Freddie Gray looms larger in death than he ever did in life.
It’s been more than a year since rioting over Gray’s death in police custody tore this city apart, and he’s still exalted nationwide as a civil rights martyr, a fallen hero, a role model.
His face adorns a two-story mural painted on the side of a row house in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester community, where he lived and was arrested. Flanking him: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. leading a civil rights march on one side and Gray’s family members protesting on the other.
Other neighborhood memorials to Gray abound.
About a mile away, the $1.2 million Freddie Gray Empowerment Center – which offers courses, free meals, camps and sports for city youths – bears his likeness.
Singers and songwriters – from the late Prince to local rappers – have recorded songs dedicated to Gray.
Demonstrators continue to take to the streets for marches in memory of Gray, who died of severe spinal injuries in a police transport van.
Gray’s death and the ensuing riots led to the firing of the police commissioner and ultimately prompted Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, harshly criticized for her response to the rioting, not to seek re-election.
And of course, Gray, who was 25, has become a face of Black Lives Matter, helping galvanize the national movement against police brutality
But some prominent African-Americans in Baltimore and beyond say that while Gray’s death was a tragedy, he should not be lionized.
A role model?
For years, Gray, a high-school dropout who never held a legitimate job, sold drugs, which have devastated huge swaths of East and West Baltimore. He had been arrested 18 times and was in and out of prison for drug convictions dating to 2008. And he was carrying a knife when police chased and arrested him last year.
“Why have we made Freddie Gray a role model and even named a community center for children after Freddie Gray?” asked the Rev. Glenna Huber, the black vicar of the city’s Church of the Holy Nativity who co-chairs Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, an influential coalition of churches and community groups.
“I would have chosen someone who understands the struggle and managed to succeed because of it or in spite of it, someone who offers hope. The life and death of Freddie Gray do not offer hope to children trying to do something better with their lives.”
But the youth center’s founder, Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor at Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple and a longtime civil rights activist, differed sharply.
At the center’s July grand opening, Bryant said: “Freddie Gray is a symbol for so many of us in this city and in this community of what it means to be a young black man, trying to fight up against what seem to be insurmountable odds. He had to jump through obstacles and hurdles in life. But he has now served as a reminder for us that sometimes you can live on after death.”
And Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, who failed in his bid to become Baltimore mayor in the April 26 primary, said Gray’s death helped fortify the movement.
“What Freddie Gray and the Ferguson killing — and the killings of other blacks by police — brought is a wake-up call, and all across the city, and all across the country, helped show people the impact of police violence, which many people had not seen before,” Mckesson said.
“This movement has to be about how we use the power structure to make sure that never happens again here or in other places.”
Some African-American leaders, however, suggest Black Lives Matter distracts from black-on-black violence, which was responsible for well over 90 percent of homicides in 2015 – Baltimore’s deadliest ever, with 344 murders, 93 percent of whose victims were black. (In its annual 2015 homicide report, released in January, the Baltimore City Police Department said 72 of the 85 suspects arrested by year’s end in connection with 2015 murders were black, while the rest were white.)
“It seems black lives only matter if they’re killed by white police officers,” said Leonard Hamm, Baltimore’s police commissioner from 2004 to 2007 and now public safety director at Coppin State University in West Baltimore. “We don’t talk a lot about how black lives matter when black guys are killing black guys.”
Hamm recalls saying as much when he served as city police commissioner and getting angry responses from many blacks: “People said, ‘How dare you denigrate the blacks?’ I’m not denigrating anybody. That’s the situation, and what are we going to do about that?”
He knows first-hand the toll of violence and drugs. In 2008, Nicole Sesker, his stepdaughter, whom he raised since she was 3, was found strangled in a house in Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, where she had worked as a prostitute to support her heroin habit, sleeping in vacant houses, living trick to trick and fix to fix.
In an interview with this reporter for a front-page story for The New York Times, Sesker, who died at 39, spoke wistfully, yet eloquently, of getting out of the life, of writing a book, of working with philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Foundations to help others caught in the web of prostitution and addiction.
‘Let’s stop killing black folks’
Another prominent black, hometown hero Ray Lewis, the retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker, took to Facebook to offer his take on Black Lives Matter.
In a nine-minute video posted in early April that has been viewed more than 4 million times, Lewis said: “We keep screaming, ‘Black lives matter!’ If they really matter, then let’s do ourselves a favor: Let’s stop killing black folks.”
Lewis went on: “I’m trying to figure out if black lives really matter … I’m trying to figure out in my mind why no one is paying attention to black men killing black men.”
And weeks after the Baltimore riots, Fred Davis, a black civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., posted this message on a billboard in Memphis, where King was assassinated in 1968: “Black lives matter. So let’s quit killing each other.”
Davis paid $1,000 a month out of his own pocket to put up the billboard outside the insurance company he owns in the city’s downtown because, he said, he’s fed up with drug-related bloodletting leaving blacks dead at the hands of black murderers.
“We need to apply the same standards to each other that we are saying to other people, including the police,” Davis said.
Back in Freddie Gray’s former neighborhood, a memorial painted on a housing project’s brick wall depicts a blue angel with white wings and a gold halo, along with the words: “Freddie Gray 8-16-89 – 4-19-15.” Below sit two vases with dead flowers beside 10 empty liquor bottles.
Here – in a neighborhood where one in three houses are vacant, unemployment exceeds 50 percent, half the children live below the federal poverty line, young blacks are almost as likely to be arrested as to finish high school, and violence and drug dealing fester – other memorials provide sad testaments to the endless killings.
Within a few blocks, on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon in springtime, you can find four makeshift memorials – balloons tied to light posts or signs, each representing a life cut short by a recent murder.
Gary Gately, a seasoned journalist, has won 15 national, regional and local awards for reporting and writing news, investigative, public service, feature, business and travel pieces. Gately’s work has been published by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun (where he worked in reporting and editing jobs for 11 years), Baltimore Examiner, the Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Newsweek, Arrive Magazine, The Center for Public Integrity, CBSNews.com, CNBC.com, ABCNews.com, USAToday.com, HealthDay, The Crime Report, United Press International and numerous other newspapers, websites and magazines. His coverage has received awards from the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and the Society of American Travel Writers (first-place Lowell Thomas Award for best newspaper travel story/U.S.-Canada (immigrant New York). Gately also has extensive experience editing for newspapers and websites, has taught college journalism courses in news writing, magazine writing and travel writing and is the author of Maryland: Anthem to Innovation, a book on the state’s history, industries and attractions.