Thursday, April 30, 2015

Standing Between the Police and the People in Baltimore: City Deploys Functionaries to Calm the Streets
New York Times
APRIL 29, 2015

BALTIMORE — For the past few days, as a rare national media spotlight has shined on this city’s troubles, the Rev. Warren Savage has taken the opportunity to meet with self-described members of the gangs that many residents blame for some of those woes: the Crips, the Bloods and the Black Guerrilla Family.

He has found them on the streets, sat down with them in churches, and talked to them about their anger and their aspirations, urging them to redirect their energy from crime and violent feuding to more productive ends — including tamping down unrest that followed the death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody two weeks ago.

In Ferguson, Mo., community leaders seemed unable to come together to stem the violence after the police killing of Michael Brown in August. But in Baltimore, an array of pastors, politicians, community leaders and even gang members have repeatedly taken to the streets to calm crowds, effectively helping the police impose a curfew so far.

Mr. Savage is one of them. By his own telling, he was an early member of a street gang, the Black Guerrilla Family, who engaged in drug trafficking in the early 1980s and spent 15 years in prison.

Now the owner of an upholstery company and volunteer church liaison to troubled youth, he is hoping that shared anger over the death of Mr. Gray will help him advance some gang members’ own efforts to work out a truce and reduce street violence.

“I approach them as an O.G.,” said Mr. Savage, 55, using shorthand for original gangster. “Lots of these kids, you start talking that minister stuff and they look at you funny. They don’t want to hear you preach. They want you to do something.”

Many local politicians, notably Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat whose district includes West Baltimore, have also spent hours walking the city’s blighted neighborhoods to discourage any repeat of Monday’s disorder.

When schools were closed on Tuesday, some teachers came to churches to help feed children who rely on meals they get at school. Ordinary citizens, by the hundreds, have swept up the mess and repeatedly formed lines to create a buffer between police officers in riot gear and angry demonstrators.

Wounded civic pride is part of the motivation. The Empowerment Temple, a big West Baltimore church, responded to Monday’s unrest by offering training in nonviolence.

“We need to show the world what Baltimore is really like,” said the church’s minister, the Rev. Jamal Bryant. “It’s not the violence you saw out there on the streets.”

Part of the goal is political. On Wednesday, at orderly rallies and marches, many people tried to shift public attention away from the rioting and back to calls to change the city’s Police Department — with its history of aggressive and sometimes brutal policies — and find justice for the death of Mr. Gray, 25, whose spine was nearly severed after he ran from the police and was arrested.

About 50 people rallied at midday outside the offices of local prosecutors who are investigating police responsibility for the death of Mr. Gray. Later, hundreds of college students and others marched to City Hall, again trying to return public attention to police abuse of black men.

The Rev. Delman Coates, who addressed the midday crowd, said his intent was not to protest, exactly, but to help Marilyn Mosby, the city’s recently elected top prosecutor, do her job.

“She campaigned on a platform of dealing with the very deep-seated problems around police accountability,” said Dr. Coates, whose church is in Clinton, Md. “We need all hands on deck to address this problem.”

Baltimore’s self-appointed peacekeepers were not successful in the initial hours of unrest, when rioters looted stores, burned buildings and injured more than a dozen police officers, some of them seriously. But in the following days, they were more effective in restraining violence than clergy members and civil rights leaders in Ferguson, who had troubles cohering in the first few days and struggled to calm violent demonstrators.

At Bethel A.M.E. Church on Tuesday, teachers from both public and private schools served sandwiches and cookies to kids who had missed lunch at school. Amber Johnson, a teacher at Patterson Park Public Charter School, talked to children aged seven to 15 about Mr. Gray’s death, the rioting and how they felt about it all. She and other volunteers quizzed them, too, asking the number of states and who is president of the United States. (“Taylor Swift?” ventured one young pupil.)

But in a city abuzz with public speeches, meetings and demonstrations, perhaps nothing was more surprising than the outreach to gangs, and some gang members’ positive response. Gang fights accounted for some of violence in a city that recorded 211 homicides last year. Gangs run some of the thriving drug trade, and the Black Guerrilla Family was accused by prosecutors of a virtual takeover of the city’s jail, leading to corruption charges against many correctional officers. And earlier this week, the police warned that the Crips and Bloods were uniting to plan attacks on officers, though members of both gangs have denied any such plans.

That history warranted skepticism about a lasting turnaround by gang members, and there was plenty. But ministers who were involved in the discussions said the turmoil offers an opening that should not go to waste.

The Rev. Duane Simmons, of Simmons Memorial Baptist Church, sent church members to the CVS drugstore that had been burned on Monday night to collect gang members hanging around the area. He wanted to get angry young men away from the large police presence, and also start a discussion.

Crips in red bandannas and Bloods in blue sat in Mr. Simmons’s office and discussed their frustrations and possible solutions.

A Crip named Eric, who asked that his last name not be used, said some members of the three major gangs have become disillusioned with the violence and want to find more productive activities. “Police still blame us for stuff that we did in the past,” he said. “But that’s not where we’re at right now. We’re trying to be about peace.”

Mr. Savage, the preacher and former gang member, said that the discussions are a promising start. He said he had heard other ministers speak in recent days of a “disconnect” with gang members. That was an understatement, he said.

“There is no disconnect,” he said, “because there never was a connection.”

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