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Voices of Baltimore: Life after Freddie Gray

Meet a few of the young black leaders in Baltimore who are trying to help the city heal and move on

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

BALTIMORE – Over the last three months, America Tonight has been reporting in Baltimore, during the city’s bloodiest stretch in decades. We met dozens of young black Baltimoreans, all of whom had strong opinions about life here following the death of Freddie Gray. From gang members to activists, students to artists, and black Muslims to Christians, there was something of a consensus: The present situation in Baltimore is not a place where young black people can feel safe or trust the police.

Below, hear from some of the young people fighting for a better Baltimore. Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Makayla Gilliam-Price, 17, activist

Makayla Gilliam-Price
Credit: Facebook

This year’s moment that resonates the most with her: “We were marching from North Penn into the Gilmor Homes, and it was right after it had been announced all the officers would be indicted. It was kind of a hopeful feeling. It wasn’t as serious as some of the other protests were; it had this block party feeling. In the middle of North Penn was this big burly black guy and he’s blasting Lil Boosie from his speakers, and his doors were popped open. Out of his sunroof, you see this 6-year-old girl, who was holding up her black power fist in the air. For me, that was extremely symbolic and powerful, because, usually, 6-year-old black girls are invisible or are just used as tokens for what black, urban people look like. But in this moment, she was a political body; she was very aware of her surroundings.”

The biggest misconception of young people in Baltimore after Gray’s death: “The most common misconception – and the most damning one – is that we don’t understand the totality of what is happening. People often want to say it’s young people throwing rocks at the police officers, but that’s not it at all. We’re contextualizing what’s happening. We’re not using Freddie Gray as a symbol for Black Lives Matter. We’re seeing this is an ongoing problem, and a lot of people are beyond fed up and over these reactionary politics. The issue of people not completely seeing the totality of Black Lives Matter in Baltimore – and seeing how functional it has become – is extremely problematic.”

Eric "Flex" Bowman, 25, gang member

Eric "Flex" Bowman
Credit: Eric "Flex" Bowman

On the small margin of error involved in making a difference in Baltimore: “I can’t mess up. I know what the consequences are. I know part of the consequences involve me maybe leaving this Earth. But it’s cool, because I made a difference. Failure isn’t an option. I don’t believe in the word ‘mistake,’ ya feel me?”

How the uprising has affected his everyday life: “It has affected me a lot. The ignorance displayed through the cops, our fellow citizens, the politicians, it’s been making me angry all the way around … I don’t need no Ph.D. on the street. I don’t need no Ph.D. on the violence that’s happening here. I’ve seen things and done things. I understand what’s happening and what’s at stake.”

Farajii Muhammad, 36, radio host

Farajii Muhammad
Credit: Timothy Bella

On a generational moment: “It’s like that Freddie Gray moment served as the new timeline. For a lot of young brothers and sisters here in the city of Baltimore, it was like, how were you a part of that situation? Many people back in the day used to ask where were you when JFK was killed? Now, it’s like, where were you on April 27th, when the Freddie Gray situation jumped off? Obviously, there’s the relationship between young people and the police that has been very contentious. Freddie Gray brought that to the forefront. It was young people that were out there; it wasn’t the older folk. It was young people throwing them bricks. And it was the young people that were disgruntled and dissatisfied. Baltimore is changing, and it’s changing in a good way.”

On the biggest challenge in interactions with police: “Any type of interaction we have with police here in Baltimore or wherever we go, we’re thinking about all that’s happened. It’s in our psyche now. And it just can’t be smoothed over. Now, when you’re pulled over, you think about one thing: How am I going to get home? That’s it. I’m trying to get home that night. That’s it. Now, not only do I have to be afraid of some dude on the street, but then, I’ve also got to be afraid of the police. That paralyzes a generation.”

Sandy Godsey, 22, college student

Sandy Godsey
Credit: Schelle' Photography

On what can be done to change the city: “Baltimore is majority black, but yet, the police force is majority white. It doesn’t make any sense. The demographics of the cops don’t fit the demographics of our living environment. White people don’t go through the same thing as black people do. How can a white cop relate to us? He doesn’t live the same life as us.”

The biggest thing that’s changed in his life since the uprising: “[Probably] walking down the street. Before the uprising, this wasn’t as prevalent. Now, after the riots, it seems as if nobody likes being on the same side of the street as me, or any black person. They stay clear. There’s a lot of fear.”

