BALTIMORE — All eyes are on Baltimore.
And for residents here, especially the youth at the front lines of some of the city’s largest rallies during the past few weeks, hopes rise that the attention will bring a real shot at redemption for a city burdened by high unemployment, a troubled education system, poverty, crime, and drugs.
The strategy is to advocate for change while the nation is still watching, said Michaela Brown, a 22-year old Morgan State University student and one of the leaders of Baltimore United for Change. Among the issues: the need for basic supplies in public schools, food stores to serve poor neighborhoods, and, as always, job opportunities and affordable housing.
While city residents praised Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision to charge six Baltimore police officers in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, Brown said the youth-led groups plan to continue to urge legislators to amend Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which gives officers added protections when being investigated for misconduct.
Gray’s death while in police custody led to more than a week of mostly peaceful protests, a night of rioting, and hundreds of related arrests. After the city’s top prosecutor announced the charges against the six officers on Friday, the protests, once somber, turned into celebration.
On Sunday, the mayor announced that a 10 p.m. curfew in effect since Tuesday would be lifted, and the governor said National Guard troops deployed to the city would be recalled.
The developments left many looking forward to what is next in this divided city of 620,000 people, where 19 percent of families live below the poverty line.
“You’re seeing the growth, the development of a group of youths who have said enough is enough,” Farajii Muhammad, 35, program director of local community group Peace by Piece told more than a thousand protesters gathered at City Hall Saturday afternoon. “Through the tragedy of the death of Freddie Gray comes the unity of our people.”
Kwame Rose stood with a bullhorn in his hand in the middle of a crowd that had gathered for a 2.5-mile march from Gilmor Homes, a public housing project where Gray grew up in West Baltimore, to City Hall.
“Are you all excited? Excited for justice? Excited for change?” the 20-year-old shouted to a roar of cheers and applause. Rose, who was home-schooled by his father, quickly became a leader and a sought-after speaker during last week’s rallies.
“The youth of Baltimore showed that we will demand change,” he said. “We want the same funding going into the Inner Harbor going into these houses.”
The neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray grew up and was arrested last month, is littered with blocks of dilapidated, boarded-up row houses. There are open-air drug markets, a city councilman says, and few places for residents to buy food or medicine.
“When we talk about changing Sandtown, it’s going to take more than a bag of groceries,” said Rodney Hudson, 46, a pastor who heads the Ames Shalom United Methodist Community Service Center. “It’s going to take money to build housing for people. . . . Most of the people who go to my church are on public assistance.”
“We need food, water, shelter, clothes,” said Conrad Strange, a 15-year-old from southeast Baltimore.
Strange said his mother struggles to provide for him and his four siblings with a job that pays only $8.50 an hour. He said he joined the drug game temporarily just to have some money in his pocket.
“You got people willing to change if they’re willing to help,” said the high school student.
National personalities including the Rev. Al Sharpton and National Urban League president Marc Morial joined Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at New Shiloh Baptist Church last week — where Gray’s funeral was held days earlier — to discuss police brutality and ways to move the city forward.
Strange and his friends decided to crash the event and demanded a chance to speak. At first they were denied, but the group would not take no for an answer.
Speaking beside Sharpton, Strange’s friend Travon Addison encouraged the crowd to engage city youth, and learn about their struggles and the reason why the riots erupted in the city.
“The youth . . . they’re angry and frustrated,” said Addison, who acknowledged participating in the unrest and being slapped with a trespassing charge. “They took all of our schools, all of our rec centers, football programs in the summer. . . . What else are we supposed to do?”
Three years ago the city shut down four recreation centers — all in West Baltimore — and youths say there are not enough safe spaces in their neighborhoods.
The youth movement in Baltimore today, said Hudson, the pastor, is similar to that of the 1960s.
“The movements have always been ignited by youth engaging,” said Hudson. “The riots were a terrible thing to happen. But help probably would not have come without some type of struggle. Sometimes we must allow the youth their expression to get the ball rolling.”