The U.S. city of Baltimore, Maryland, has approved a $6.4-million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray – whose death after being injured in police custody sparked violent protest and rioting in the city – and continues to fuel a national debate about law enforcement and race. Preliminary court hearings are also now underway in the criminal charges against six police officers accused of being responsible for his death. But while the rioting has stopped and Baltimore is still recovering, it was recently named a more dangerous city than the much larger New York.
Sandtown-Winchester is in West Baltimore, a neighborhood known for crime, drug trafficking, racial rioting and tough economic times. Houses are abandoned, and people are living in government-subsidized housing. It’s also where you can find a graffiti-covered wall commemorating the life and death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van.
Residents of other neighborhoods stay away from this part of Baltimore, and tourists avoid it altogether because it is too dangerous.
“Here it is a part of the culture not to care about education. When there were riots, when you saw all these high school kids throwing rocks at the police officers – that is the main problem. The kids are not educated, and they are not learning what is right and what is wrong,” said Mike Haas, a Baltimore resident.
“Many people are not involved with the city government. Alternatively, the city government does not consider itself part of the community,” said Chelsea Monae, who also lives in Baltimore.
Poor educational opportunities, mistrust of police, a high unemployment rate are among the reasons for high crime and the growing homicide rate in Baltimore. These factors have made Baltimore one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. Towson University professor Daraius Irani said the problem started about 70 years ago.
“African Americans were red-lined (barred from buying homes) in certain neighborhoods – they were not able to generate wealth accumulation, as white families were able to generate it,” said Irani.
In the 1960s, Baltimore suffered from "white flight" and the destruction of its school systems. Then, in the 1970s and 80s, it lost a major portion of its industrial base.
“We had no jobs, poorly educated individuals, so the perfect storm that resulted in several generations of households being always in poverty," said Irani.
The memories of the recent riots are still fresh here. Store fronts are still boarded up. And the impact spreads beyond just this area. Economists say the rioting had such a crippling effect on the city’s economy -- with 400 businesses sustaining damage—the tourist industry is just recovering.
To help the economy recover, the city government has offered interest-free loans to damaged businesses. But that does not include the 23 liquor stores that were hit. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the damaged liquor stores do not conform to a zoning ban on alcohol sales in residential areas.
“The challenge with the liquor stores is that they were grandfathered (allowed to remain as non-conforming users) into current locations as they did rezoning in the 1980s. So the conversation was – should they be in the neighborhood? Some were arguing that, given the recent events, it is an opportunity to remake these neighborhoods,” said Irani.
This month Maryland became the first state to restrict law enforcement officers from singling out suspects based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Some say it’s thanks to Freddie Gray who, in his death, helped bring these issues of racial profiling to public attention.