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Baltimore ChangeMakers: Leading by ‘Beautiful’ Example

Donna Owen

NBC News

The eyes of the nation and world were once again fixed on Baltimore as the second trial involving one of six police officers charged with the 2015 death of Freddie Gray came to a conclusion on Monday.

In a packed, hushed courtroom, Officer Edward Nero was acquitted of four misdemeanor counts: second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and two charges of misconduct in office. Emotions swirled after the not-guilty verdict was read, with Nero dropping his head and crying. Exiting the courthouse, Gray’s twin sister, Fredericka, was visibly distraught, too.

Across the city and beyond, reaction ran the gamut from outrage and disappointment to resignation and relief from the officers’ supporters.

While the criminal phase of this high-profile trial is done and it’s unclear what outcome will result when the other officers stand trial in the coming weeks and months, one thing is clear: Baltimore, which erupted hours after Gray’s funeral following days of largely peaceful protests, is not the same city it was one year ago.

A mural dedicated to Freddie Gray is painted onto the side of a Gilmor Homes housing project building in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

While some folks believe little or nothing has changed, there are signs of budding social, political and community transformation in this predominately African-American metropolis of some 620,000 residents.

As the U.S. Department of Justice continues to conduct a pattern-and-practice investigation of the Baltimore police, the department has purchased body cameras and increased training; recent city elections have garnered record numbers of voters; countless forums have been sponsored to address poverty and other issues. A new generation of social activists is emerging.

“The death of Freddie Gray was a national tragedy that sparked a national conversation about the need for justice and opportunity in the African-American community,” said Maryland Senator Ben Cardin. “No verdict will bring back Freddie Gray to his family and his community, but we must ensure we continue the dialogue and the hard work to rebuild the trust between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they are sworn to protect and defend.”

Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, who represents the district where Gray lived noted, “We cannot control the outcome of any of these trials, but what we can control is our work to continue healing our community.”

“With eyes toward the future, we must continue working to reform our criminal justice system—in Maryland and nationwide—and we must continue to invest in our young people,” Cummings continued. “Baltimore is a city on the rise, but the question is: will we all rise together? I believe that we are on the road to creating a city that uplifts all of its residents.”

Leaders of A Beautiful Struggle have been agitating for social justice since 2010. To mark the anniversary of Freddie Gray's death, LBS organized a cookout for the community. Serving food from left: Austen-Monet McClendon, Makayla Gillian, Terence Dickson of Neighbors Without Walls, and Don McCray, II., in Baltimore on March 19, 2016.Andre Chung / for NBC News

The young Baltimore activists who comprise Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle embody words spoken by Frederick Douglass nearly two centuries ago: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Indeed, the Millennials behind this 21st Century grassroots think tank aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. They’ve marched in solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement; successfully lobbied Maryland lawmakers for police reform legislation; and peacefully protested, at times being arrested for civil disobedience.

“We’re working to advance the lives of black residents in Baltimore through public policy,” says Dayvon Love, 29, who co-founded LBS (as it’s known) back in college with friends and fellow debate team champions, Adam Jackson and Deverick Murray.

Rapper Talib Kweli’s album, “The Beautiful Struggle” inspired the name of the organization, which launched officially in 2010. “We encourage youth leadership and development, political advocacy, and intellectual innovation,” said Love.

Leaders of A Beautiful Struggle Co-founders, Dayvon Love and Adam Jackson chat at a cookout that LBS organized to mark the anniversary of Freddie Gray's death on March, 19, 2016.Andre Chung / for NBC News

While the group was active prior to Freddie Gray’s death last April, the ensuing uprising has led to heightened outreach. In the shadow of a colorful mural that honors his memory, LBS recently hosted a neighborhood cook-out/peace rally near the housing projects where Gray once hung out. 

The organization is also part of the “1619 Coalition”— so-called “activist squatters” in Baltimore who are renovating a dilapidated city-owned property (dubbed “Tubman House,” for abolitionist Harriet Tubman) with plans to turn it into a community hub for residents. The members of LBS will sponsor a debate camp for youth this summer, among its other projects.

“People are embracing the idea that we don’t have to rely on outsiders,” said Jackson, 28, the organization’s CEO. “With capacity building and institution building, we have the model to change our own communities.”

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