In Baltimore, ‘You make it past 18, you’re old’

As one of the bloodiest summers in Baltimore’s history wraps up, what’s next for Baltimore after Freddie Gray?

Tune in Friday, Sept. 4, at 10 p.m. ET/7 PT for America Tonight's
Saving Baltimore special

BALTIMORE — Blocks from Freddie Gray’s home is a space that’s now one of the safest parts of West Baltimore.

The No Shoot Zone sits in the heart of the Midtown Edmondson neighborhood, at West Lafayette and North Monroe. Started weeks after Gray’s police-related death and the uprising that followed it, the zone, marked by a mural of a young black boy holding a stop sign, is a community effort to curb gun violence in a four-block radius that’s not controlled by a gang or street family. The results have been promising: Residents say the No Shoot Zone has gone three months without a shooting.

“I’m not taking pride in three months, man,” says Tyrese, a local resident who preferred to go by only his first name. “Now, if it gets to a year? Then I’ll take pride in it.”

Driving away from the No Shoot Zone, it’s hard to miss the people sitting on stoops in front of rowhouses — some of which are boarded up. Months after Gray’s death sparked violent protests, a dilapidated, moldy billboard displays a chilling message:

“This is Sandtown. Where it’s clean and safe.”

In Baltimore the most gruesome summer in the city’s history is coming to a close, but the unrest lingers, as do questions as to how the residents can defend and preserve their city’s soul. Through Aug. 31 of this year, there were 215 homicides in Baltimore — a 56 percent increase from the same period last year. In July the city recorded 45 homicides, making it the worst month in Baltimore in 43 years. Last month Baltimore equaled its 2014 homicide numbers and eclipsed the much larger cities of New York and Chicago — with four months to go.

“When I look at [the police] in the eyes and I talk to community members — whether it’s church leaders, civic leaders, gang members — they want police to do their job right,” says Derek Bowden, 57, who has lived his entire life in Baltimore and agreed to be my guide. “But there’s an issue of trust that’s larger than just what’s happened in Baltimore. But Baltimore did reveal the truth to the whole nation.”

One of the many colorful murals in mostly vacant areas of West Baltimore.
Schelle’ Photography

The trust between local leaders and the city has been challenged in the months since Gray’s death. Just last week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake blamed gang rivalries for the considerable spike in homicides.

“If you look at [the] homicide victims, almost all of them have had contact with the criminal justice system,” Rawlings-Blake told USA Today. “Many have been recently released from jail. They’re known to each other. It’s a domino effect that we’ve been seeing.”

What’s happening in Baltimore is also a reflection of social justice tensions across the country. Through July, there were close to 700 police-related fatalities in the U.S., with blacks twice as likely as whites to be unarmed when killed, according to The Guardian. In May a CBS News/New York Times poll found 61 percent of Americans said race relations in the U.S. are bad — the highest percentage in 23 years.

Since June, America Tonight has been interviewing street, civic, spiritual and youth leaders of color who have been fighting for a better Baltimore. Those interviewed for this story couldn't pinpoint one reason for the historic rise in violence in Baltimore, but the feeling that police and local leaders have continually failed the city’s black population is never too far from their minds.

“It’s not even a race thing. It’s not a white thing. It’s not a black thing. It’s just about a community versus the police,” says Bones, a member of the Pirus, a gang closely associated with the Bloods, for the last 14 years. “They have to build better relationships, learn how to talk to people and learn how to do their jobs. Then everything will be fine.”

As the first pretrial motion hearings for the six police officers indicted in Gray’s death gets underway this week, some of the leaders are cautiously optimistic that the social, economic and cultural issues in Charm City will finally begin to improve in a real way.

“The issues that emerged following the funeral of Freddie Gray are not issues that happened because of Freddie Gray,” says Joe Jones, 60, a former gang member and convict in East Baltimore who founded the Center for Urban Families, a nonprofit to empower families of color. “It was an ignition.”

‘Coming to a head’

For Bowden, it’s a normal Tuesday in West Baltimore, driving through the streets he has known his whole life. It’s a day of check-ins with the young people he’s mentoring. 

“They want the help, but they don’t follow through all the way,” he tells me, talking over beats from NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”

He describes the months after Gray’s death as the quiet before the storm for a new civil rights movement in America. What that storm might be — and how severe it will be — is anyone’s guess.

Growing up in Baltimore, Derek Bowden has seen the neighborhood change significantly.
Timothy Bella

“When you are witnessing death after death of innocent black people at the hands of cops, you can only take so much,” Bowden says. “This is all coming to a head.”

