The Freddie Gray election: death fuels call for 'uprising' at Baltimore polls

A year after the young man’s death in police custody spurred protests, the city’s voters are energized amid races for mayor, senator and president

Standing at the edge of a roof three storeys above Baltimore, church elder CW Harris looked out over the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, as the sounds of music and electioneering rose up from a block party in the park below.

Harris had been on the roof with safety wire and a portable toilet since two days after the start of the state’s early voting, and pledged not to come down until more than 500 people from the neighborhood had voted.

“We have about 12 to 14K population in a 72-square-block area of Sandtown,” he said of the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested. “To have only 257 people that voted in our last election … I really feel bad about that.”

With an open mayor’s seat and senate seat – and a hotly contested presidential race in play – this year’s primary on 26 April, a day before the anniversary of Gray’s funeral and the riot that followed, is among the most important in the 66-year-old Harris’s long life. Everyone else may be talking about Donald Trump, but for Baltimore, this is the Freddie Gray election.

Gray, a 25-year-old African American man, died a week after his arrest from injuries he sustained in police custody, setting off weeks of protest, followed by a riot, a state of emergency, and a curfew that brought the nation’s attention to the generally neglected neighborhood where Harris has spent his life.

CW harris on roof
Church elder CW Harris pledged not to come down from the roof until more than 500 people from the neighborhood had voted. Photograph: Baynard Woods

Although Harris only committed to staying on the roof until 500 people vote, he hoped for at least a thousand, in part because of a new law that allows ex-offenders who are out of jail to vote, even if they are still on parole or probation. The change is estimated to enfranchise 20,000 new voters in Baltimore alone. That could be a big number in a city where barely more than 75,000 of the city’s 300,000 eligible voters went to the polls in the last mayoral election.

“When I went to do my early voting ... I saw a lot of folk who are returning citizens from incarceration,” Harris said.

As the result of a ballot question in the last election, this will also be the first mayoral election to coincide with a presidential primary, when turnout is generally much higher and early voting laws allow people to register on site.

With so much at stake in the city, there is a palpable sense of urgency over races that ordinarily get less attention. The mayor’s race attracted 21 candidates when Stephanie Rawlings-Blake decided not to run again, numerous city council seats are in play, and the US Senate seat vacated by Barbara Mikulski could lead to the election of Donna Edwards, who would only be the second African American woman to serve in the Senate. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates are discussing issues of police brutality and mass incarceration.

All of these races are, in some way, inspired and affected – at least as they play out in Baltimore – by the death of Gray, which energized many older citizens and created a whole new generation of people, like the 21-year old activist Kwame Rose, who says he wants to work to register young people to vote “so that the next uprising will take place at the polls”.

Kwame Rose protest
Kwame Rose and several hundred protesters march down Pennsylvania Avenue towards Baltimore city hall for a rally last year. Photograph: TNS/Landov/Barcroft Media

“I’ve never voted in my life because I’ve never been inspired to vote. My first vote will be for Bernie Sanders,” Rose said, to uproarious applause at a Sanders event in Baltimore on Saturday. Rose came to prominence as an activist during last year’s uprising when he argued with Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera.

“Last year, it took a riot for the voices of the unengaged to have their voices heard. This year there is one man, one candidate that is running as a reflection of the unengaged. And not only is he engaging the unengaged, but he is providing a platform for all of our voices, the little people, the everyday person, the grandmother who catches three buses to work and only make minimum wage, but somehow manages to be a pillar of her community.”

About 5,000 people were crowded into the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore to see Sanders on Saturday, where he primarily addressed the economic issues facing the city and similar cities.

Sanders is the only candidate to have visited Sandtown, one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, walking from the CVS that burned to the place Gray was arrested. And his visit and economic policy agenda has been celebrated by many Baltimore advocates.

“There has never been a person running for president to come to our neighborhood,” a west Baltimore man named Michael Williams told the Baltimore Sun.

