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After riots, Baltimore residents take to streets – to help one another

There was no great, centralized effort, or call from city leaders, to make Tuesday a day of service in Baltimore. Baltimore just did it.

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    A man cleans up Pennsylvania avenue as Maryland State police stand guard Monday in Baltimore, April 27, 2015. Baltimore erupted in violence on Monday as hundreds of rioters looted stores, burned buildings and at least 15 police officers were injured following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died after suffering a spinal injury in police custody. The riots broke out blocks from where the funeral of Gray took place and spread through much of west Baltimore.
    Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
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Mid-morning, when the crew outside Shake and Bake Family Fun Center was ready to pack it in, Jasmine Forbes and Emma Richardson were still clearing old brush out of a gutter, taking turns holding a trash bag. The friends had been cleaning all morning, and would keep at it, in different spots around West Baltimore, well into the afternoon. 

“I’ve turned my back on my community so many times,” says Ms. Forbes, who works at the Maryland Science Center. “I can’t sit and watch my brothers and sisters suffering anymore. We need to do better as a community, as for everyone – black, white, whatever race you are. Everyone needs to do better.” 

Across Baltimore yesterday, thousands of people took small steps toward community-building, as grassroots volunteer efforts, amplified through social media, grew into a day of collaboration following a night of riots. Many nonprofits put out calls for help, and community leaders helped direct people to where the needs were greatest.  But there was no great, centralized effort, or call from city leaders, to make Tuesday a day of service in Baltimore. 

Baltimore just did it.   

Spontaneously, people emerged from their homes after a long night of watching parts of their city burn outside their windows, or on CNN. By threes, then dozens, and eventually hundreds, they showed up: to neighborhood cleanups, food distributions, and a host of other volunteer efforts.

In some areas, there were so many people on the streets, there was nothing left to clean. The atmosphere was festive. Stores offered discounts on cleanup supplies. Volunteers handed out garbage bags and water.

By 9 a.m., residents had already cleared away much of Monday night’s destruction. So volunteers went further, hauling years’ worth of trash out of alleys and yards. 

“It feels good to be out,” says preschool teacher Paola Albergate, pulling on gloves on a blighted block of Pennsylvania Avenue, as helicopters circled overhead. “Everyone’s so upset, and it’s a good place to come together as a community, and I feel like that’s part of what we need right now – a big part of it.”

Near the Shake & Bake in Sandtown, people with rakes took to the alleys, yards, and streets. Kids as young as four helped to sweep. 

Nearby, students from the Maryland Institute College of Art bagged trash and documenting the events of the morning. Parents wheeled by with brooms, pushing toddlers in strollers. Volunteers who had to leave passed their work gloves to those arriving without them. In the road median by Mondawmin Mall, where Monday’s violence began, somebody planted flowers.

Gregory Watson, a firefighter in Baltimore County, came to West Baltimore to check on an uncle, then joined the cleanup of a nearby vacant lot.

“It needed to be done,” he says, “and I think this is a beautiful thing, to see so many people come out that actually care about the city.” 

City schools closed for the day, and many employees took the opportunity to volunteer. Meg Grouzard, a history teacher at Baltimore School for the Arts, hit several cleanup sites with two fellow teachers, hoping to see current and former students there. She’d been able to catch up with some by e-mail and Facebook, but – since Mondawmin is a major transit hub for school kids – she wanted to make sure her kids had gotten home safely Monday. 

Guided by Facebook posts and a Google Doc compiling areas of great need, the three teachers struck out, eventually landing on Pennsylvania. There, they spent the early afternoon hauling bags of trash out of an overgrown alley, behind a block on which every business – Wonder Land Liquor, R&M Grocery, and Tye & Company Salon – was gutted Monday night.

Kim Peace was there too, with her 7-year-old granddaughter Tyaunah Diggs. The two had walked half a mile, from their home in the Gilmor Homes housing project, to help sweep and haul away trash. Tyaunah, who wants to be a teacher, said she’d rather be in school.  But Ms. Peace remembers the last Baltimore riots, in 1968, when she was around the same age as her granddaughter is now. She says she didn’t want either of them to miss this.

“This our community, and I’m a help clean it up,” she says. “I don’t feel that people should messing their community up like they doing. They going do something, do it in peace.”

Other big volunteer efforts around the city centered on food. Nearly 85 percent of kids in Baltimore’s public schools qualify for free or low-cost meals, and on school cancellation days, many go without. On Tuesday, businesses and organizations large and small tried to help, organizing on social media with the hashtag #baltimorelunch. One local institution, Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse (go for the Communism, stay for the tofu spread) offered a “safe space” and free lunch to city school students. The international nonprofit Operation Help or Hush, which grew out of the Ferguson, Mo., protests, sent pizzas and snacks to churches and playgrounds around the city.

Still other volunteers organized medical help, checked on elderly community members, and brought food and drink to the owners of looted business or to fellow volunteers. City recreation centers opened for kids who had no school. At gatherings, community organizers passed out voter registration forms. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra scheduled a free community concert, and other musicians took their talents to protest sites. Throughout the city, citizens demonstrated peacefully. Churches opened their doors. 

“Have mercy on our beloved Baltimore,” attendees prayed Tuesday evening at an interfaith service at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, a mile from the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues, the site of major looting Monday. 

At “Penn and North,” the festive spirit that took hold during the morning cleanup lasted until dusk:  there were dancers, a drum line, a prayer circle, and people grilling hotdogs. As curfew approached, more than 25 people formed a human wall between the police and the crowd, to protect both sides.

Todd Marcus, executive director of the Sandtown-based nonprofit Newborn Holistic Ministries, whose volunteers were heavily involved in cleanup efforts Tuesday, says he was moved by the hundreds of volunteers he saw streaming into the neighborhood he has called home for 20 years.

“It’s very emotional, and it’s very encouraging,” he says. “The challenge is for us to make that commitment as a society to the long-term kind of underlying challenges that caused this tension and this explosion. And that’s what we’re not good at.”

He scanned the windows along Pennsylvania, many of which were boarded up long before this morning.

“So what happens later on today?” he asks. “And what happens tomorrow, and in the next months or years?”

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