On the morning of Gray’s funeral, Bowden remembered how he got himself into some trouble a few years earlier with the police and how it could have been him in the casket. By the time he returned from the funeral, he got word on Facebook that the police put out a memo saying that the gangs united to kill the police. For him, this meant open season on young black people. When he made it down to the protests, he approached a group of men on the back of a truck, yelling obscenities like “Fuck the police!”

Bowden intervened.

“I was like, ‘Listen, I need you,’” he recalls. “I asked them if they would trust me. And they looked at me like, ‘We don’t know you.’ But that was the point. When I saw them, I saw me. And I said, ‘If you will trust me, I will keep you safe.’ From that moment on, they trusted me.”

One by one, they get into his black SUV on this early August day. Bowden has become a father figure to these men, and they treat him as such, calling him everything from Pops to Grandpa. First up is Shadow, a 40-year-old peer advocate and program manager for a lucrative recovery facility, who puts out his just-lit Newport cigarette before hopping in.

Like his brothers before him, Shadow, who asked not to be identified by his real name, was born into the Gangster Disciples, an identifier that has stayed with him his whole life. Raised in Miami’s infamous Pork ’n Beans project, he relocated to Baltimore 15 years ago to be with his daughter. He smokes less now and doesn’t drink anymore but dresses and talks the same — a lifestyle choice, he says, that reminds him that he’s a role model for young men born into street families.

Baltimore residents celebrate after authorities announced that Freddie Gray’s death was ruled a homicide and that criminal charges would be filed, in May 2015.
Win McNamee / Getty Images

“You’re taught to be a fucking soldier or a killer since you were a kid,” he says. “You spend a great deal of your life learning how to be normal, if there is such a thing.”

Dozens linger along the sidewalks in the city’s Penn North neighborhood, home to the CVS pharmacy that was looted and burned after Gray’s death. Shadow says the drug dealers are still prominent in the area. But sitting outside a substance recovery center, Shadow points out that progress, while slow, is happening.

“When I first got here, I saw, almost immediately, a kid sell cocaine on this street,” he says. “Look at it now. All these people are in recovery, trying to put their lives together, piece by piece. They will get it wrong the first two or three times around, but they’ll get there.”

He remains hopeful that a better Baltimore is on the way, but he admits his reasoning isn’t the easiest thing to explain.

Asked how he pushes on, he responds, “I have no other choice.” 

‘In a bad place’

Sitting in the office for the NAACP’s Baltimore branch, down the street from the Gilmor Homes, the public housing development where Gray lived, police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell emphasizes that he isn’t a gambling man. But Russell, the revered chief of the Baltimore Police Department’s Community Collaboration Division, can’t bite his tongue anymore. He’s a tempered man. Yet there’s something on his mind, and he has to say it, even if it will offend some people.

“Authentic community policing absolutely works. The challenge is that the vast majority of police don’t understand it, nor do they believe in it,” he says.

He takes a breath before continuing, “I will bet everything that if we were allowed to implement … an authentic community policing component and we weren’t hindered, I don’t think a Freddie Gray incident happens.”

On April 19, Russell, 55, was home when he learned of Gray’s death. He knew what was coming.

“I was just in a bad place, man,” he says.

Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, center, talks with demonstrators outside a police station during protests after the death of Freddie Gray, in Baltimore, April 24, 2015.
Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun /TNS / Getty Images

When he arrived at the police station in the Western District the next morning, he was met with hatred, pain and confusion from protesters that even Russell, also an assistant pastor at New Beginnings Ministry Church of Jesus Christ, had a hard time processing.

“They were cussing, and I knew I would be the object of their hatred. I knew that,” he says. “But in my mind, in my inner spirit, I knew this was still family, just like the police is my family. We’re all family.”

He points to the success of community policing in East Baltimore from 2008 to 2012, when the violence, poverty and AIDS rates plummeted to historical lows. He asks why can’t it happen in West Baltimore.

In the following months, Baltimore police have turned to Russell, who says he lost 13 pounds in the first two weeks of the uprising because of stress. He says that Kevin Davis, the interim police commissioner, is giving him the chance to implement the kind of community policing he has always wanted.

Russell knows he can’t do it by himself. Joining him in the room is Bones — real name, Charles Littlejohn — a 27-year-old Piru. Dressed in a black vest, green button-down shirt and tie, Bones says the uprising changed his life.

Russell, left, with Bones.
Timothy Bella

“With the way people portrayed gang members to be, they got a chance to see us in a different way than what they expected us to be,” says Bones, who also works at Strive Baltimore, a career development program for low-income people. “It just turned me around into a positive person and wanting to help out more than actually being in the street, doing the wrong thing.”

