After Freddie Gray's death, broken promises haunt West Baltimore neighbourhood

West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester area was rocked by violent protests in April following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. Not much has changed since and residents say they are tired of hearing the same old promises to make life better.

'Same old same old' in neighbourhood, where life has not changed for the better since the riots

Posters urging an end to violence are plastered over abandoned buildings in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighbourhood, where Freddie Gray lived. He died after sustaining a spinal injury while in police custody. His death sparked peaceful protests that turned violent the day of his funeral. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The slim, older man calmly rose from his chair, reached under his baggy sweatshirt and pulled out a gun.

"I would honestly like to not live like this," he said as he placed the gun on the table beside him inside his pastor's office in a church on Baltimore's west side. "That is this community," he said nodding toward the weapon. "And I'm sitting here talking to a reverend."

The man, who was not comfortable giving his name to a reporter, was sitting with Pastor Duane Simmons at Simmons Memorial Baptist Church in the Sandtown-Winchester neighbourhood. 

It is a block away from where peaceful protests over the death of Freddie Gray, 25, turned violent in April.

Gray died from a spinal injury a week after he was arrested on April 12 and transported while unsecured in a police van. On the day of his funeral, hundreds of people poured into the streets. Some lit cars on fire. The CVS pharmacy was looted and torched, while other businesses were vandalized and robbed. Police and protesters clashed. The National Guard was called in to help restore calm and a curfew was imposed.

Six police officers are facing various charges in connection with Gray's death, including assault, manslaughter, and second-degree depraved-heart murder. The first officer's trial concluded on Monday and his fate is in the hands of the jury.

But not much has changed in the Sandtown-Winchester neighbourhood since the spring, the man and his pastor said. Life is just as tough as it ever was.

Tired of broken promises

Intense media coverage since Gray's death has put the neighbourhood's long-standing problems with poverty, drug abuse, crime, gangs and violence in the spotlight.
Religious and community leaders in Baltimore view a mural depicting Freddie Gray in May 7. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

There has been plenty of discussion about why people in Sandtown-Winchester are so angry, and what to do about it. To the man in the church, it all sounded like a broken record. He's heard it before, and now he tunes it out.

"I'm tired of seeing my children die. I'm tired of people making promises that I know they're not going to keep."

His quiet voice sounds drained of energy. When asked if he is angry about the state of his community, he responds, "I have too many people I am trying to keep alive to be angry. Those that speak of helping, I hear you, and I hear you again, and I'll hear you next year. In the meantime, I will keep the ones alive that I can keep alive."

Outside the church, in a nearby parking lot, two friends described the anger, frustration and hopelessness they see on the streets of West Baltimore.

– Sandtown-Winchester resident

The young men, who identified themselves as Diesel and Blackface, said those emotions are poised to explode once again depending on the outcome of the Freddie Gray trials.

'Nobody cares'

Blackface, who spoke passionately about his community with poetic rhythm and phrases, said people there are in pain — you can tell because so many of them turn to drugs to try to numb it. "Where they are living, it hurts, it hurts intensely. And nobody cares."

People walk out of their homes and what do they hear? Police sirens, said Blackface.

What do they smell? Gunshot residue, he said.

And what do they see? Abandoned stores and rowhouses with dusty and broken windows, boarded up with plywood.  They are plastered with flyers that say, "We Must Stop Killing Each Other."
Some people in Baltimore celebrated the announcement on May 1, 2015, that six police officers were charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

Young people in particular are "sick and tired" of assurances from politicians and others that they will help make life in Sandtown better and safer.

They're also getting tired of reporters coming around looking for a story, Blackface said.

"You don't really care. Your heart doesn't beat and drip tears. It doesn't. You just observe it, you don't feel it," he said.

"That's the reason why they kill. They've killed because they have no hope," he said.

"How can you know love when nobody ever showed you love? How can you know compassion when nobody never showed you compassion? How can you know the truth when everybody you voted for and always counted on lied to you and sold you hope?"

False hope

Sade Deanes, a young woman waiting for the bus near the burned-down CVS, said that after the riots she heard lots of talk about boosting the neighbourhood, but there hasn't been enough action.

"False hope, that's all it really was," she said.

Some money from city hall and from fundraising did flow into the community that helped businesses make repairs. The Fund for Rebuilding Baltimore is also supporting community organizations that are working to improve life in Sandtown.

But Deanes said that, so far, it feels like nothing has changed. "Not much at all, in my opinion, same old same old."

Back inside Simmons Memorial Church, the man who pulled out the gun sounds defeated. Year after year politicians commit to giving money for schools, housing, job creation, and it never comes, he said. They vow to improve police-community relations and to break down racial barriers, but they remain in place.

They make promises, pat themselves on the back and then carry on while people in Sandtown continue to struggle to make ends meet and to bury their dead, he said. "Corporations, politicians, philanthropists … OK, it's cute. Makes for a good story."

"I'll bury a dozen more, and another riot will happen and you will come back again," he said. 

"But for me," he said, "it's realer than that."

After talking for a little while longer, he picked the gun up from the table and tucked it back in his pants — out of sight, but not out of mind.

About the Author

Meagan Fitzpatrick


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m


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