Editorial: Beyond Freddie Gray

The state’s attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, on Friday announced criminal charges against six police officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who was bundled into a police van on April 12 only to emerge with spinal cord injuries that led to his death.

We don’t know about the guilt or innocence of those officers. Their trials will ultimately determine that.

But we do know this: We have a toxic mix of conditions right now in Baltimore. Many residents mistrust the criminal justice and corrections system, seeing it as hostile if not downright predatory. A deeply entrenched economic and public health inequality has only grown more extreme in recent years, and the city’s educational system, in too many places, is mired in failure.

Our national and state policy of mass incarceration, whatever its short-term benefits might be, is ultimately corrosive to a healthy society. It is a system in which nonviolent offenders and those who rack up relatively minor violations of parole and probation get fished off the street by police and trundled in and out of prison, their hopes for gainful employment vanishing. It appears that Freddie Gray, who appeared to be doing nothing more than hanging out on April 12, fled from police for no reason other than he feared exactly the sort of encounter that led to his arrest.

In this year’s session, the Maryland General Assembly took some promising steps toward overhauling this system of harsh and misguided justice.  Lawmakers passed bills to expunge criminal records in some cases, repeal mandatory minimum sentences for second-time drug offenders and give voting rights to ex-felons on probation or paroled. It was a start, but only a start.

Just as critical is lifting the burden of squalor and hopelessness that hangs over neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray grew up and lived. It’s been well-documented how that community is bedeviled with poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and other social ills among the worst in Baltimore. Gray and other members of his family suffered from lead paint poisoning, a chronic problem among the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

No editorial is going to tidily wrap up how to fix Sandtown and other Baltimore neighborhoods like it. Surely, the solution is a mix of improving economic opportunity, building a better transportation network, upgrading public health programs, reforming the criminal justice system and elevating the quality of education available to all city residents.

None of that will be easy.

There had been encouraging news in Baltimore before the spasm of violence and venal opportunism tarnished the good-faith efforts of those who peacefully protested for justice for Freddie Gray. In the national eye, much of that good news was swamped by the drumbeat of canceled conventions and bleak depictions of a burned-out, looted city.

We believe that the task of moving the city forward is borne not just by elected officials but by business, civic and education leaders who have a stake in Baltimore’s future.

It was encouraging to hear Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank this week deliver a full-throated assurance to shareholders that his company is here to stay and that he believes wholeheartedly in Baltimore’s future. Even more encouraging was the sober but optimistic analysis by University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski III, whose engagement in the civil rights movement while a youngster is well-known.        Hrabowski didn’t underestimate the magnitude of what lies ahead, but he also said a path forward is there, one that recognizes and unleashes the promise of the city’s struggling youth.

A few weeks ago, Visit Baltimore unveiled a new tourism slogan – “B’More.” It’s a fine slogan, as tourism campaigns go, pithy, catchy, easy to remember. It might also serve as an exhortation for the city and regional leadership, a clarion call to use the appalling events of the last weeks as an impetus for making Baltimore truly the city it aspires to be.

Now is the time to start.

Editor’s note: This editorial, which originally was published on May 1, has been revised to reflect the criminal charges filed against six Baltimore police officers.

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