Baltimore — On a warm May evening, residents of a Baltimore neighborhood have gathered in their local elementary school auditorium for a community forum. Some of the topics that emerge sound ordinary enough – a community “wish list” and the needs of young people – but this meeting is really anything but.
It’s happening in a section of the city that’s been affected for years by challenges like drug-dealing, gangs, and poverty. An outsize share of the homes and buildings are vacant. Relations between the mostly black residents and police are strained.
And for this meeting, happening in the wake of recent protests over the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody, the stage is given to teens for a “youth and young adult speak-out.”
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One 17-year-old speaks matter-of-factly about knowing more than half a dozen young people who have been lost to violent deaths. Later, when an audience member asks what the young speakers would like to see in a recreation center, the neighborhood association president interrupts:
“Most of these children in Baltimore City have never seen a real rec center,” Marvin Cheatham says. Referring to a structure up the street as aging and only three rooms large, he erupts: “How dare you call that a rec center!”
This is the world from which Mr. Gray – and the protests following his recent death – emerged. It’s a world replicated in poor neighborhoods across the United States. And from those protests, including a night of rioting that left some Baltimore storefronts aflame, an old question gained fresh urgency: Can the underlying challenges ever actually be fixed?
An urgent part of the problem involves police-community relations. On May 1, when the city prosecutor announced criminal charges against the six police officers who had arrested and transported Gray, relief and rejoicing swept through crowds congregated at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. To many here, it felt like justice.
But there’s clearly more at stake – a sense that whole communities in America are being largely left out of economic and social opportunities. President Obama, responding to the Baltimore news, called for national “soul-searching” to help young people in impoverished communities.
Although concentrated poverty encompasses people of all skin colors, African-Americans remain far more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods affected by it. And by some measures, the issue seems as intractable as ever. The official black poverty rate is still higher than the national average and has not gone down much since 1970. And African-Americans are far more likely than other Americans to grow up in a single-parent household, to live in a high-crime neighborhood or be in prison, to attend poorly performing schools, and to be unemployed.
To separate one problem from another, experts say, is to misunderstand the nature of the challenge. It’s not just about jobs, or drugs and gangs, or a breakdown of two-parent households. It’s all those things and more. And what’s needed are solutions that address those challenges as interconnected.
Doing that will take no small amount of time and government involvement, say analysts on the political left and right. But for those in West Baltimore, the first steps seem comparatively simple.
Change begins, many here say, with seeing the situation differently – with looking at the people of Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown as assets to be developed, not social liabilities to be managed. When it comes to turning around this place, the words heard most often on street corners are “hope” and “love.”
“Start with love,” says Alexander Mitchell, a middle-aged black resident who is currently “between jobs” and who says he was recently subjected to a humiliating strip-search by police.
He says he sees a population with plenty of promise and talent, but who feel disenfranchised. “People don’t just wake up [being] drug addicts,” he says. “They just want you to give them a fair shake,” not handouts.
Sandtown as America
Damon Craig, one of the teens who took the stage at the community forum, says he and his friends are “just looking for stuff to do.”
This is one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, a largely black part of the city a couple of miles from the downtown’s trendy Inner Harbor, yet in some ways seemingly a world removed. It is not far from where Gray was arrested on April 12, and the site of some of the protests on the day of Gray’s funeral that were accompanied by looting, fires, and police being injured by thrown bricks.
But despite its portrayal in the aftermath of the violent Freddie Gray protests, this is hardly ground zero for poverty in the US. Citywide, Baltimore is notable for having higher than average incomes. And many cities from the Midwest (such as Minneapolis and Cleveland) to the South (Greenville, S.C.) have seen faster growth in poverty in recent years. Increasingly, inner-ring suburbs have joined cities in experiencing high rates of poverty.
Like those locations, however, Baltimore is emblematic of the challenges of “concentrated poverty” – areas where 20 percent or more of the residents are poor. Concentrated poverty has risen since 2000, erasing much of the progress made in the 1990s, according to analysis by the Brookings Institution in Washington. And it disproportionately affects black people.
For instance, Baltimore has a higher poverty rate (about 24 percent) than the national average (15.4 percent). In Sandtown, it’s 34 percent. Jump to Ferguson, Mo., another community that has seen protests and rioting over police-community relations, and the poverty rate is 25 percent. Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, is two-thirds black; Sandtown is almost entirely black.
So what are teenagers like Damon – simply “looking for stuff to do” – supposed to do? How does a community like Sandtown begin to change?
Path of peacemaking
For Erricka Bridgeford, that change has already started.
Across America, areas of concentrated poverty like West Baltimore share a dubious distinction: They tend to be areas with higher rates of crime, drug arrests, and gang activity. How much does poverty contribute to crime? How much does crime contribute to poverty? Focusing on chicken-or-egg causality can obscure a simpler truth: The challenges are intertwined.
If you want to bring more hope and opportunity to poor communities, experts and residents say, you can’t do it without addressing the basics of safety and health for the residents – not to mention the high rates of incarceration that can close off job opportunities for men at an early age. And if you want to reduce violence and incarceration, you can’t do it without improving economic, educational, and social opportunities. They are not two problems, but one with two halves.
Ms. Bridgeford has seen the cycle of violence here firsthand. She was raised in West Baltimore. One of her brothers was wounded in a shooting on the city’s streets. Another was killed. She says the violence forced her down a path of peacemaking.
On Fridays, even before the Freddie Gray protests, she could be found waging a street-corner campaign with others to rally city residents against violence. She offers mediation services to defuse conflicts among gangs and others. And by publicizing her views of forgiveness toward her brother’s killer, she helped push successfully for a state law banning the death penalty in Maryland.
“It’s hard to find an offender who wasn’t first a victim,” she says.
Her message is not an easy one. In the wake of the Freddie Gray protests, Baltimore saw 43 homicides – its worst month in nearly 40 years. Media reports have noted that arrests went down in May, suggesting that police eased off on their duties as tensions with the community rose.
The honking car horns and hugs and smiles that met the announcement of criminal charges against the police officers in the Gray case May 1 speak to the frayed relations between police and the community – and the urgent need to fix them.
But ultimately, progress will come from something more than arresting criminals. It will come from efforts to change the culture of violence in the first place, helping people see the humanity in one another.
[------------ snipped ------------ ] (The rest is also well worth reading