If there were ever a community so affected by the death of one of its own it would be Baltimore. Law enforcement’s mistreatment of Freddie Gray and his subsequent death have residents in a state of despair and anger. It’s not something exclusive to the area either.
I traveled to the Maryland city yesterday to take in what was going on. A strange aura hit as I was driving down Martin Luther King Blvd. upon entering the downtown area; the unseasonable warmth lost in a neighborhood decimated by economic stagnation and a renewed mistrust of the police.
By the time I parked at the newly renamed Freddie Gray Empowerment Center it was obvious that something was a miss. It was answers.
Black pastors, community organizers and political leaders from across the country assembled Tuesday (December 8) in Baltimore to greet Democratic Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and discuss the matters of income inequality, jobs and perhaps most prudent: police brutality and racial injustice. Sanders, a long-standing Senator from Vermont, was also scheduled to walk through the neighborhood where Gray was apprehended by police for carrying a switchblade.
After being dropped off by a small vehicle, Sen. Sanders walked up to the Empowerment Center and was greeted by five people, three of who were reverends.
"Thank you for coming to our city," said Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant, a renowned pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore. He introduced Rev. Donté L. Hickman afterward, who lost his lost his senior center during the uprising. When told about it, Sanders raised his eyebrows looking concerned but morosely unsurprised.
"We are honored to have you,” Bryant said in closing the initial greeting. “We have a long day ahead. You got the right shoes on."
Bernie Sanders then loaded a bus filled with media and rode over to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. From there he would spend the next 45 minutes walking through and taking in his surroundings while discussing with Rev. Hickman what has happened in the area before and since Gray’s death.
“He trying to knock [Donald] Trump out the box! We don’t want Trump!” shouted a resident standing over the Senator as he turned the corner onto Pennsylvania Ave. “Thank you,” Sanders replied pointing up at the man.
As he made his way closer to Freddie’s block, community members began to gather around the press already swarming Sen. Sanders and his hosts for the day, and followed with interest.
“I hope they go around and pray for Freddie Gray, that was a personal friend of mine,” said Mike Williams of nearby Carey St. and supporter of Sanders’ opponent, Hillary Clinton. “That was some foul stuff they did to him. Police brutality. It happens everyday.”
The morning began to climax as Hickman and Sanders walked up on the intersection of W. North and N. Mound: the location where Gray was accosted by law enforcement. Under a mural that has since been resurrected to depict Freddie Gray’s face in front of figurative protesters stood the real life thing as people held signs, and chanted “All night, all day, we goin’ fight for Freddie Gray!” in honor of their fallen friend.
“We don’t believe in none of the candidates,” one of the protesters who refused to give her name stated. “They don’t have nobody best interests [in mind]. We want a debate. We wanna say how we feel. We want answers to our questions.”
“He lived right there,” neighbor George Green told me while pointing at Gray’s home. ”That’s where he was at before they knocked him out. You can tell how the community is louder and the businesses aren’t really making money like they was, Even the clubs like where I work at – it’s not building up like it used to be.”
After a brief period acknowledgement at the site, Sanders once again piled into a non-descript bus and rode back to the community center. It was there he would spend the rest of his stay speaking with numerous black leaders about the haunts that plagued their communities.
Toward the beginning of the discussion – to which only a handful of media outlets were invited, including BET – Pastor Carlton R. Lee of the Flood Christian Church in Ferguson, Missouri recalled tales of horror that plagued him and his community. Lee was on the front lines in Ferguson and one of those mentally and physically abused by police simply for protesting.
“Michael Brown’s family are members of my church,” he said in his opening. “It’s quite interesting to see that on August 10, when the first march happened, it looked like we were literally in the 1950s in Selma,” he paused. “It looked like I wasted red Kool-Aid on my shirt because I had so many dots from police snipers that were aimed at me as I was standing in-between protesters and police with my hands lifted up.
“My children to this day are terrified by police,” he continued in an assertive tone. “My daughter is terrified of anyone with black boots.”
Sanders looked shocked and showed noticeable concern. He also called for a demilitarization of police and recalled what he saw during the initial days of the Ferguson protests. “It looked like an invading army,” he said, adding that it appeared more like Iraq than it did Missouri.
Ohio Senator and Bernie Sanders National Surrogate Nina Turner, who sat directly right of Bernie, told BET after the meeting why she switched her initial support for Hillary Clinton to the senator and the importance of African Americans demanding the accountability of Democratic politicians who often count on their vote but don’t pay enough attention to the issues they face.
“For far too long the African American community has been the mistress of the Democratic Party,” she stated. “The African American community is tired of being taken for granted by Democrats. I say to my African American brothers and sisters, ‘Wake up and make folks earn your vote and not just assume it’s coming to you.’”
Turner, the daughter of a single mother and a first generation college graduate, for years represented a district in East Cleveland known for its high levels of crime and poverty. She was shocked though by what she had witnessed during the walkthrough earlier but felt hopeful that better days are to come.
“People were walking behind us and around us saying, ‘Senator Sanders, bring us jobs,’ or you heard a man’s voice saying, ‘He’s the only candidate that doesn’t have a Super PAC.’ You could feel the pain and the anguish of the weight of what happened with them after Freddie Gray but you could also sense hope at the same time.”
“Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think we’re in a wealthy nation, you would think you were in a third world country,” Sanders said in reaction to his morning walk. “[It’s] a community that doesn’t even have decent grocery stores where moms can buy quality food for their kids; a community in which the dream of getting a higher education for many kids is as real as going to the moon.”
He then continued by detailing real situations those in impoverished communities face on a daily basis including paying high interest rates on pay day loans, or on cashing checks at local markets.
“It’s a simple point, people are right to say, ‘Where do I do my banking?’” said Sanders. “The point being it is very expensive to be poor,” a statement to which the roundtable began to hum in agreement with some laughing, impressed by Sanders’ whit of phrase creating.
“It probably costs more to eat here,” he continued in comparing to his home district of Burlington. “What are you supposed to feed your kids? Potato chips?”
After leaving the symposium I walked out to my car. When I was putting my belongings in the trunk, a man named Richard, who later told me his last name wasn’t important and lived in the apartment just steps away, looked at me noticeably interested. He asked where I was coming from already knowing that I was a reporter covering the event.
Richard asked me to walk with him to which I agreed and within 50 feet of our short stroll, divulged a simpler, yet bigger picture of the community he’s spent his life in.
“I remember one time they had a cookout and were giving out stuff like bookbags and hotdogs,” he said, “I came out the house and I was like, ‘Hotdogs? That’s great!’ and they were like, ‘Oh no, it’s for friends of Freddie Gray.’ I then replied, ‘OK. Well maybe you should be giving them out a half a mile south [from here]. You in the wrong place.’” Richard spoke with a minor impediment but was very clear in illustrating what has happened to his community.
“You see that park right there?” he asked while pointing at the median splitting Eutaw Pl. – the road the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center presides over. “That park is a dividing line between that neighborhood over there and this neighborhood over here. It’s two entirely different neighborhoods and they treat it as such.”
Paul Meara is a Columbus, Ohio native and resident. He’s written for Billboard, Complex, HipHopDX and NahRight, among others, and traveled to Baltimore in order to witness first-hand the community rocked by Freddie Gray's death. Follow him on Twitter: @PaulMeara
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