BALTIMORE — “Get out of our way, sister,” the teen with a tattooed neck standing in the middle of a West Baltimore street yelled at me. “We’re going downtown!”
I stood to the side Monday, tapping out notes on my phone as waves and waves of angry teens headed past me, surging toward the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested two weeks ago. He was injured while in police custody and died a week later.
In a flash, one of them bumped into me and grabbed the phone out of my hand. I chased after him, screaming, and other protesters knocked into me, tripped me and shoved me to the ground. They circled around me, some with bricks or rocks or bottles in their hands.
But one boy pushed through the crowd and pulled me up, and another came to my other side.
“We’ll get your phone back. Come over here,” he said, pulling me away from the knot of teens and toward some other journalists, one of whom had a bloody scrape on his head.
Meanwhile, another kid shoved his face into mine and yelled, “Welcome to Baltimore!”
The teens rampaging through the streets after Freddie Gray’s funeral Monday were angry. And confused. It was the essence of Baltimore’s mixed message.
I hadn’t come here expecting to encounter rioters. I’d come to visit one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods.
If you want to understand the violence engulfing this city, you have to start here, on the street where Gray was taken into police custody. It is a blighted, joyless place of boarded-up buildings: Abandoned. Abandoned. Abandoned. Occupied. Abandoned. Occupied (I think). The sidewalks of Sandtown-Winchester are strewn with trash, and the signs on a tiny strip of scraggly grass deliver a dispiriting warning: “No Pets Allowed. No Ball Playing.”
Gray’s death represents yet another terrible incident of alleged police misconduct during the arrest of a black man for a petty (or nonexistent, as may be the case here) reason. But it also raises questions about the state of Baltimore, Maryland’s largest city.
It was here, in West Baltimore, that Gray lived all of his 25 years, and where his body was broken while he was in police custody April 12. Candles had been burned in a sawed-off Pringles can and pink mums had wilted in a broken bottle of New Amsterdam vodka on the corner where he was cuffed and dragged into a police wagon.
“His legs were dragging behind him. He was limp,” said Charles Thomas, 63, who has lived in Sandtown for nine years and was outside when he heard Gray screaming. He died from a severe spinal injury.
“It’s like we live under martial law,” said Thomas, a former prison guard. “I understand that police have a job to do. I did a job like that for years. But here, the police don’t know us. They don’t know the neighbors.”
But now, the whole world is watching as the city erupts in ugly violence. It looked like martial law in some parts of town as walls of police officers in riot gear blocked off the streets.
“Looks like people might pay attention to what’s really going on in this city,” Thomas said. As he spoke, Gray’s funeral was being held a few blocks away at New Shiloh Baptist Church. It was a scene with rows of television trucks, hundreds of mourners and three officials from the White House.
But after that, angry protesters not far away at Mondawmin Mall pelted police with rocks, bricks and other objects. At least 15 officers were injured as a police car was set on fire and a pharmacy was looted.
Will the reaction to Freddie Gray’s death change anything in Sandtown?
“I’ve been here since 1971, and I don’t think all this is going to make any difference,” Sarah Chestnut, 71, told me much earlier in the day, on her way to a doctor’s appointment. She stopped to chat with her neighbors, who have a makeshift convenience store set up on their stoop, selling bags of chips and single diapers for 50 cents a piece from a folding table, because nearby “all we have are liquor stores and funeral homes.”
“I brought my nephew from Detroit to live here. I thought it would be better. He was shot eight times in the back right there,” she said, pointing to a corner not far from Gray’s home. “Right now, Detroit’s better than this place.”
The kids — they all looked like teens to me — were angry. Who wouldn’t be growing up in such poverty?
And their reaction to me — the attack, then the help — reflected the emotions that day. Some yelled, “This is for Freddie!” Others just yelled profanities about trashing the city, whipping the others up into more violence.
As they pushed on downtown, radio reports said that schools that had been planning field trips to the city have canceled them.
The crushing poverty and decay in Sandtown stand as a stark contrast to the tourist attractions of the Inner Harbor — a revitalization project that was hailed in 1984 by the American Institute of Architects as “one of the supreme achievements of large-scale urban design and development in U.S. history.”
The National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the waterfront mall made Baltimore a vanguard of the country’s urban renaissance movement. But that vitality barely moved into other parts of the city. And often, as I brought friends and their kids to our favorite spots (the train museum, the science center, the American Visionary Arts Museum), they had a run-in with some of the city’s aggressive panhandlers. And many of them didn’t want to come back.
Sandtown feels like a world away from the Inner Harbor instead of just a few miles. Its poverty is more visually jarring than even the poorest neighborhoods in the District.
“There’s a lot of hopelessness here now, and that’s changed since I lived here,” said John Jones, 49, who put down his trash bag and rake for a moment. He grew up in West Baltimore but now works and lives on the other side of the city.
His group, the Living Classrooms Foundation, came in to clean the empty lots and alleyways of Sandtown that have been on display in the national media since Gray’s death.
Is this a huge moment in America’s consciousness, where we are about to finally acknowledge the country’s forgotten neighborhoods and their desperate residents?
“Yes. And I think change starts right here,” said Jones, who is a case manager with the group. “We’re making a statement that we care.”
And crossing those lines into other neighborhoods may be the key.
Baltimore has long been “the city of neighborhoods,” said Meg Ward, executive director of the Patrick Allison House, which helps ex-offenders transition back into their communities. She was in the group picking up trash in Sandtown. “We all need to be part of a whole city, not just be in our own, little neighborhoods.”
We need to lift each other up, rather than knock each other down.