Community organizers and artists join them on an early August day in West Baltimore for a unifying purpose: working with Russell to rebuild connections between police and urban Baltimore. Though Russell claims nothing is stopping the city from being great, he fears that the momentum in the city post–Freddie Gray will fade away without constant engagement.

“Some of us have come out for the wrong reasons because of the opportunities and the national stage,” Russell says, leaning back in his chair. “Then as things settle and the cameras go away, we go back into our silos, and nothing changes.”

Black sheep of black sheep

Riding around the streets of West Baltimore, Bowden points out buildings that were once part of a safe, booming neighborhood. A cab driver turned photographer turned unofficial media liaison for the gangs, he gazes at the abandoned rowhouses in his former neighborhood. He looks to his left and states, poignantly, that all these ruins are 90 seconds from downtown. But he soon cheers up for the pickup.

“It’s just a day in the life of a G,” he says, smiling behind the wheel.

Growing up, family members and friends told Eric Bowman, better known as Flex, that he wasn’t going to make it past age 12. No one would let their kids hang out with him, a troublemaker, a self-described “black sheep of the black sheep.”

“But anytime someone needed a person to slap someone upside the head, I had adults calling me when I was 12,” Flex says, laughing at that time of his life. But he quickly turns serious. “I have always been someone who protects individuals, even if it puts my life at risk. And I accept that.” 

Even though he's only in his mid-20s, Flex, real name Eric Bowman, is a veteran voice on the streets.
Eric “Flex” Bowman

At 25, Flex is an elder statesman for the Bloods, serving as one of the public faces for his gang. When you look past his bright red pants, carefully braided hair, the straw fedora, the small E that was tattooed on his forehead at age 8 and his endless source of positivity, you can see that the events of late April still weigh heavily on his skinny frame.

“The ignorance displayed through the cops, our fellow citizens, the politicians — it’s been making me angry all the way around,” he says.

One of the few positives to come out of one of the darkest chapters in Baltimore’s history was the reminder of what street organizations can offer to a city in peril. National media highlighted the truce between the Bloods and the Crips as well as the unified front displayed from the Bloods, Crips, Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings and others. Gang members interviewed for this article say that although the truce was already in the making before Gray’s death, the events playing out on their streets — their home — catalyzed that effort.

Even with the truce, public officials, such as Rawlings-Blake, point to gang activity as the main reason for the city’s historic homicide rate this summer, specifically involving black males. As The Baltimore Sun reported, among the 45 deaths in 31 days during July, all but one of the victims were male and all but two were black.

Bones recognizes that raising the stature and influence of street organizations in the community is at “a bottom stage” right now, especially when reaching out to gang members he thinks won’t be willing to change.

“Our goal is to reach those people who think the color of a bandanna separates people from being brothers,” Bones says. “I’m not going to say the uprising brought us closer together, but it helped make us see our purpose.”

A comeback story?

The taste of the mace and pepper spray resonates in the memory of the Rev. Heber Brown. Standing in solidarity with men from the Bloods, Crips, the Nation of Islam and other organizations, he helped form a human chain along the city’s Pennsylvania Avenue, keeping the police from getting to the young men and women who were continuing to protest and grieve on the streets.

For at least one police officer that day, the unified front wasn’t enough. Brown remembers coughing, choking and crying from the mace. Even with the substances in their eyes, Brown and the others, who, he says, were clearly part of religious organizations, went right back to work.

“Some people believe as long as you dress nice, pull your pants up and speak the queen’s English that it protects you from police violence,” says Brown, the pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore. “I know that now as being incorrect. And I know in a personal way why that is incorrect.”

With residents being almost anesthetized to the killings this summer, several pastors told America Tonight that much of the responsibility to help heal the city has fallen on them. It’s a role, they say, that they have embraced, in hopes of helping improve the quality of life for the black community, which makes up 63 percent of the city’s population.

“The faith community stepped up in a way, from a collaborative standpoint, that, historically, I haven’t seen before,” Jones says.

‘Some people believe as long as you dress nice, pull your pants up and speak the queen’s English that it protects you from police violence. I know that now as being incorrect. And I know in a personal way why that is incorrect.’

Heber Brown

pastor, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church

One of the lasting sound bites from April came when Rawlings-Blake thanked the Nation of Islam for being “very present in our effort to keep calm and peace in our city.” While the mayoral praise was new for the group, the Nation of Islam’s presence in those impoverished neighborhoods wasn’t.

“Once we entered into the scene, we weren’t entering as strangers, per se,” says Minister Carlos Muhammad, who has led the Nation of Islam in Baltimore for more than 20 years. 