“I think out of all the cities, Baltimore has the most to gain out of what he’s putting forth as an agenda,” said Kore Famuyiwa, an African American analyst at Baltimore Electric and Gas.

But the city’s Democratic establishment has largely gotten behind Clinton, and statewide, Clinton maintains a double-digit lead in the polls, despite significant gains made by Sanders.

Clinton, who told Baltimore residents in April that she would focus on communities “that have been passed by”, has shown a familiarity with the city by criticizing the Republican governor Larry Hogan’s decision to abandon funding for a new light rail line that would have given better transportation access to some of Baltimore’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

“Families in Baltimore who are hurting right now need more than the promise of a political revolution,” congressman Elijah Cummings told the Washington Post, adding that Clinton not only understood Baltimore’s issues but had also “laid out a clear and detailed agenda that meets those challenges head-on”.

Clinton has nonetheless borne heavy criticism from some racial justice advocates because of her husband’s crime policies, which many blame for mass incarceration. When she came to Baltimore earlier in April, as protesters chanted “super-predator” – a term Clinton used in 1996 to tout Bill Clinton’s crime bill – she did not mention Freddie Gray or the unrest.

On the Republican side there’s Donald Trump, who held a rally at a high school on Maryland’s eastern shore last week. On the day after Gray’s funeral, he tweeted: “Our great African American president hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are happily and openly destroying Baltimore.”

Though Baltimore is heavily Democratic, there are some Trump supporters in the city.

“I voted for Trump just cause I’m tired of all the BS down in DC,” said David Lunczynski, who walked out of the south-west Baltimore early voting location wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Maryland has closed primaries – in which you can only vote in the primary of the party to which you are registered – so Lunczynski changed his affiliation in order to vote. “Originally I was independent, and I switched over just for Trump,” he said.

Bernie sanders
Bernie Sanders walks alongside the Rev Jamal Bryant, right, during a walking tour of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore in December. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

For many in the city, however, none of the candidates have addressed Baltimore’s real issues.

“We had a black president and a ‘post-racial’ state, but our housing and our neighborhoods are completely segregated. I don’t hear anything from those candidates on that front and that really was a signal that I don’t think that much, if anything, will change,” said Lawrence Brown, a professor of public health at Morgan State University, a historically black university in Baltimore.

None of the candidates have said, for example, whether they would keep Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which encourages desegregation, in place in the department of housing and urban development. Brown sees it as essential to dealing with the problems in some of America’s most segregated cities.

“If there’s no strategy to deal with desegregation, then I think we continue to remain polarized and we continue to see really wild and crazy things like lead in Flint, the police issues in Chicago, and uprisings in the St Louis metro area and Baltimore,” he said.

The crowded race to run the city

Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson, right, chats with bicyclists as he canvasses in the Charles Village neighborhood of Baltimore.
Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson, right, chats with bicyclists as he canvasses in the Charles Village neighborhood of Baltimore. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Some observers think any uptick in turnout resulting from support for Sanders among millennials won’t show up in the down-ticket races.

“We have a lot of millennials that live in our area and our communities that are really passionate about Bernie Sanders becoming their next president. And because they’re not originally from Baltimore, they’re not necessarily engaged in local politics,” said Dea Thomas, a 34-year-old healthcare worker who is running for city council and has spent a lot of time at early voting sites.

“When they’re coming to the early voting locations, they’re registering to vote and they’re voting for Bernie. But when you ask them as they’re leaving if they’ve supported another candidate or they’re interested in supporting another candidate, they often say they’re not familiar with their district and they haven’t been following local politics.”

But after a historically difficult year – which saw not only the unrest and curfew after Gray’s death, but the soaring murder rate that followed and led to the firing of the police commissioner and the decision of the mayor not to seek re-election – many of the most important decisions will be local.

