Hundreds gathered on the anniversary of Baltimore uprising and marched from North and Pennsylvania avenues to Freddie Gray Empowerment Center. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
As we approach the two-year anniversary of Freddie Gray's death, many are frustrated with the pace of change in Baltimore. We are too. The riots that followed his funeral forced many to stop ignoring the reality that has long been around us, and Baltimore's leaders should have responded with a swift, cohesive and comprehensive plan to start addressing the widespread inequality and injustice in neighborhoods like Gray's Sandtown-Winchester. That didn't happen.
Now, though, we are seeing many disparate efforts from the public, private and non-profit sectors, even from individuals, to start expanding economic opportunities, address drug addiction, provide a stable vision for the school system, eliminate blight and, perhaps most pertinently, reform the police department. It is, in many cases, slow and incremental work, but the impetus for change remains.
Unfortunately, it appears increasingly clear that these efforts will be swimming against the tide of Trump administration policies. Freddie Gray's death had such an impact in Baltimore not just because of its timing amid the Black Lives Matter movement but because his story touched on so many of the systemic problems that plague the city, and the Trump administration is taking steps that will make addressing nearly all of them — from police brutality to lead poisoning — that much harder.
The Department of Justice's waffling on its support for Baltimore's police reform consent decree, which was signed in the waning days of the Obama administration, has received widespread condemnation in Baltimore. Judge James K. Bredar's decision to ratify it despite the justice department's concerns was welcome, but it doesn't fully rectify the situation. Though the police have taken some crucial steps, such as outfitting officers with body cameras and putting seat belts in vans like the one in which Gray was fatally injured, the hard work will be in changing a departmental culture that was poisoned by the zero-tolerance tactics of a decade ago. No matter how much Chief Kevin Davis may want to change that culture, he will have a hard time doing it without the full commitment of DOJ resources to monitor and enforce the agreement. Moreover, the department faces the task not only of reforming but also of getting the public to believe in its reforms, and many are skeptical — not without reason — that the department can ever truly change on its own.
The Trump administration's law-and-order policies also include a return to the failed war on drugs that shattered lives in cities across the nation. Gray exemplified the problem of young men whose convictions on drug offenses make them all but unemployable, which in turn sends them back to the underground economy. In February, Mr. Trump promised that his war on drugs would be "ruthless," and top officials in the justice department are making clear that they view drugs as a criminal justice problem rather than a public health one.
Meanwhile, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is now headed by Dr. Ben Carson, a vocal opponent of the Obama administration's efforts to follow federal law calling for housing policy to foster desegregation. The Trump administration's proposed budget would all but eliminate any tools the department had to foster that policy anyway; it calls for a $6 billion cut to the agency's budget. In addition to a $300 million reduction to the Housing Choice voucher program that provides rental assistance to low-income households, it would cut such "lower priority" programs as the Community Development Block Grants that have been a mainstay of neighborhood renewal efforts in Baltimore and nationwide since the 1970s.
Gray, like many young people who grow up in sub-standard housing in Baltimore, suffered poisoning from exposure to lead paint, which impairs cognition, attention span and impulse control. Mr. Trump's budget eliminates Environmental Protection Agency programs to train workers on how to remove lead paint safely and to educate the public on the dangers of exposure.