Baltimore faces its ‘original sin’ a year after riots

CNN  — 

Talk to people in Baltimore about what happened after a black man died in police custody last year and you’ll soon notice an odd verbal quirk.

Some people will tell you about “the uprising.” Others will recall the “riots” or use a more neutral term, “the unrest.” And then there are those who get cagey, switching terms depending on what they think their listener prefers.

That verbal inconsistency is symptomatic of a deeper problem in Baltimore: If people can’t agree on the definition of a problem, how can they unite to solve it?

So far they haven’t: A year after Freddie Gray’s death sparked clashes, arson and looting, the city is still searching for the right word, right leader and right approach to dealing with the aftermath, community leaders, local historians and residents say.

There’s been a flurry of activity to address the black community’s anger that poured into the streets after the death of the 25-year-old man from West Baltimore. But nothing substantial has yet to target what some say has been a deliberate campaign to isolate and economically hobble the black community that dates back to the late 19th century. One resident calls it the city’s “original sin.”

It’s a tradition that persists today, says Dan Sparaco, a local attorney who wrote a series of richly detailed essays on his city’s racial history entitled “Now or Never in Baltimore.” He says that since last April the city has been in a state of “suspended animation.”

“Everybody is looking around, waiting for someone else to do something,” says Sparaco. “It’s almost as if we hit the pause button and everyone is waiting for the hard work to really begin.”

A voter submits her ballot at a polling station in West Baltimore. People are hoping the election of a new mayor will inject life in a city desperate for strong leadership. Yet some are worried that the front-runners won't bring a fresh vision.

Some of that hard work could begin soon with the convergence of two events: The first anniversary of the riots, which saw a CVS go up in flames last April 27, and the city’s mayoral primaries, which are on Tuesday, April 26. The winner of the Democratic primary will most likely become the next mayor of Baltimore; the city hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1963.

The selection of the city’s next mayor may provide some direction for Baltimore’s future. And the fate of six police officers – three white and three black – who were charged in connection with Gray’s death may provide some closure. The first officer’s trial ended in a mistrial; the other trials are expected to start next month.

But there are some questions lingering over the city that no trial or election can answer. Baltimore has become an object of morbid fascination for people who want to know if it’s as bad as it seems on shows like HBO’s “The Wire” and in the footage from last year’s riots.

Here are the some of the most persistent questions people ask about Baltimore.

No. 1: Has anything changed for the better?

When the protests rocked Baltimore last year, author Alec MacGillis of ProPublica didn’t just decide to write an epic history of the city’s racial problems in an article for Places journal entitled “The Third Rail.” He put his body behind his beliefs. He joined the Big Brothers mentoring program even though he was already tutoring at an after-school center.

MacGillis was one of many city residents who decided that change began with them. There’s been an uptick in civic engagement: people attending neighborhood forums, community volunteering and more interest in the mayoral election.

But the hunger for change MacGillis saw reflected in the streets hasn’t reached the polls of likely mayoral voters. The Democratic primary features more than a dozen candidates, many of whom seem young and visionary – including DeRay Mckesson, a leader in Black Lives Matter. Yet the two front-runners are veterans of the city and state’s Democratic machine: Shelia Dixon, who resigned as mayor in 2010 after she was convicted of embezzling gift cards meant for the city’s poor, and Catherine E. Pugh, a longtime state senator. Both are black.

“It’s kind of odd that everyone recognized the need for new leadership and turning the page and trying different things,” MacGillis says, “but the race for the actual leadership has come down to the two people who are actually not fresh faces.”

MacGillis’ disappointment is a theme in West Baltimore, the epicenter of last year’s protests.

Many people say they’ve seen some changes. In addition to mentoring and community programs that have sprung up, the state legislature recently agreed on a bill that would reduce mass incarceration in two ways: by steering more low-level drug offenders to treatment instead of jail, and by eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for dealing and manufacturing drugs.

Even the community’s relationship with police has improved, says Carlmichael “Stokey” Cannady, a community activist who manages a group home for foster children. The police aren’t harassing black youth on the streets like they used to, he says.

“Before they were aggressive, but there’s a real consciousness now because of cell phones,” Cannady says. “It’s nowhere near to what it was prior to Freddy Gray, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

Yet some say the changes are cosmetic. Deep investment in West Baltimore is still lacking. For example, there’s still not a decent supermarket that provides fresh produce in the community. And Cannady says he hasn’t been able to muster enough support to fund a family resource center that would provide counseling, job training and recreation for West Baltimore residents.

