When the riots broke out in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s funeral last year, I was among those expressing dismay over the burning and looting. More than 60 businesses — including two much-needed pharmacies — in black neighborhoods were destroyed.
What I could not see was the impact the riots would have on Baltimore’s business and political leaders, what would come out of the ashes.
As as soon as the smoke cleared, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating the Baltimore Police Department. Police agreed to wear body cameras.
Charm City’s business community began showing a renewed interest in its people, with job-training programs and more job opportunities. The Maryland legislature passed laws aimed at helping fathers keep up with child-support payments and keep their kids in their lives. Other legislation has made it easier for addicts to get treatment.
“The truth of the matter is, without the riots, there would not have been anywhere near this amount of change,” said William “Billy” Murphy Jr, who is the attorney for Gray’s family. “The loss of property and business revenue has been so substantial that, for the first time in the history of Baltimore, people are realizing that we are all partners in the recovery of this city and that we are all in this together.”
Maybe that explains what has followed.
Three of six Baltimore police officers charged in Gray’s death have been tried, and not one has been convicted. Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., who faced the most serious charge — second-degree murder — was found not guilty last week. Most people stayed in.
So far, predictions that acquittals would lead to riots have proved unfounded.
“I think that so much was done after the initial unrest last April that it has helped to quell more unrest,” said Joseph T. Jones Jr., founder and president of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore. “Many of us have been fighting for certain reforms for years. But what had been incremental progress certainly began picking up pace after the unrest.”
In April, on the one-year anniversary of Gray’s death, a plainclothes Baltimore officer shot and wounded a 13-year-old boy who ran from police carrying a BB gun that resembled a firearm. Two days later, a few people gathered at the scene of the shooting and chanted: “No justice! No peace!”
Otherwise, all was quiet.
After the riots, Baltimore got a new police chief. The mayor, who had been criticized for being soft on rioters, announced that she would not seek reelection, opening the way for new leadership. A dynamic Health Department commissioner was brought in to help address rampant obesity, mental illness and substance abuse in the city.
A highly respected black judge is overseeing the trial involving the police officers who arrested Gray, restoring some confidence in a criminal justice system that many deeply distrust.
Economic injustice might not have been a top priority among Baltimore’s business leaders before the riots. But losing almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in business revenue because of the riots got their attention.
A new casino had to close at 10 p.m. during a week-long curfew; the Orioles baseball team had to move its home games to another city because neighborhoods around the stadium were deemed unsafe; tourists began avoiding restaurants along the Inner Harbor; and the governor ended up calling in the National Guard.
By the light of inflamed black neighborhoods, the often-unseen connection between rich and poor was starkly revealed. For many, racial and economic disparity is an abstract concept. But when thousands of protesters converged on Camden Yards, trapping baseball fans inside, the have-nots became a menacing reality that you don’t get from a statistical portrait.
I continue to be dismayed by rioting: Burning down your own neighborhood is just geographic suicide. But clearly there are some good outcomes to be weighed against the bad.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.