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After Freddie, We Woke Up

Alice Speri

The Intercept

ONE YEAR AND one day after Freddie Gray succumbed to the spine injury he received during a 45-minute drive in a police van, the Baltimore police commissioner sat on stage before a room packed with people who had poured into the city’s streets demanding justice. On the walls, black-and-white photos of protesters reminded everyone of the rawness and emotion of Baltimore’s breaking point.

On stage interviewing Commissioner Kevin Davis were two protesters raised to sometimes reluctant fame during “the uprising,” as this section of Baltimore has come to call the protests — rejecting “riots,” the term used by much of the media. One of them, the photographer Devin Allen, was propelled from the streets of West Baltimore to the cover of Timemagazine when he captured the protests’ most iconic image: a black man, face half-covered by a bandana, running from dozens of baton-wielding cops. The other activist, Kwame Rose, landed in the national spotlight when he confronted Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera on live television, becoming one of the most recognizable faces of the protesters’ anger.

On April 20, sitting next to Commissioner Davis, they were once again facing a police officer up close, and they weren’t about to go easy on him.

Davis is new to the job. His predecessor, Anthony Batts, was fired in July — not over the protests but because of the spike in violence that followed them. There were 344 homicides in Baltimore last year — the deadliest in the city’s history. Batts was not the only one to go: Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, announced in September that she would not seek re-election, and much of the city council followed suit. Today, the city will vote in the primaries for the first mayoral race in years that doesn’t seem decided from the start.

“This type of conversation isn’t normal,” said Rose, asking the audience to trust his “aggressiveness” in questioning the commissioner. No one objected when he then asked Davis, bluntly, “How do you deal with the anti-blackness that is natural inside yourself?” Rose asked Davis about two police brutality lawsuits that directly involved him, and whether he would now fire an officer who committed similar acts of violence.

Davis answered every question, if not always directly. He apologized to Allen, Rose, and anyone in the room “who has ever had a negative experience with a police officer. I am sorry that that’s happened to you, I really am. That’s not just on behalf of the Baltimore Police Department, that’s on behalf of our profession.”

In a sense, the staged conversation was a symbol of what has improved in Baltimore over the last 12 months — the city is now talking to itself, and asking tough questions. Debates about Freddie Gray’s death and the big-picture problems that led to it have echoed from the streets, to public forums, to the mayoral campaign trail. There’s general acknowledgement of the poverty, housing, and education crises in the city — and honest recognition that police culture must change.

But if Baltimore has now asked the tough questions, it’s less clear what the answers are.

IN NOVEMBER, on the eve of the first trial in the Gray case, the police department confronted a team of Penn North residents — this time on the football field. Police won the regular game, but then added an extra quarter and had the officers who “weren’t all that” play local children, with the specific instruction to “let them score.” Residents went home with the trophy, “but the truth of the matter is we whipped their butts!” joked Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, who leads the department’s community partnership division.

Driving around different parts of West Baltimore last week, I saw two different groups of officers throwing a football around with kids, an officer at a playground helping small children climb a set of monkey bars, and a young girl playing with a police car’s loudspeaker telling passersby to put their hands on the ground. Young men nearby looked on, slightly confused. This was weird, they mumbled.

Russell, a staunch advocate of cops walking the beat as “partners not occupiers,” was a vocal critic of the department’s failures before and during last year’s protests, and is now leading attempts to reform its culture. I spoke with him at the police headquarters downtown, but ran into him around West Baltimore several times last week.

“You hear law enforcement agencies across the nation saying that they believe in community policing, but at the end of the day, at least for the ones I have looked at, they are just words, I haven’t seen anyone put it in practice,” he said. “We are dead set on showing Baltimore, and proving to them and ourselves, that we do belong in this community.”

“We did not get into whatever [situation] we are in overnight,” said Russell, pleading for time. “We are really plowing the ground with the community and planting those seeds. To think that you can wake up tomorrow and see the fruits of that is ridiculous. You got to get through the season to see the fruits of your work.”

In early April, the Maryland legislature passed a police accountability bill — the direct result of conversations that followed Gray’s death — ordering changes to the ways in which officers are hired, trained, and disciplined. But the bill didn’t include a provision the community had requested, giving civilian review boards authority to investigate officer misconduct.

Just days earlier, residents of the Gilmor Homes housing project rushed out to the same street where Gray had been arrested when they saw officers chasing a young man. Dozens of residents recorded the arrest on their phones and asked for the officers’ names and badge numbers. Last week, the department opened an investigation after a different video surfaced online showing police roughly arresting an 18-year-old at his home in East Baltimore. The teenager had told officers to leave because they didn’t have a warrant. “That don’t matter,” one of them is heard saying before officers pull him out of the house and push him to the ground.

