Five years ago, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man living in the Gilmor Homes public housing complex, died from a severe spinal cord injury incurred a week earlier in the back of a Baltimore police transport van. He had been arrested for possessing a pocketknife — something that was arguably legal and discovered only after officers chased him, held him and searched him.
His senseless death, like so many others involving police and black men around the country, launched widespread protests and promises. City residents and out-of-town advocates, some opportunistic, took to the streets to decry police brutality, abuse and apathy, sometimes through violence and looting. Meanwhile, area leaders vowed to address the systemic racism and structural inequality that had long restricted opportunities in Baltimore for people like Freddie Gray: African Americans — men, especially — with limited education and income, whose lives had been further altered by violence, drugs, crime and childhood lead exposure.
The worldwide attention paid to this young man’s killing forced Baltimore — white, affluent Baltimore, in particular — to take stock of the city’s inequities and recurring failures. It was no longer possible to bury one’s head in the sand; lines had been drawn.
Since that fateful day, some strides have been made. Millions in federal funding flowed into the city to help residents find work, education, housing and a second chance. Programs were launched to divert drug offenders away from prison toward treatment, and to provide job training for others. Ban the box laws were implemented to remove a barrier to employment. Voting rights, and a measure of dignity, were restored to former felons, giving them a greater stake in their communities. There are now seat belts in police wagons, and the Baltimore Police Department is subject to a federal consent decree to address the department’s long-standing “pattern and practice” of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. Demolition has begun on parts of Freddie Gray’s rundown Gilmor Homes, which had grown rife with drugs and crime.
Yet significant change eludes us. Many efforts begun after Freddie Gray’s death and the subsequent uprisings were piecemeal, and some were abandoned relatively soon after they were launched, like former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “OneBaltimore” project. It was billed as a “comprehensive public-private initiative” that would “focus on systemic problems that have faced our city for decades” and result in “a diverse, vibrant, inclusive, and competitive city with quality education, health, civic and economic opportunities for all.” All that appears to remain of it today is an abandoned website.
The city never really had a chance. We’re on our fifth police commissioner (including an interim) and third mayor just since Freddie Gray’s death, with both offices rocked by corruption scandals. We’ve yet to find consistent leadership, much less the visionary kind. And it’s not at all clear that person is among the current crop of mayoral candidates.
Our homicide rate continues to soar, residents still distrust police, and city students consistently perform among the worst in the state. The president mocks us. This is not where we expected to be by now, back at the height of hope, when it seemed Freddie Gray’s death might be the spark that initiates real reform.
And now, a pandemic. The novel coronavirus has deepened the fault lines in our city. Low-income, mostly black children are less able to access distance learning than their white peers. And black residents are more at risk from infection either because their jobs encourage exposure, should they still be employed, or because they possess underlying health conditions that developed from a dearth of proper medical care. The longer this continues, the greater we can expect the disparity to become.
Baltimore was never going to overcome its obstacles overnight — or even in five years. The challenges were always too great. But there was a recognition and acknowledgement of them five years ago that doesn’t seem to have the same momentum today. While there are still hundreds working tirelessly to improve prospects in Baltimore, many others have gone back to a head in the sand approach to its problems.
That can’t continue if we’re ever to achieve lasting change. Baltimore must resurrect its outrage — before another Freddie Gray does it for us.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.