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C. Fraser Smith: Momentum missing as Baltimore rebuilds

A teacher takes on another class of kindergartners, helping them with reading. Her commitment pre-dates the Freddie Gray upheaval but it answers a question:

What can I do now? My city is hurting.

Even as we watch the first Freddie Gray police trial, we are responding to the problems his life illustrates by many but almost invisible actions.

Reading to kids and listening to them read? What’s more important?

What we are doing makes a longer list than you may realize.

Police organize a Unity Bowl football game, looking for ways to repair frayed or broken neighborhood bonds. Cops and neighborhood guys finding common ground.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra held two free outdoor concerts before the Gray tension had run its course. First aid for the soul.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore, inaugurated an accelerated and focused science and math program for southwest Baltimore neighborhood kids.

The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Health System announced a buy-local program, spending as much $6 million on services from Baltimore businesses and pledged to increase the number of city residents they employ, with a focus on ZIP codes with high unemployment.

Hopkins needs to find ways to give this initiative more presence. It’s a significant commitment. But it’s a bit sterile.

There are other initiatives:

Baltimore Action Legal Team organizes observers to provide ongoing legal assistance.

Dew More Baltimore organizes social justice poetry and discussion groups for young people in West Baltimore.

New Lens helps young people interview each other to create a chronicle of community responses to the uprising and its aftermath.

And BUILD, the housing and jobs-based social action program with a track record and credibility, cries out for more leadership.

“Our city is in crisis,” the group said in a statement last Sunday. “…We are outraged at the level of violence… creeping from one neighborhood to another.”

Then to its central point: there’s no focal point, nothing that suggests the status quo is criminal, as if Freddie Gray’s life and death didn’t matter.

“We must turn our anger into action,” BUILD says. “As residents we have a responsibility to work with the police to end the violence. At the same time, the police must root out abusive officers.”

The mayor offered something she called “One Baltimore.” What is it? Do you see it? By now, we know PR and empty slogans pretty well.

“We are equally dismayed,” BUILD’s leaders say, “at the lack of a united and hopeful response from all segments of the city. “

This, of course, is called ratcheting up the volume, sharpening the focus, issuing demands. Can’t argue with the need.

But many organizations and individuals are responding. What is missing is the momentum – the synergy – that might come with real, visible unity.

Without that, the people think nothing is happening. People don’t see anything positive. They are free to think neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester – where Freddie Gray lived – can’t be helped. Hope dies.

In fact, says Kevin Griffin Moreno of the Baltimore Community Foundation, Sandtown has immense

“human capital.” He says the people there have petitioned for better policing – not necessarily more police.

What the Gray story illustrates, he says, is the poverty of policing policy. The system is broken and no one seems to know how to fix it. He thinks the community has been unable to get the help it needs because no one has a handle on what works.

Maybe Freddie Gray’s legacy will be smarter, sophisticated law enforcement. Definitely not less policing. Smarter policing.

What Sandtown needs, Moreno says, is “a bigger megaphone” – and some focused commitment for change. The kind of heavyweight partnership put together by Johns Hopkins and the University Maryland, Baltimore, is one model. Surely there are others.

Oh, and when a model is chosen, let’s make sure everyone knows about it.

C. Fraser Smith is host of Inside Maryland Politics on WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.