Justice in the Gray case remains on hold. A federal investigation of the Baltimore Police Department’s abuses is ongoing. The judge presiding over the first trial of an officer in the Gray case declared a mistrial after jurors failed to reach a verdict. The other officers’ trials have been postponed.

And Freddie Gray is not the only one awaiting justice. The family of Tyrone West, who was killed by police in 2013, has been holding rallies for 143 consecutive Wednesdays. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who instantaneously became the city’s heroine last year when she brought charges against the six officers in Gray’s case, was met with angry criticism and growing frustration this month when she declined to reopen West’s case.

In a sign that Baltimore’s conversations remain tense, just a week earlier, Mosby walked off the stage during a forum when confronted by the fiancée of Keith Davis Jr., a man who was shot by police last summer. Davis survived, but he has since been entangled in a controversial case that reflects the continuing divide between Baltimore’s poor black residents and the city’s law enforcement establishment.

ON APRIL 19, the anniversary of Gray’s death, some paid tribute to his memory with a concert at a Methodist church while others grilled burgers near the street corner where he was arrested. But Keith Davis’s fiancée, Kelly Holsey, her four children, and a handful of supporters were standing outside the city’s sprawling jail complex, climbing a wall, banging on drums, and writing “Free Keith Davis Jr.” in spray paint over a giant banner and in henna tattoos on the girls’ hands.

Across the street was Davis, looking out from a window two rows down from the top of the brick building. They couldn’t see him, but he could see them, and he could hear them. He started banging on the windows in response to their drums, and soon other inmates joined him.

In June 2015, officers chasing a robbery suspect shot at Davis 44 times. He was struck three times, including in the face, and a bullet remains lodged in his neck, leaving a visible bump. Police said they found a gun on top of a refrigerator in the garage where he took cover. They said his prints were on it. He always maintained that he was innocent and the gun was not his, and refused to take any plea offers. In court, the officers’ contradicting testimonies unraveled, and a jury declined to convict Davis of all but one firearms possession charge. Days later — nine months after he was shot and arrested — prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder, alleging that the gun had been linked to a homicide that occurred earlier the same day.

“They are coming at him with everything they have because they have made a mistake, and instead of apologizing, they just continue to systematically ruin his life,” said Holsey while standing outside the jail. She waved at Keith as the falling darkness made it easier to see his outline through the windows. “He still believes he didn’t do anything, and the evidence will show it. I’m a nervous wreck because I understand that they will do anything, lying, conniving, being deceitful.”

Holsey, who said she was on the phone with Davis when officers showered him with bullets, had stayed home during the Freddie Gray protests. “I was always taught that officers do what they’re supposed to do, officers don’t maliciously hurt people. I now know differently,” she said, scrolling through photos of her fiancée on her phone, as her youngest daughter played with her mother’s long braids. “Even when he called and said the police are shooting at me, I was like, what does that mean, why would the police shoot at you? I wasn’t conditioned to think that way.”

Rallying support around Davis has been tough, she said. He has done time for drugs, and even though he was working full time doing inventory of Baltimore school lunches, it was hard to paint him as a martyr. “He made mistakes, he didn’t make the best of choices, but he did the best with what he had at the time,” she said, a statement that easily describes many of Baltimore’s poor black men, Gray included.

“Someone told me that no one would care, because he didn’t die,” said Holsey. “He is the second part of Freddie Gray. Freddie Gray passed away. Had he lived, he would have been arrested, had charges thrown on him, would have had to fight the court system, would have had to fight the state’s attorney’s office. And that’s what Keith is going through now.”

The morning after Holsey and others gathered by the jail, Davis was sentenced to five years in prison for the gun charge. Next week he is scheduled to be indicted on the murder charge — but the way in which the case has been handled so far has raised serious questions about the credibility of police and prosecutors, whether the public’s trust in Baltimore’s law enforcement is beyond repair, and how the system can operate if people just assume police are always lying.

“If you’re speaking absolute truths but the environment says, ‘I don’t care what you say out of your mouth at this point, we’re not believing anything,’ that’s an issue,” said Lt. Col. Russell, who would not comment on the Davis case specifically. “That’s our mountain to climb, we have to regain that trust.”

FREDDIE GRAY WAS arrested on the corner of Presbury and North Mount streets, in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore, a block lined with vacant houses and empty lots. A year after his death, the neighborhood appeared unchanged, except for the many tributes to Gray marking the spot where his deadly ride began.

