After Freddie Gray, politics, policing and communities feel the difference

In politics and policing, in daily life, a changed Baltimore moves on after last year's riots.

If firebrand minister Jamal Bryant has his way, the march he plans to lead across West Baltimore on Sunday will bring the city "to a standstill."

Prominent in the protests after the death of Freddie Gray, Bryant is one of many in Baltimore, including politicians, activists and philanthropists, who are pushing for what they consider real change — in neighborhoods and the criminal justice system — on a range of social, education and economic issues.

"Is Baltimore really about rhetoric or results?" Bryant asked at a recent rally to encourage voting as a way to propel such change. "Were we just about emotion or committed to making a difference?"

One tumultuous year has passed since anger over the death of Gray from spinal injuries suffered in police custody erupted into rioting. During that time, a virtual microscope has been trained on Baltimore in search of the larger meaning of that day: April 27, 2015.

Activists continue to lead rallies. The city is on the verge of electing a new mayor, with an unusually high interest among the electorate reflected in early-voting turnout. The police force is being transformed, even as six officers still face trials in Gray's arrest and death. And many continue to look for solutions to the city's social ills.

"We have a moment. We have a conversation. We have energy," said Stefanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist and co-author of the new book "Coming of Age in the Other America."

"We're at a point," she said, "where something can happen."

But what, exactly?

It is a question that has hovered this month as what happened one year ago is remembered: April 12, when Gray, a 25-year-old black man, was arrested and his spine broken during a police van transport; April 19, when he died at Shock Trauma; and April 27, when he was buried and rioters clashed with police, looted stores and pharmacies, and set fire to cars and buildings.

Each anniversary has brought commemorations — gatherings in the Gilmor Homes area where Gray lived and was arrested, panel discussions, art and music events. On Sunday, Bryant is planning his march. On Monday, the Coalition for Transformation and Betterment of Baltimore plans to host a rally and voter-registration drive.

As speakers took to the microphone at a recent cookout on the anniversary of Gray's death to speak about police brutality, a quieter remembrance was underway across the street at Gilmor Homes. Friends of his gathered, some of whom had brought balloons bearing messages such as "I miss you." Someone formed tea candles on the pavement to read "J4F," short for "Justice for Freddie," next to a nosegay of purple flowers.

New politicians, laws

One certainty is that City Hall will change. On Tuesday, voters head to the polls for the primary election. In heavily Democratic Baltimore, whoever wins that party's nomination is the likely winner of November's general election.

Criticized for her handling of the unrest, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake halted her re-election campaign in September, opening floodgates through which dozens of candidates would rush. Among them were Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, who is far behind in the polls, and the front-runners, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Rawlings-Blake continues to insist that her actions on the day of the riots contained what could have been a more devastating event. She also says that she had been focused previously on many of the problems that rose to the forefront of debate during the past year.

She noted that she had asked for a Justice Department review of the Baltimore Police Department, which was expanded into a civil rights investigation after Gray's death. That investigation is continuing.

"Cities," the mayor said, "are always a work in progress."

Efforts to reform criminal justice gained traction after the riots. This month, the General Assembly passed sweeping legislation, shifting the focus of drug enforcement from incarceration to treatment and changing how sentencing and parole violations are handled.

Lawmakers passed legislation aimed at improving police accountability. While the measure stopped short of what activists sought — rather than a statewide mandate that civilians be included on police trial boards, the makeup is left to local jurisdictions — some observers said last year's protests, many of which were peaceful, provided the impetus for reform.

"Keep in mind, we had similar legislation introduced last year that went nowhere. It died in committee," said Elizabeth Alex, lead organizer of CASA de Maryland, which advocates for Latino and immigrant rights and is part of a coalition of progressive groups united on issues of justice, public safety and employment.

"The energy coming out of Baltimore and statewide because of Freddie Gray's death, because of the Baltimore uprising, and because of the groundswell of support calling for change made a difference," she said.

