in his online remarks. "We are not coming to break glass, we are coming to break the status quo. We are, in fact, not coming to loot, we are coming, in fact, to lift up our voice to say to those who are very serious about making a difference within our community, 'Don't do it from an ivory tower, do it right on the front line as we march for jobs and justice in the city of Baltimore.'"

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said city officials "are aware that there will be a number of different events to mark the anniversary of last year's unrest."

T.J. Smith, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said the department is also aware of multiple events, and is "looking forward to continued dialogue as we work towards common goals."

Among the first planned events, local activists have scheduled a rally at City Hall at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Gray, 25, died on April 19, 2015 from severe neck injuries sustained while in police custody on April 12. His death spurred widespread and mostly peaceful protests in the city before isolated unrest occurred in the downtown area and in West Baltimore on the night of April 25. After the more substantial rioting on April 27, Gov. Larry Hogan called in the National Guard and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake implemented a weeklong, nightly curfew.

Bryant said the events "brought the entire nation to a screeching halt and a dramatic pause," as a "generation presumed to be asleep stretched and allowed itself to be heard around the world that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"We took to the streets, literally locked Baltimore down — the Orioles couldn't play, the Inner Harbor closed, North Avenue was in fact impassable — because of a generation that refused to believe that business as usual would in fact be acceptable," he said.

Still, the neighborhoods at the center of the unrest have not seen the investment that they need, he said, even as major development projects closer to downtown have received generous tax incentives.

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Bryant said churches across the region will be taking part in the march, as will the Nation of Islam and several activists who have become prominent voices in the local protest movement since last year. Community members from the Sandtown-Winchester and Upton neighborhoods will lead the march, he said.

Bryant said the march will not be "against anybody," but for new opportunities and fair treatment. He encouraged those who attend to wear red, black and green clothing.

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