The news that no police officers will see jail time as a result of Freddie Gray’s death comes as a national debate over how police treat black citizens has turned bloody on both sides – claiming the lives of civilians and police in Baton Rouge, Dallas and elsewhere.
That conflict and its ramifications have become a focal point of American politics heading into the election season.
Republican Donald J. Trump clinched the nomination for president with torrent of Nixonian rhetoric depicting America as a nation sliding inexorably into chaos and violence – even as national crime stats suggest otherwise.
At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and several other black men and women whose deaths, some at the hands of police, have sparked outrage across the country, touted their support for Hillary Clinton.
Baltimore, one of few places where recent high-profile allegations of police violence have led to criminal charges against officers, doesn’t fit neatly into the Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter narrative: Gray was black, but so were three of the officers charged in connection with his death. There was also no gunfire, or allegations that Gray made officers fear for their lives.
Nonetheless, Gray’s death has permeated nearly every aspect of city life, from public safety to economic development, and prompted a wave of self-examination.
Institutions such as the University of Baltimore have contributed to a lecture series on the history of Baltimore that is now mandated for new city police cadets – making sure officers have a working knowledge of how issues such as decades of redlining and residential segregation have shaped life in the city today.
A law school course at the University of Maryland, Baltimore – titled “Freddie Gray’s Baltimore”—sought to examine the long-term, systemic causes of the unrest, such as inadequate public schooling, employment and health care. The course was popular enough to spawn an undergrad version at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is expected to be offered regularly in the future.
There have also been renewed pledges to help and a recognition by the city’s institutions of the role they can play in reducing inequality and supporting struggling neighborhoods
Local hospitals, led by Johns Hopkins, secured permission from state regulators for a new initiative to hire employees from struggling zip codes, particularly in Baltimore City; the Hopkins institutions are also leading an effort by about two dozen Baltimore-area businesses to increase local hiring and direct more contracts to local minority- and women-owned vendors.
Those efforts stem from an increased awareness of the divided Baltimore — “a city of two solitudes,” as Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels recently said. One is a city of arts, culture, and innovative startup companies; the other is a place of despair, broken schools, food deserts and lost opportunity, Daniels said.
Lingering concerns about segregation and the need for inclusionary housing policies is driving some of the opposition to Sagamore Development’s controversial plan for a massive redevelopment of Port Covington, where it hopes to build 13,500 residential units, more than a million square feet of office space, 200 hotel rooms, and a new global headquarters for Under Armour.
Sagamore is seeking $535 million in public financing for the project – a tactic that has historically contributed to residential segregation across the city, according to Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of community health and policy at Morgan State University.
Brown said Wednesday he was struck by the juxtaposition of the cases against the remaining officers falling apart with what he sees as a return to “business as usual” in the city: more money – such as the additional tax increment financing bonds approved for Harbor Point this month – being spent in ways that he doesn’t believe will Baltimore’s poorer, black neighborhoods.
These communities are still dealing with lead-ridden homes, poor public transportation, and inadequate school facilities, Brown said.
Brown has suggested Sagamore should alter its proposal for Port Covington to set aside more residential units for families with housing vouchers.
While there has been some progress on issues like police use of body cameras and a massive increase in the number of young people getting summer jobs through the city’s YouthWorks initiative, Brown said it’s too early to gauge the effectiveness of hiring efforts like those led by Hopkins.
And there’s no political momentum to tackle the lead poisoning threat, which has affected 37,500 children since 1993, and other issues such as housing instability and the trauma caused by racism and police violence, Brown said.
“We’re a city that is still in crisis and needs tremendous transformation,” Brown said.
The weeks after Gray’s death saw both peaceful protests and a day of rioting in west Baltimore – referred to by some as “the uprising” — and did lingering damage to the city’s image and tourism appeal.
With video footage of rioters smashing up police cars prominently displayed on cable news, conferences, including a women’s leadership summit scheduled for later that week, were canceled or postponed, leading to lost business at downtown restaurants, hotels and cultural venues.
Light City Baltimore, the weeklong interactive art festival held nearly a year after the riots, eventually gave city tourism a boost, drawing nearly 400,000 visitors – 100,000 more than anticipated – and generating a total economic impact of $33.8 million.
While nearly 400 businesses were damaged during the riots, the year that followed saw new businesses opening across the city at a higher rate than before – 504 new businesses in 2015 compared with 373 in 2014, according to InfoUSA, a database that uses utility connections, state tax records, county court records and legal notices among other resources to track businesses.
Daily Record reporter Anamika Roy contributed to this report.