City leaders are more interested in programs that revolve around intervention, not prevention, Cannady says. They want to help people who are in need, he says, but are less focused on preventing the need in the first place.

“The people who touch the people don’t have the resources to get things done, but we’re the first people [city leaders] call to put out the fire,” he says.

The flurry of activity, though, only underscores the huge need, Cannady says. Young people “traumatized” by growing up in Baltimore’s black neighborhoods are desperate for a way out.

“I get e-mails all day from kids begging me to mentor them,” he says.

No. 2: Why was there a spike in homicides right after the riots?

Here’s a cruel irony about the protests last April. The most dangerous time to walk the streets in West Baltimore wasn’t when buildings were being burned. That most dangerous moment came in the months afterward – when the homicide rate spiked.

By December 31, Baltimore had recorded 344 murders – the highest rate per capita and the second-highest total in the city’s history.

Community tips for the police dried up, and the rate at which police cleared or closed murder cases fell to about 30%, the Baltimore Sun reported.

What happened? People have different theories.

Dayvon Love, an activist with Leaders of the Beautiful Struggle, discusses tension between Baltimore's black community and its police. After last year's riot, the murder rate spiked  in part because the community stopped providing police tips.

MacGillis says police pulled back, and criminals filled the vacuum. Officers were demoralized after the riots, he says, and fearful of being caught on cellphone cameras making bad arrests.

“It was so upsetting to see this kind of suffering,” he says. “To wake up every morning and brace yourself when you opened the paper. It got to the point that if there was only one homicide the day before, you almost felt relief. It really was an insane stretch.”

Others say crime spiked because the riots changed the dynamics of the city’s drug trade. During the riot, some people broke in and burned a CVS drug store in West Baltimore. Looters took bundles of prescription drugs like Percocet, an addictive painkiller known as “perks” on the street, and flooded the drug market with a large new supply. That led to turf battles, says Doni Glover, a community activist and publisher of BMORENEWS.COM.

“They’re selling these ‘perks’ like they’re Skittles,” Glover says. “You have a whole new corps of younger hardcore drug dealers.”

No. 3: Why are there so many vacant buildings in Baltimore?

Baltimore was once known as “Charm City.” When people invoked the city’s name, they conjured up images of neat rowhouses with white marble steps, corner taverns and ships docked in the Inner Harbor.

Now the city is being defined by one image: rows of crumbling, boarded-up vacant homes ringed by weeds and graffiti. There are at least 17,000 vacant houses in Baltimore. Parts of the city look like backdrops for post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies. Even the mangy stray dogs that roam these areas look depressed as they trot through a bleak landscape.

What happened?

It was white – and black – flight, says Glover, a native of West Baltimore. Whites and blacks fled the city in droves. What used to be a city full of homeowners turned into a city of renters.

“Ask any landlord. Renters don’t take care of their home because it’s not theirs,” Glover says. “A renter will throw a chicken bone in front of their house. They don’t give a damn.”

Those homeowners who did remain tended to be older, Glover says.

“Grandma died and no one wanted her home,” he says.

When people fled, they eviscerated the city’s tax base. Around the mid-20th century, Baltimore had a population of almost a million people. Now it’s home to about 600,000.

Other American cities have suffered similar fates. But what’s unusual about Baltimore, according to MacGillis and others, is a disdain for the city’s large black population that stretches back more than a century.

White flight, the mid-20th century trek of whites to the suburbs, wasn’t triggered in Baltimore by the usual culprits: the desegregation of public schools, the loss of industry, the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and the race riots that followed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.

White people began fleeing Baltimore as early as the mid-19th century as more free blacks moved into the city before the Civil War, MacGillis details in his essay, “The Third Rail.” In 1911, the city became one of the first in the nation to pass a racially restrictive housing covenant that decreed that no blacks could move into a white neighborhood. City leaders said the law was needed to prevent racial conflict and preserve harmony, MacGillis says.

“White people were leaving Baltimore in droves before the factories started closing and before the [1968] riots,” MacGillis says. “They were leaving when things were going well.”

What happened in West Baltimore was the culmination of centuries of overt racism and indifference to the black community by city and state leaders, says Sparaco, the local attorney and author of “Now or Never in Baltimore.”