Minister Carlos Muhammad, second from right, with young spiritual leaders and concerned citizens outside the Freddie Gray Youth Empowerment Center in Baltimore.
Timothy Bella

The Nation of Islam’s track record, while praised in inner Baltimore, has been decried elsewhere, whether it’s the group being declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center or conservative Internet commenters accusing the Nation of Islam of sympathizing with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In the Bolton Hill neighborhood is the Freddie Gray Youth Empowerment Center, an older building that has been converted into the Freddie Gray Youth Empowerment Center and offers kids free meals and camps.

Wearing a black pinstripe suit and blue and yellow bowtie, Muhammad, 42, is saddened going over the names of the black men and women who have been victims of police brutality across the nation.

“When you look at Baltimore, it’s just the latest stop of a train that is traveling the country,” he says, apologizing for the passion in his voice. “The injustice in Baltimore with Mr. Gray and Mr. Tyron West and the others that have suffered is the same thing that happened in Ferguson, the same thing that happened in Sanford, Florida, and the same thing that just happened in Texas.”

It’s a sadness that turns to disgust. Muhammad, shaking his head, adds, “By the time we get done with this interview, we’ll probably have a news report from some city in America where the same trend of abuse and racism and brutality and mob attacks has already happened.”

At Empowerment Temple A.M.E., about 300 parishioners at a Tuesday Bible study are yelling and hooting with the man who gave Gray’s eulogy. Dressed in a navy Gucci jacket, a puffy white button-down shirt and camouflage pants, Jamal Bryant is a fiery speaker, one whose preaching style — heavy breathing, verbose language and constant movement — gets people on their feet. A third-generation preacher, Bryant has the crowd eating out of his palm.

Jamal Bryant delivering a sermon at Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore.
Timothy Bella

“People are talking about the problems in Baltimore, but they don’t talk about the progress in Baltimore,” Bryant says, followed by a collection of responses from the parishioners — “That’s right!” “Mmm-hmm!” “Jesus!”

(Days after the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, I’m greeted with smiles and an uneasy joke about my Al Jazeera bag. “I was making sure you didn’t have an AK-47 in there,” one woman says. “Just kidding.”)

Bryant stayed up until the early morning hours of April 27 going over his eulogy for Gray, which was, he admits, a nerve-racking and coming-of-age moment.

With more than 218,000 Twitter followers, Bryant, 44, has been one of the more visible black church leaders in media and on the streets. He touts the Freddie Gray Empowerment Temple that he helped found and its community programs such as partnering with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland for job training focused on ex-offenders.

“America loves a comeback story,” he says. “Baltimore is America’s team. America wants to see Baltimore get past this, and I think we’re going to.”

For Bryant, looking at his city these last few months has been difficult, given the tensions between police and black residents. As the events of April fade deeper into our memory, he says courting younger people to improve the city will continue to be difficult.

The Rev. Heber Brown speaks to local residents and leaders outside one of the sites for the Black Dirt Farm in Baltimore.
Schelle’ Photography

“The biggest challenge is keeping people focused in a society that has attention-deficit disorder,” he says. “It almost feels like the twilight zone, [as if] what took place in Baltimore happened years ago and not weeks ago.”

A block North Avenue, Brown, 34, the pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, passes by boarded-up rowhouses and walks up to a seemingly empty lot. But in the lot is Black Dirt Farm, a project featuring farmers from Maryland’s Eastern Shore who grow produce to help provide black communities with more healthy food options. He’s sharp in his assessment of the future.

“Things might have to get a little ugly in the immediate sense for us to grow to that point so things do get better,” he says.

‘Twenty-five is the new old’

Walking through the aisles of the Whole Foods in northwestern Baltimore, Flex shakes his head over $7 gourmet ketchup. Bowden insists on treating young black men like Flex to lunch, mixing in some healthier options that might not be available to them.

“Where I shop, you can get a few things for the price of that one ketchup,” he says, listing the price of some grocery items in his neighborhood.

He’s loud and fun, a departure from the stiff crowd waiting in line for sandwiches. In a quiet moment in one aisle, Flex says that people who live in the environment he grew up in don’t make it to his age.

Derek Bowden, left, and Flex.
Timothy Bella

“Twenty-five is the new old,” he says. “Once you make it past 18, you’re old.”

After leaving the Whole Foods, Bowden drives to drop off Flex. Bowden says that he believes in Flex but that he still needs more time to be the leader Bowden knows he can be.

Along his street, there are more overflowing trashcans than there are occupied homes. Ask if he’s hopeful about Baltimore’s future, he flashes a big smile. It’s unclear if he meant to quote a Kendrick Lamar lyric, but he makes me believe he’s going to make it through this ugly period in Baltimore’s history.

“I’m gonna be all right,” he says. “We’re gonna be all right.”

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