One Year After Unrest, Baltimore Looks For Progress
A year ago, Baltimore was in a state of emergency.
The arrest and death of 25-year old Freddie Gray, an African American man who suffered fatal injuries while in police custody, sparked some of the worst violence since the 1960's.
Mostly young African Americans clashed with police during days of spontaneous protests and violence: at least 20 police officers injured,more than 250 people arrested and 350 businesses damaged.
The unrest exposed some of Baltimore's social and economic hardships.
"They responded because the historical poverty, they responded because Bethlehem Steel and all those employers left," said Derrick Chase, a long-time Baltimore activist. "They responded because of the historic racism in Baltimore."
The pain of the riots still lingers for 14-year old Chelsea Gilmer, who says little has changed since then.
"Young voices, we need to be heard," she said. "We just need more people to take part to listen to what we have to say so that we can get things fixed."
Talking about change
One of those who is listening and trying to help young people to express their emotions about what's happened since the riots is youth counselor Ronald Moten.
"A lot of your friends are getting killed, right?" he asks a classroom full of teenagers.
A young woman points out that Baltimore had a near-record number of murders last year.
"All of those people died," she says.
"How does that make you feel?" Moten asks.
"That ain't right," the teen responds.
Many of the city's young black residents complain about discrimination, declining job opportunities, failing schools and a deep-rooted mistrust of the police.
Some, like community activist Derrick Chase, are looking for something positive to come from the unrest.
"I actually don't perceive the riots as a negative," Chase said. "I think it was the spark people needed not only to shape their own lives but again to cultivate development structures and infrastructures that can transform the community."
Baltimore's police force is trying to learn lessons from the aftermath of the Freddie Gray incident and improve the strained relationship between police and young people in the city.
Baltimore Schools Police Commander Akil Hamm and other mentors meet with students as part of a program aimed at improving community relations.
"Have you ever been to Chick-fil-a Restaurant?"Hamm asks a group of young people. "When you go in there they are nice, they are courteous. That's what we are trying to do with our police officers.So we are providing different training to help us better deal with young people because, let's just be honest, there are a lot of issues in our city, there is a lot of violence."
The students offered suggestions on how they think the police can do a better job.
"Train better, because if you run into somebody such as myself who knows what he is doing, it is automatically going to turn into deadly force because they are not going to be able to hold me down," one young man said.
Hamm is also teaching young people how to survive encounters with the police.
"It doesn't really make sense to keep going back and forth with [a police officer] because you want to survive that stop and be able to make that complaint," he tells them.
Some of the young people find it hard to trust the police because of how they were treated themselves.
"He twisted my arm behind my back and threw me," one young woman told Hamm while describing an altercation with a police officer.
Hamm tells the students that a police officer's goal when encountering a tense situation if to reduce the tension.
"We want to defuse it we don't want to inflame it," he said. "So if you are already upset, it is not going to do any good to come in and make the situation worse."
Hamm hopes more dialogue will lay a stronger foundation to build better relations between the police and the community they are sworn to protect.
The roots of unrest
In addition to healing the relationship between Baltimore's police and citizens, many are working to change some of the conditions that made the city ripe for the unrest that engulfed Baltimore after Gray's death.
"I believe we can keep the peace, but the riots were only the tipping point of what was brewing for years," said Bishop Angel Nunez, one of several Baltimore ministers who helped restore peace after the riots.
"People are still poor," said Angela Francis, a Baltimore resident. "There is still violence in the city. There is still crime and we still do not have resources."
"The protest and marching has not stopped since last year," said minister and community activist Melech Thomas, who grew up in one of the neighborhoods hit hard by the rioting.
"There may or may not be another uprising, but I just know the people here in Baltimore are not satisfied with the way things have been handled by the city and by the State of Maryland."
There are 17,000 abandoned homes, and nearly a quarter of Baltimore's residents live in poverty. But there are some signs of progress.
"We are working on job creation programs and job opportunities, but beyond that job training," Nunez said. "What good is it if you are offering me a $20 an hour job, but I do not qualify because I do not have a high school diploma, cannot read, cannot write?"
Community activists like Thomas say they have also noticed a greater willingness among young people now to do something positive in the neighborhood.
"Our job in our generation is to push back and to claim this neighborhood as ours," he said. "We are going to do whatever we can to get the resources we need to redevelop these neighborhoods and to make Baltimore the city that it is supposed to be."