In an election season favoring outsiders, 19 people in Baltimore thought they could do better than two well-known candidates for Baltimore mayor who are leading in Democratic primary polls: Catherine Pugh and Sheila Dixon. Because Baltimore skews so Democratic, the winner of the primary is typically the winner of the election.

Many say they were inspired to run by the death of Freddie Gray and the protests that surrounded it.

DeRay Mckesson – a Black Lives Matter activist who makes frequent appearances on national television, has met with Obama, and raises money from Hollywood celebrities and Silicon Valley technorati – is most associated with the larger protest movement against police killing of young black men.

“When people think about protest and the movement, they often think about those of us who sit in streets,” he said at a recent campaign event. “We use our bodies to tell the truth that Mike [Brown] should be alive that Tamir [Rice] should be alive ... And I think running for mayor is the same commitment but a different context. It is telling the truth about a city that can be better than it is today.”

Mckesson, who came to prominence during the protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, grew up in Baltimore and returned to the city during the unrest last spring, but he has not been able to gain the support of many local activists, who should have been his natural base, because he has been perceived as an outsider.

“He has no authenticity and no base other than Twitter followers,” said Jill Carter, a progressive state delegate that many of the city’s activists hoped would run. “I’m a little worried that his decision is another self-serving scheme that will further divide our justice movement.”

Mckesson is polling at less than 1%, but he has produced one of the most detailed plans in the race and a clear-eyed assessment of much of what has passed for change in Baltimore during the last year. “Most of those investments that were in response to the unrest were short term investments,” Mckesson said. “They were not long-term commitments to the city.”

Loyola University student Kassina Dwyer, 18, volunteers to clear and landscape the garden in front of a large memorial mural of Freddie Gray one year after he died in the Sandtown neighborhood in baltimore.
Loyola University student Kassina Dwyer volunteers to clear and landscape the garden in front of a large memorial mural of Freddie Gray one year after his death. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Though local activists may question Mckesson’s own commitment to the city, another reason his message has not gained a foothold is the fact that, following Gray’s death, most of the other candidates are also talking about police reform, the issue for which Mckesson is best known.

One candidate, another outlier, works as a sergeant in the police department. Gersham Cupid, 28, was stationed last spring in the western district, where the protests were centered, and knew some of the officers involved in Gray’s death. He, too, was inspired to run by the unrest.

“After April 2015, I knew I had to do more,” Cupid said. “After the riots and the looting and all those things that transpired, I knew I had to do more, and becoming the boss was my idea of change.”

Cupid, who, like Mckesson, is polling at less than 1%, says it would send a strong signal to the city, where there was a historically high level of homicides and shootings last year following the unrest, to put a cop in the city’s highest office – but he has released no detailed plan, saying it would be foolish to do so before performing citywide audits.

Even a white businessman who recently purchased a $1.7m condo at the Ritz Carlton downtown in order to have a residence inside the city limits – he has a mansion in a nearby county – cites the events surrounding Gray’s death as his main inspiration for running. “The people involved in the uprising were looking to be heard, they were looking to have a future, they were looking for some economic stability, they were looking for a place to work,” said David Warnock, a venture capitalist and philanthropist, when he announced his campaign. “When I saw our city erupt last spring, I knew I had to do more.”

The question on everybody’s mind is how to turn this sense of a need to do more into real action rather than talking points intended to win votes. Which is one of the reasons why Harris, the church elder, went up on the roof instead of endorsing a particular candidate, as many of the city’s preachers do. Who people vote for is not as important as the fact that they vote.

“It is educating our people on how the game is played and how we can beat it nonviolently,” Harris said.

After five days, he came down from the roof, with a tally of 522 people who brought him proof they had voted early. Overall, more than 30,000 people in the city cast their ballots during early voting – seven times the number who voted early in the last mayoral primary and three times as many as voted early in the last presidential primary.

Harris says he realized while he was on the roof that people are like arrows: it is easy to break one – “but together we may not be broken”.


Baynard Woods in Baltimore

The GuardianTramp

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