How Freddie Gray's death changed Baltimore, and its election

This week, the citizens of Baltimore voted – and their numbers exceeded even the primary election that led to America’s first black president.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Christine Jenkins, a Baltimore voter, says that if everyone pitched in, like they did during the civil rights movement, the community would improve. 'We can get into the love thing again. Now, a lot of people hate themselves,' she says.

A year ago this month, thousands of Baltimoreans took to the streets in outrage, spilling over into violence over Freddie Gray, the young African American who died from injuries suffered while in police custody.

This week, the citizens of Baltimore voted – and their numbers exceeded even the primary election that led to America’s first black president.

It’s impossible to say how much of the turnout – about 20 percent higher than in 2008, the previous high for a primary – was motivated by deep distress over the societal and economic ills that were exposed during last April’s unrest. A close Democratic Senate race and the contentious presidential primaries were also before voters on Tuesday and in early voting.

But there’s no question that the death of Mr. Gray profoundly affected the local politics of this majority-black city – changing mayors, changing the campaign conversation, and inspiring nonprofits, businesses, and individuals to act.

Translating this to meaningful change on the ground, of course, is the far greater challenge, one that will stretch over years if not decades. If this past year has shown the scope of the problems to be addressed, this week demonstrates that residents have lost none of their fire to solve them.

“The question is now that we’ve got this window open, what can we do with it?” says Lester Spence, a professor of political science and Africana at Johns Hopkins University here.

Professor Spence points out that had Gray not died, “the conversation would have been your standard conversation geared mostly to white or middle and upper middle class interests.” It would have been about property taxes, for example, as it was at the last mayoral debate he moderated. This time – no surprise – it focused on criminal justice.

Had Gray not died, Spence also points out, the incumbent mayor – Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, an African American who was much criticized for her handling of the crisis – would not have declined to run. In jumped more than a dozen candidates, including a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement that mobilized nationwide in the wake of police killings of black men like Gray. (DeRay McKesson finished sixth, with less than 3 percent of the vote).

It was the largest group of “quality” mayoral candidates Spence has seen, with voters settling on Democrat Catherine Pugh, an African-American state senator and the Senate majority leader in Annapolis. Her district includes the troubled western part of the city that was home to Gray, who lived in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. The city has more than 16,000 abandoned homes, and deserted row houses are strewn through this area. Baltimore's schools rank among the lowest in the state.

Ms. Pugh’s close competitor was former Mayor Sheila Dixon – also black and popular in that part of the city, but tainted by a misdemeanor embezzlement conviction that forced her from office.

Both women “have deep affinities for working-class black people and the incumbent did not,” Spence says. Given the 10-to-1 Democratic majority in the city, it is a near certainty that Pugh will be elected in November.

In Sandtown, people want their community back

On Tuesday at Gilmor Elementary School, the polling place for Sandtown-Winchester and ground zero for last year's riots, campaign worker Ronald Wright says he saw “a lot of energy coming out” to the polls compared with the last election.

Voters were more nuanced in interviews. Some said they believed more people were voting and also getting involved in their neighborhood. Others said they were voting because that’s what they’ve always done.

“It’s a mix. Some don’t want to be involved, but a lot of people want to get their community back,” says Keysha Walker, a city worker who says she votes like clockwork. This year, she passed the tradition on to the next generation, getting her high-school daughter to vote.

Local activist Lucky Crosby said the Freddie Gray case has “energized a lot of people in Sandtown,” exposing to the wider public police brutality that has been going on for decades.

Last weekend, C.W. Harris of the Newborn Community of Faith Church camped out on the roof of a building in western Baltimore. He hollered to passersby that he would stay up there until he got 500 people to go to early voting. He succeeded.

The roof act was in conjunction with a block party put on by the No Boundaries Coalition, a nonprofit that has worked in the western neighborhoods for five years, focusing on healthy food, public safety, and voter turnout. The group helped shuttle early voters to the polls, and as a thank you to voters on Tuesday, it held a cookout on the Gilmor school blacktop while keeping kids happily occupied with a moon bounce and crafts.

No Boundaries is one of many community groups active in Baltimore. On Monday, more than two dozen nonprofits pledged in front of City Hall to pool their resources and work together to improve troubled neighborhoods. They’re drafting a four-year plan that divides the city into grids, with a block captain in each neighborhood.

'When you live in a dump'

But the scope of the challenge is also visible from here. Sandtown voters were not shy about describing the deep challenges in their neighborhood. Christine Jenkins, a voter who lives in nearby senior housing, decries the many boarded up row houses. “When you live in a dump you feel like a dump,” she said.

A first-time voter, George Brown, complains about the drug dealers. Parents can’t let their kids play in front of their houses because of the dealers, nor in the back, because of the needles lying around. He says he makes “good money” selling bottles of water on the street, but doesn’t want to open a store. Dealers will “be all over you in your store” wanting protection, especially if you're black, he says.

Several people said crime has gotten worse, and indeed, homicides spiked this year. It’s because police stood back after the Freddie Gray criticism, says Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

There’s little that a city as financially strapped as Baltimore can do about the deep, systemic poverty in parts of the city, he says, except tear down dilapidated buildings and change the kind of policing that led to Gray’s death. Indeed, the city is working on both those fronts, demolishing vacant houses and stepping up community policing under a new police commissioner.

'Baltimore is going to rise'

Baltimore's congressman, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, says that economically, the city is going to be “fine.” He points to an influx of Millennials settling on the east side and expansion plans for Under Armour, the athletic apparel maker. 

"Baltimore is going to rise," he says in an interview. "The question's not whether Baltimore will be fine economically, the question is whether all of Baltimore – and I emphasize all – will rise together." People were casting votes, he says, in hopes that someone can bridge the gap between poor African Americans and the rest of Baltimore.

Earlier this month, a consortium of Baltimore businesses and institutions announced a $69 million effort to boost investment in neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester. But money has been poured into the area before, says Professor Norris. “Very little good came of it except [improving] the appearance of a few blocks.”

What’s required is a national effort, Professor Norris says, something akin to President Johnson’s war on poverty.

Ms. Jenkins agrees that something of the spirit of that era is needed. If everyone pitched in, like they did during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, the community would improve, she says. “We can get into the love thing again. Now, a lot of people hate themselves.”

And yet, the community activists carry on. The politicians make new pledges. And businesses and other groups forge ahead.

“The community is wakening,” says Wactor Pierce, standing in front of Gilmor school, handing out “Vote Sheila Dixon” leaflets.

Or put another way, the conversation is changing. The years ahead will show whether the words become actions.

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