On the corner where he was picked up, a blue cloud with an angel’s wings and halo bore his name and two dates: 8.16.89-4.19.15, those of his birth and death. J4F, Justice 4 Freddie, was sprayed on the sidewalk. Across the street, Gray’s portrait filled the windowless side of another row house, towering between civil rights marchers on one side, and present-day protesters on the other, each group waving American flags. On the day of the anniversary, a group of college students showed up with seeds and dirt donated by Home Depot and began planting a flower garden by the mural. Children wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts and pins bearing a raised fist and the word “liberation” helped out.

Jaselle Coates, 62, who has lived in that house with her husband, Earl, for 16 years, and in that neighborhood for her whole life, was grilling burgers and hot dogs for them, looking at the sudden commotion in her backyard with some bewilderment, but happy enough about the garden makeover. She called the kids “our new family.”

Among the curious gathered nearby, she recognized Anthony Miller, also 62, a former classmate who grew up in the area but left for Virginia 30 years earlier. He returned to the block while in Baltimore visiting his son. “You still here?” Miller asked Coates, excited. “I’m not going anywhere,” she replied flatly.

The incident allowed the two to reconnect and reminisce about a time “before people lost hope,” when “you could come out and play and not worry about dodging bullets,” Miller said. Flowers and the occasional reporter aside, nothing has changed since last year on this block, said Coates. “Nothing’s different, nothing’s new, nothing’s better.”

At least on this day, however, the mood on the block was a festive reminder of the old days, and Coates was not the only one grilling. Across the street, a vacant home had been taken over by a coalition of activists who dubbed it the “Tubman House,” after the abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

“They put her on a 20, but they won’t even think about reparations for slavery,” said Taalib Saber, a law school graduate with long dreadlocks, referring to the news that Tubman would be memorialized on the $20 bill.

Saber and others, with support from a Quaker group and in partnership with local organizations, fixed up the house and turned it into a community center. A Baltimore artist painted Tubman’s portrait in red, gold, and green, the pan-African colors. Activists stocked up on donated food for the neighborhood and crayons for kids. They planted an urban farm-style garden outside, and they plan to start legal and political education classes.

Outside, members of a group called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle flipped burgers for residents of the Gilmor Homes across the street. Lt. Col. Russell was there, as was Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a former Black Panther leader who spent 44 years in prison in a deeply controversial case.

The house itself had only been vacant for a few months. The family that lived there left after the protests, “’cause they wanted to get out of this neighborhood,” Coates said. Until the activists moved in, it was just one of Baltimore’s 17,000 vacant homes, an ubiquitous reminder that the city has seen better days. In neighborhoods like this, it’s not uncommon to drive past entire vacant blocks.

The group said they tried to purchase the property, even had private inspectors evaluate the building’s safety, and repeatedly declared their plans to the city. After they inaugurated the building and received some local press coverage, housing officials showed up and told them the house and the entire block were slated for demolition.

“They are against what we’re trying to do,” said Saber, while giving a tour of the place to a 77-year-old woman named Kay Adler who was wearing a “Revolution – Nothing Less” T-shirt. Adler was a civil rights activist in New York before returning to her native Baltimore. She had lived at the Gilmor Homes as a child, when she said it was “like a village.”

That village atmosphere is what Saber and the others are trying to recreate. They received the support of neighbors and even local gangs who promised to keep an eye on the property. “Look at it, we’re in the heart of the community, the people have spoken, they like it. Why not turn on our water and electricity and let us do what we are here to do?” he said. “The city had its opportunity for how many years? They haven’t done it.”

THE TUBMAN HOUSE is one of several grassroots initiatives that have sprung up in West Baltimore, and Sandtown-Winchester in particular, in the aftermath of the protests. Starting in the 1980s, the neighborhood was the ground of an ambitious community renewal project, as officials and nonprofits invested massively in efforts to rebuild homes and services there. But that initiative focused on charity rather than empowerment, and when it faltered, Sandtown became a cautionary tale of failed urban policy. People here have learned the lesson, and after last year’s protests brought new promises of change, they now rely on no one but themselves.

At a forum held at the Walters Art Museum last week, Devin Allen answered a question about whether the protests had signified the end of something in the city. “The end of people sitting on their asses,” he said in his usual no-nonsense tone. “Time to work.”