Since Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts was fired, replaced by his deputy, Kevin Davis, change has rippled through the force. And it might continue to do so — the next mayor could choose to bring in a new chief.

In the meantime, Davis has emphasized community policing, with more foot patrols and engagement with residents — something Maj. Sheree Briscoe was brought into the Western District to put into effect.

The district, headquartered on Mount Street, was a center of unrest after Gray's arrest and death. Protesters began marching there before their movement expanded and they headed downtown.

"Are things perfect? No," Briscoe said of efforts to build more positive relationships with the community. "We're in the journey; the journey is in progress."

Still, she points to promising signs — kids are learning officers' names, and residents increasingly are helping them with investigations. After a rape in the district this year, for example, police went door to door, block by block, with community members, looking for tips. Through that, they were able to develop a case and make an arrest.

After the riots, the homicide rate in Baltimore spiked and police made fewer arrests. Sometimes they were confronted by cellphone-wielding residents when they did make arrests. And a rash of looted prescription pills disrupted the local drug trade.

John Skinner, a former deputy police commissioner in Baltimore who now teaches at Towson University, believes the department is regaining its footing, although it remains an uneasy time.

"You realize how fragile that relationship is between police and the community, and how quickly it can unravel," said Skinner, who retired from the force two years ago.

The trials of six officers charged in Gray's arrest and death begin next month. "The whole community is watching those trials," Skinner said.

Meanwhile, many of those arrested during the unrest saw their charges dropped, though some continue to face serious charges.

Natalie Finegar, a deputy public defender who handled many riot-related cases, said she has seen a greater interest in the criminal justice system as more residents question issues such as the war on drugs and the bail system.

"The city has reoriented what it focuses on," she said, adding that she's been asked to speak across the city. "They're asking questions. It opens the door to change. ... I think we're on the verge of something."

Help for neighborhoods, youth

Ray Kelly, the director of No Boundaries, comprising groups representing west-side neighborhoods, said the unrest had the effect of pushing to the forefront issues that afflict Gray's former neighborhood, such as the lack of grocery stores and fresh produce.

He pointed to a $1.3 million grant from the T. Rowe Price Foundation, the largest it has ever donated to a single initiative, that will help a number of groups address neighborhood needs.

"It's definitely brought our fight to a different light," Kelly said. "It was a quiet fight for a lot of years."

Many of the efforts spurred by last year's unrest have been focused on helping the city's youth.

On the anniversary of Gray's death, DeLuca and fellow sociologists Susan Clampet-Lundquist and Kathryn Edin published their book "Coming of Age in the Other America." It is based on more than a decade of research into the lives of young people in Sandtown and other impoverished neighborhoods.

Their research found that those who succeeded in higher education and better jobs had found an "identity project" — some kind of passion, music or art or whatever defined them as unique. As the authors write in the book, these projects serve as a bridge between their current and perhaps challenging reality and the future they imagine and work toward.

"We all get that — everyone remembers how they felt when they found something they felt excited about, something that sparked their interest," she said. "It seems so simple, but it is absolutely essential."

The images from last year's riots — young people storming down streets in a haze of smoke from the fires they had set — were at odds with her sense of the city's youth.

What she found was decidedly more nuanced: young people whose lives are both grim and hopeful, and who have a hard-won resilience. But even some who do well in school reach a point in young adulthood when they are dragged down "like crabs in a bucket," as one young research subject put it.

DeLuca said 82 percent of the young people they studied "had never turned to the streets" and were in school or working. "The heartbreaking part is even that majority, doing what everyone wants them to do, had met with incredible struggle. They need to launch, but they are still dealing with the trauma and in some cases the chaos of the family they came from."

What heartens her these days is seeing all the efforts to help Baltimore's challenged neighborhoods, painting murals and offering classes, providing what might be the spark to propel young lives forward.

"The thing about Baltimore that inspired me is you keep finding people who care about the city and commit to it in small ways," DeLuca said.

jmarbella@baltsun.com

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