Charles "Bones" Littlejohn, 27, gang member

Charles "Bones" Littlejohn
Credit: Timothy Bella

How the uprising has affected his life: “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. 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 … It was just basically a cry for help to somebody, just asking to give us the help that we need.”

The challenges involved in creating a more socially-involved gang community: “At the end of the day, not everybody will fall in compliance with what we got going on. Our goal is to reach those people who think the color of a bandana separates people from being brothers. I’m not going to say the uprising brought us closer together, but it helped make us see our purpose.”

Kimberli Lagree, 34, community organizer

Kimberli Lagree, middle
Credit: Vimeo

On trusting police and local leaders: “From a spiritual perspective, the reason why there’s a lack of trust is because there’s no authenticity. People have foregone authenticity for ego or for power, or for whatever their strategy is based on.”

On the people who are changing Baltimore: “It gives me hope knowing there are people dedicated to changing Baltimore. These are people that don’t need to be in front of a camera. You don’t even know these people. They’re invisible. And these people have been doing it for the last 15 years. We don’t care about being known. We care about actually affecting change in our community for the better. So, it’s not a question of if it’s going to happen. It is going to happen.”

Jihad Muhammad, 19, member of the Nation of Islam

Jihad Muhammad
Credit: Timothy Bella

On life in the city after the uprising: “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen that type of unity from black youth in Baltimore. But the next week, I think the murder rate was the highest it’s been in a long time. It definitely showed that, as black people, we can come together for a common purpose. The problem is we went back to sleep less than a week later.”

On how the relationship between police and urban black people can improve: “In the Quran, it says the persecution is worse than slaughter. I believe that where things are going that black people throughout the country would rather die than to continue to be persecuted in the way that we have been. I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the future, but I can say that I believe that if justice is not served on our people, then the loss of life will happen.”

Kwame Rose, 21, artist

Kwame Rose, right
Credit: Reginald Thomas

On the moment that still stands out to him after the uprising: “When they burnt the CVS, that’s when the people got scared. It impacted my life in the sense that, yeah, I’m from Baltimore, and yeah, I’ve seen the protests in Ferguson and participated in protests before. But it was nothing like on this larger scale in an American city where we have 16,000 vacant homes, and the homeless population and unemployment rate are so high … It highlighted the power and the unity of blackness. We’re not trained or organized. The people that were out on the streets, the people justice, may not necessarily be the scholars of colleges, but they are the everyday people who gave us a voice.”

On the relationship between police and urban Baltimore residents: “What the [criminal justice] system wants – and what it’s always historically wanted – is black people to trust the system, even though the system, historically, puts black people at a disproportionate disadvantage…When Charleston happened, it was just about forgiveness. ‘Well, let’s just forgive.’ When all these things happen, well, that’s just about forgiveness and what can we do? In reality, we’ve always been trying to make things better and it’s never getting any better. I don’t think that we need to focus necessarily on trust between the community and the police department, but we need to have trust inside the community itself so that we can police ourselves.”

Crystal Sylvester, 21, concerned resident

Crystal Sylvester
Credit: Timothy Bella

On how the uprising made her feel: “What happened in that situation with Freddie Gray has sparked something in us. I’m angry and I’m fed up. And I’m tired of seeing black people die by the hands of police. We’re willing to do what we need to do in order to receive justice.”

On the role religion and spirituality play in Baltimore: “I don’t affiliate with any religious organization and I still would say that I would follow under the leadership of Brother Carlos Muhammad [of the Nation of Islam] and Pastor Jamal Bryant [of Empowerment Temple A.M.E.] I see their vision in making this a better Baltimore, and I support that. It doesn’t matter what religious or denomination you may be in in order to support the cause. This is bigger than any kind of religion.”

Mark Anthony Montgomery, 26, Christian minister

Mark Anthony Montgomery
Credit: Timothy Bella

On police violence: “When you’re witnessing black people being murdered at an alarming rate by police officers, the policing practice needs to be indicted. Until they address the prejudice of the policing practice, Freddie Gray is going to happen again. Tamir Rice is going to happen. Eric Garner, where a man could be choked with his hands up, is going to happen. Are you protecting and serving the people in the community or are you protecting and serving white supremacy?”

On perceptions of his city: “A lot of people are looking at Baltimore and the crime rate, the self-hate that going on amongst the people in the community, the murder rate being so high, and all that is only a byproduct of miseducation. That’s only a byproduct of you not giving us the resources we need to survive. At the end of the day, we are mammals. You put us in an environment that’s a ghetto without resources, without proper education and without jobs, and things are happening.”

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