He has done that much himself. After gaining overnight fame, he ditched plans to move to New York to pursue his photography, traded in his equipment, and started collecting donated cameras that he distributes to kids in Sandtown-Winchester, keeping them busy and dispatching a small army of chroniclers to capture the city’s life, struggles, and beauty, the way he did during the protests. Allen partnered with community activist Ericka Alston, who set up a recreation center in an old laundry and called it the “Kids Safe Zone.” In less than a year, the place has become a West Baltimore institution. On any given day Allen can be found at a playground not far from the protests’ ground zero, Pennsylvania Avenue, distributing hand-me-down cameras to a never-ending stream of kids, and taking photos of them with his phone as they take photos of him. The project has no name, no structure, and next to no funding. It’s just what he came up with after the protests.

“I was just like, I need to do something,” he said on a recent afternoon, constantly interrupted by children’s requests for batteries or help with a camera’s settings. “Because protest serves its purpose, it gets your voice heard, but now that you got your voice heard, what do you do? Now your voice is louder and stronger than ever, and that’s where people stop. You can’t just do that, you have to implement.”

“I don’t have no faith in politicians. I don’t think they can make change. I believe in stuff like this, becoming self-sufficient in neighborhoods and giving people food and love every day,” said Allen. “You gotta start from the ground up. We gotta rebuild from the ground up.” When the protests ended, “that’s when the real work started. The real work is when the lights are cut off and everybody goes home. And we’re here.”

INEVITABLY, “CHANGE” HAS been the big promise of Baltimore’s mayoral campaign, a heated race with 13 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination alone, which in a city as blue as Baltimore is essentially a guaranteed win in the general.

The race has pitted the city’s political establishment — including former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2010 after she was convicted of embezzlement, and state Sen. Catherine Pugh, who’s currently leading in the polls — against a new generation of challengers, like city Councilman Nick Mosby, Marilyn Mosby’s husband, who has since dropped out of the race, and DeRay McKesson, a Baltimore native who gained national fame as a protester in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the past, Baltimore’s mayors were all but handpicked by their predecessors, which led to meager turnouts at the polls and elections lacking any surprises or excitement. Traditionally the city’s largest voting block has been middle-class middle-aged black women. But this year’s open race, coupled with the presidential primary and last year’s protests, has made this primary a deeply contested one.

“I do think this election is one of the most important in the history of Baltimore,” said McKesson during a campaign stop at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where he told students that he anticipated record numbers of young people turning out to vote. “This election will just be different.” But whether the energy that erupted in last year’s protests is translating into new enthusiasm for the city’s political process remains to be seen.

Much of the community work since Gray’s death has been in his neighborhood, but some have also tried to bridge the divide in the city that the protests exposed. Desmond Campbell, for instance, a 19-year-old community college student, lives in West Baltimore but spends his evenings downtown, at Baltimore’s beautifully renovated harbor. As an ambassador for the Inner Harbor Project, Cambell works to help connect Baltimore’s black youth to a part of the city that has often rejected them, where store owners turn them away and police officers automatically assume they’re up to no good.

Last year during the uprising, when police used the harbor as a staging area, Campbell went to work there, then returned to protest. On Saturday night, wearing a blue “Hood 2 Harbor” T-shirt, he talked about how divided Baltimore remains a year later. “The question is, what can we do next?” he said, echoing what many in the city are asking. “It’s great to talk a good game, but it feels so much better to back it up.”

This particular project is helping marginalized Baltimore youth reclaim their city. But getting them out to vote is going to be a challenge, Campbell said. “People are made to feel like what they feel doesn’t matter, so why should they vote?” he said. “They’ll say, why should I vote for a mayor when what my neighborhood needs is not getting done? You’re supposed to help me? Help me!”

The next day, a rally in memory of Freddie Gray organized by an influential pastor drew a crowd back to Pennsylvania Avenue, including several candidates. The campaign fliers and T-shirts far outnumbered those bearing Gray’s name, while journalists and older men in suits outnumbered the usual protesters. The event was clearly meant to get people to the polls. “If you’re planning on voting on Tuesday, make some noise!” one of the speakers said, before introducing all the candidates at the rally. A couple of veteran protesters remarked bitterly that many in attendance would only come to the neighborhood for events like this one.

Some protesters and community organizers have endorsed candidates — Kwame Rose backed Pugh and the East Baltimore writer D Watkins backed McKesson — but the protagonists of the uprising have not unified behind anyone in particular, and many seem to view all the candidates with skepticism and the election with lukewarm interest. “All these people had this grandiose vision of being the mayor that brought Baltimore back from the uprising,” said Lawrence Grandpre, a member of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, rolling his eyes. “The question is, if a conversation is supposed to happen about general issues of inequity, can that conversation be translated into something that’s more specific? So we can actually do the work, not just talk about structural racism but actually end it?”