Baltimore has an estimated 18,000 vacant buildings. The city, built for a million people, now has about 600,000 residents, and many homeowners have  died or moved away. The city has a new program to demolish vacant homes.

Whites have traditionally been hostile to the city’s black community for one reason, he says: Its large size. During slavery, Baltimore, which was located in a border state, had the largest population of free blacks in the nation. It had a functioning black middle class after the Civil War. And by the mid-20th century, the city had the largest proportion of blacks of any other major American city, Sparaco and others say.

The size and assertiveness of the city’s black population alarmed politicians, Sparaco says. He said they deliberately set out to destroy the city’s burgeoning black middle class. He calls it the city’s “original sin.”

“What has always been special about Baltimore is black people, and the city’s response to having so many of them,” he wrote in his essay. “This population was treated not as a resource, or an opportunity, or as equals, but as a cancer.”

Yet there’s another wrinkle to the abandonment of the black community in Baltimore. Some of the city’s black middle class treated the community in West Baltimore like a cancer. They, too, fled the city after the gains of the civil rights movement. There’s still a deep divide between poor black residents of Baltimore and more well-off blacks who live in the surrounding suburbs.

Glover says blacks won’t move back into the city until “whites make it sexy” and move back first.

“I love my people,” Glover says, “but an upwardly mobile black woman doesn’t want to be around Keisha because Keisha is ghetto and her children are ghetto.”

The feeling of abandonment by both white and black people is why some residents in West Baltimore did what was inexplicable to outsiders last April: They burned down buildings in their own neighborhood.

“That’s a false statement – ‘their own neighborhood,’ ” Glover says. “Take out ‘their own neighborhood.’ What do poor people own now? They don’t own the neighborhood. They don’t have a sense of ownership in the neighborhood.

No. 4: How does Baltimore make a comeback?

It is one of King’s most famous declarations:

“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Baltimore can’t rebound unless people outside of the city – suburban political leaders, residents and state officials – believe that their community’s health is tied to the health of the state’s largest city, some say.

Black residents in West Baltimore are cut off from much of the rest of the city because mass transit is spotty. Here passengers ride light rail. Baltimore's mass transit system isn't controlled by city leaders but by the state.

The city’s economic vitality is linked to the state. The state of Maryland controls the city’s stadiums, big public construction projects and its mass transit. And in 1948, Maryland voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that makes it virtually impossible for the city to annex any part of the wealthier surrounding counties to add to its depleted tax base.

The amendment declared that any land annexations by Baltimore would require a special vote of approval by citizens living in the proposed annexation area. An article on the fateful amendment in Baltimore magazine said it was disastrous for Baltimore’s future because it transformed the city “from a shining jewel into a charity case.” Healthy cities grow; unhealthy cities can’t grow, the article noted.

Perhaps the starkest illustration of how dependent the city is on the state is the demise of its mass transit system. West Baltimore is cut off from many parts of the city because of spotty bus service and two anemic rail lines.

The state had secured $900 million in federal funds to construct a third “Red Line” rail that would connect West Baltimore to other parts of the city, but that project was canceled by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan two months after last year’s riots. He said the state could no longer afford the project. Hogan also scaled back a light rail project for the more affluent Montgomery County.

“That decision did great damage to West Baltimore,” says MacGillis, who wrote about the physical isolation of the city’s black community in “The Third Rail.” “It was not simply the benefit that would come from the investment itself – millions of dollars in investment in West Baltimore. There was the work itself. There were all of these initiatives to train workers up and the investment and development planned near various stops.”

Now many of the city’s black residents find themselves in a tough spot. They are physically and psychologically isolated – cut off from a better way of life.

If nothing changes and the next mayor of Baltimore offers no new ideas, Sparaco is concerned the city will degenerate into a medieval state of despair. There will be pockets of stability around affluent areas like the Inner Harbor and the gentrified neighborhoods near downtown. But they will be virtually walled off from the poor black areas of the city, like castles walled off from the misery of the countryside.

“It’ll be a bunker mentality,” Sparaco says. “Those who have are able to hold onto theirs, and those without are left to fend for themselves.”

If that happens, it might not matter what you call what’s happening in Baltimore. There may be more “uprisings” or “unrest,” but one thing will be clear:

It will be a human tragedy.