At 'Unity March' to remember Freddie Gray, hope and politics collide

As a crowd of several hundred local residents, clergy, politicians, police and media convened at the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues in West Baltimore Sunday for a march in remembrance of Freddie Gray, two themes emerged — one intended, the other perhaps unavoidable.

First was the sense of hope that organizers, including the Rev. Jamal Bryant, wanted to project for the city one year after Gray's death after suffering injuries in police custody.


Chants of "One Baltimore, one vision!" erupted as marchers moved from the burned-down and since-rebuilt CVS pharmacy at the center of last year's unrest to the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center opened by Bryant's Empowerment Temple for local youth.

Second was an almost overwhelming atmosphere of politics two days before Maryland's primary elections, as candidates running for a range of offices turned the march into one of their many weekend meet-and-greets and their staffs peddled campaign fliers.


The combination spoke to the outsized influence that Gray's death last year, on April 19, and the riots that followed have had on the elections. Attendees said the combination was fitting — as the hope for Baltimore's future is inextricably linked to those leaders who are elected to usher it in.

"Here we are a year since Freddie Gray's death, and we're in the midst of the most contentious political season our city and state has seen in a very long time," former NAACP leader Benjamin Jealous said in front of the CVS, his 3-year-old son, Jack, atop his shoulders.

He said the primary elections for mayor, City Council, the House and Senate are about all the things that protesters were calling for last year, including more jobs, better educational opportunities and a revival of Baltimore's black communities, which made the city a vibrant hub of black American culture in the not-too-distant past.

"This was our great gateway to opportunity as families moved up from the south," Jealous said. "We still need this neighborhood and this city to be a gateway. We can't stop fighting until Baltimore is restored to being a city of opportunity."


Candidates saw Sunday's event as an opportunity to meet with voters and display their connections in the local activist community.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh, whom Bryant has endorsed, walked in lockstep with the pastor during the march, while other mayoral candidates — including former Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Councilman Carl Stokes — moved elsewhere through the crowd, shaking hands.

Also present was Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who has sought to make inroads in Baltimore's black community as he campaigns against Rep. Donna Edwards to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. He shook hands and moved closer to Bryant and Pugh when the crowd converged and bullhorns emerged.

"It's important that we come here to remember this tragedy," Van Hollen said. "We have to dedicate ourselves to act with urgency to address the systemic injustices at the root of his death."

Beyond the politics, the march drew a large crowd of local residents, and seemed to grow in size as it progressed down the street and bystanders joined in.

"This is not a march against anything," Bryant said. "It is a march for a better Baltimore."

Jose Ruth, 42, shouted as the marchers walked past.

"Yes! Community! That's what I'm talking about!" he said. "It's wonderful seeing everyone uniting — but it shouldn't take [Gray] getting killed to see this."

Tanika Malloy encouraged several of her younger cousins to "turn up" and join in the chants of "One Baltimore!"

"I wanted to come out to bring everyone together, for peace, for unity, for justice," the 26-year-old Forest Park woman said.

Malloy said it was important to continue to call for justice a year after Gray's death, not least because verdicts have not been reached in the trials of the six Baltimore police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death.

"Justice should have been served," she said.

Bryant, flanked by Dixon and Pugh, stood on a park bench in the grassy median on Eutaw Place, in front of the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center, and said Baltimore's future depends on everyone coming together. He said the violence of last summer, when the city saw record numbers of homicides, must not be repeated.

"We are committed to ensuring that this is not another bloody summer," he said. "If you believe this is going to be a better summer, make some noise!"

The crowd erupted in applause.

Then Bryant spoke of the importance of voting on Tuesday, and began introducing politicians by name. Dixon and Pugh both got loud applause; other politicians were cheered politely.

In the midst of it all, Gray's shy twin sister, Fredericka, spoke up, too.

"We just want justice," she said. "Thank you for coming."

As the crowd began to disperse, she stood next to Pugh as reporters threw out questions.

"We really do want peace in our streets," Pugh said. "The family does. They always have."

Fredericka Gray was asked if she was backing a particular candidate in the mayoral race. She was visibly uncomfortable.

She smiled, shook her head, and backed slowly away from the cameras.


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