His group, which started as a college debate team at Baltimore’s Towson University and when its members graduated developed into a think tank advancing the interests of black Baltimoreans, rejected the notion that the choice is between protest and politics. They were in the streets last year, and in Annapolis this month, lobbying legislators to pass the police reform bill. And they were outside the Tubman House flipping burgers on the anniversary of Gray’s death. “People see it as an either/or — you’re either gonna do stuff within the system or you’re gonna be a protester and burn it down, and to me, you can do both at the same time,” said Adam Jackson, another member of the group. “And be more effective.”

There is no question that the black youth who took to the streets of Baltimore last year are political — “to be black to a certain degree is to be conscious,” said Saber, the young man who was giving tours of the Tubman House. The question is whether they can be successfully engaged in a political system whose impact has largely excluded them. “You use the voting system as best as you can. Understand it and use it,” he continued, noting, however, that he didn’t hear much talk of voting around Gray’s neighborhood, where the campaign signs that dominate the rest of the city are almost absent.

Getting young black residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods to come out and vote will take time and profound changes, Councilman Mosby told me at a café downtown. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Mosby, who represents a West Baltimore district, ran for mayor promising to be the alternative to the kind of politicians who have been in office since he was in grade school. He endorsed Pugh after withdrawing from the race, blaming the protests on a long history of “failed leadership,” and echoed the chorus of voices saying that nothing substantial has changed since then.

“You never want a crisis to go to waste,” he said, quoting Rahm Emanuel quoting Churchill. “And we are wasting this crisis.”

BACK IN SANDTOWN-WINCHESTER, Shaun Young — a skinny, 27-year-old protester who tumbled into the spotlight during the uprising when he grabbed a CNN reporter’s mic and yelled, “Fuck you! Fuck that! Fuck CNN!” — said that not much has changed in his own life since last year. He’s still unemployed and recently had to move after police raided the house where he was staying. He was arrested on the anniversary of Freddie Gray’s arrest, while confronting an officer who was arresting another man. “I was arrested for resisting arrest,” he laughed.

But something bigger has changed for him, he said — his own view of himself and his role in his community. Young said that he misses the protests. Not the tear gas and the anger, but the sense of solidarity and unity he felt on the streets during those days. Like many here, he has been trying to find ways to channel the sense of empowerment he discovered last year.

“I thought about running for mayor too,” he joked, then added he’s not sure he’ll vote on Tuesday. “It almost seems pointless,” he said. “I believe in self-empowerment.” Young said he was still looking for ways to do more, but for now he’s settled on being a great father and “cop watching.” In less than a year, Young had two cameras stolen, but Devin Allen, the photographer, recently hooked him up with a new point and shoot. On a sunny weekend afternoon this month, Young was walking around the neighborhood where Gray was arrested with his 5-year-old and 4-month-old daughters when gun shots went off down the block and two police cars raced by. He looked around for a moment then back at his girls, unfazed. His older daughter, Jordyn, kept playing with his camera. He passed on following the cops this time.

Kevin Moore, the man who shot one of the videos of Freddie Gray’s arrest, has also fully embraced his role as a cop watcher. He walks around with “Cop Watch” printed on his hoodie like a warning sign, and has covered his neighborhood with cop-watching stickers. At his apartment in the Gilmor Homes, he showed me a toilet seat turned into art project, covered with a collage of newspaper clippings about police brutality and the business cards of broadcast reporters collected during the protests. He doesn’t like journalists much, but he’s happy enough to tell me what he saw that day. He must have repeated it a hundred times, but he’s still incredulous when he describes how officers roughly handled Gray’s already cuffed arms and legs.

“I knew Freddie,” he said. “He was a great person.”

“My life was already at the point where I was like, man, what am I supposed to do, what is my purpose?” Moore, a 30-year-old father of three, said of that day. “Then this happened, and I knew him, and I felt like, this is my destiny, I was called to be a cop watcher, to be a nuisance to the police in a positive way, exercising my First Amendment right, which says that I’m allowed to document the police.” Officers in the area know Moore well and often take video of him while he documents their activities.

Moore is still angry with the police. He walks around carrying the court subpoenas ordering him to testify in the trials of the six officers charged with Gray’s death. Like everyone else I spoke with, he said nothing has really changed around here — except for people themselves.

“There’s a lot of togetherness, it definitely brought the neighborhood closer. There’s a lot of love now,” he said, fist bumping everyone who passed by. “After Freddie, it was like we woke up.”

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