Good Things Can Happen When Black Teens Are Allowed to Lead

Mural of Freddie Gray in the neighborhood where he lived and was arrested. Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Mural of Freddie Gray in the neighborhood where he lived and was arrested.
Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray died on April 19, 2015. Seven days before, he was arrested by Baltimore police officers for possession of a switchblade. Gray fell into a coma after being transported to a booking center by police van. Before his death, he was treated for three fractured vertebrae, a crushed voice box and spinal cord injury, according to the Atlantic. 

Protests erupted in response. Six officers were initially suspended. In early May 2015, Maryland State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced Gray’s death was a homicide and the officers were charged. Questions remained as to why Gray was apprehended in the Sandtown neighborhood, where he lived, in the first place.

Gray’s case and the civil unrest that followed may have appeared to be exceptional, but it was not. The city of Baltimore had been on fire far before Gray’s death. And relationships between the Baltimore Police Department and black residents have been strained for some time.

The mundane occurrences of blue-on-black violence in Baltimore: The exuberant costs of longstanding patterns of police brutality in Baltimore extended beyond the tragic loss of Gray’s life. According to a damning 2014 special report by the Baltimore Sun, the city paid out $5.7 million to victims of brutality, false arrests and false imprisonment between 2011 and 2014.

“Those cases detail a frightful human toll,” Baltimore Sun’s Mark Puente wrote. “Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.”

Gray’s broken body wasn’t a sign of good policing gone wrong. Gray’s case only exposed the problems present in Baltimore city’s police and prosecutorial systems over time. As Puente details in his investigative report on Baltimore’s longstanding problem of police abuse, “in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims — if charges were filed at all.”

Given the context of the prevailing unease present between police officers and community members in Baltimore, establishing rapport and trust between police and civilians may seem impossible. But some community leaders believe it can be done.

Baltimore youth are helping to lead the change: Enter the Inner Harbor Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Celia Neustadt in 2012 after winning a foundation grant. According to the organization’s website, IHP is a “teen-led movement” based on “a model for social change that identifies teenagers who are leaders among their peers, equips them with research and professional skills and organizes them to come up with solutions to issues that divide our society on the basis of race, class and culture.”

Youth team members are centered in the organization’s movement work. They help design programs. They organize other young people. They lead. And in a city where residents under 18 make up 21.2% of the population of 622,793, according to the U.S. Census, youth should be at the forefront of communal transformation efforts.

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Source: .Mic | Darnell L. Moore