USA TODAY, May 1, 2015
By Yamiche Alcindor
BALTIMORE – Delilah Spriggs shrugs at the burned-out CVS pharmacy store looters set ablaze Monday. She sees it as just one of many blighted sites in a neighborhood filled with abandoned spaces.
For Spriggs and many residents of this city, the destruction left behind by Monday’s violence following the funeral of a man who died in police custody is simply the latest consequence of poverty and frustration grown from many years of neglect. While many residents condemned smashing windows and stealing goods, others say the vandals unleashed long-held anger to get the attention they had sought for years.
Now national attention is fixated on Baltimore after 10 days of protests following the death of Freddie Gray, 25, a black man who died of a severe spinal injury April 19 while in police custody. Tensions exploded into violence Monday. Clashes between police and demonstrators led to arrests of more than 200 protesters and injuries to 20 police officers.
Springs, a social worker, said the national attention should shift from the unrest to its underlying cause – the poverty that has robbed many of their homes and businesses. The neighborhood needs more grocery stores, healthier food options and better schools, she said.
“Change comes from conflict,” Spriggs, 22, said. “People are trying to act like all these depleted buildings are new. Baltimore has been depleted. Now they have two or three burned-up buildings and now it’s a problem? The landscape has not changed. Last week, everything looked just like this except the CVS was open.”
Baltimore’s shining gentrified downtown and its historic Inner Harbor just a few miles away seem like a world away from predominantly black West Baltimore, where weeds overtake lawns in front of crumbling homes and commercial buildings that once housed thriving car washes, gas stations and delis now are empty. Caution tape on rusted fences and dark alleys with “no dumping” signs warn would-be trespassers. Children play on dilapidated playgrounds and cars wind around vast potholes.
Nearly a quarter of Baltimore’s 622,000 residents live in poverty, more than double the rate for Maryland, Census records show. Violent crime is high. Baltimore accounts for 11% of Maryland’s residents, but 63% of its murders. In 2013, Baltimore reported 233 murders, up 7% from 2012.
Those numbers tell just part of the problems plaguing the city, says landscaper Mike Love, 27, a lifelong Baltimore resident, who sympathizes with the looters who struck CVS and the chain stores at a local mall. On Tuesday, Love said he bought a pair of black Converse sneakers from a looter for $5, rather than the $50 he would have spent at a store.
Those businesses represent multimillion-dollar companies who haven’t helped low-income black people like him, Love said. Change won’t come from peaceful protesting, but from united aggressive actions, he said.
“This passive stuff is not going to work,” Love said. “If you give them what they want, they will have the power.”
Shalanda Folkes, 25, struggles to support herself and two daughters, 8 and 1, on the $7.50 an hour she earns at a local fast-food restaurant. To make ends meet, she relies on food stamps and temporary cash assistance. She’s conflicted over the looting.
“People do work hard for their businesses. But at the same time, people are in need and no one is helping,” Folkes said. “People are getting tired of being poor. It’s not right to break into stores, but people are broke and see opportunity.”
Yet, the resounding message from local leaders, city officials and Gray’s family is peace. It’s a concept Donte Hickman, pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore, wishes people would have taken to heart before they burned down the church’s nearly built $16 million senior center on Monday, destroying eight years of work to bring 60 housing units, counseling services and workforce training programs to the city’s poorest residents.
Hickman denounces the violence but says he understands its roots.
“People are obviously frustrated,” he said. “They are venting. They don’t know how to articulate that.”
City officials declared a minor victory Wednesday after two days of calm. Most residents obeyed a citywide 10 p.m. curfew.
“The curfew is, in fact, working,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told reporters. “The biggest thing is that citizens are safe; the city is stable.”
To Hickman, the city curfew and the increased police presence represent a temporary fix.
“It’s putting a Band-Aid on an open wound that will bleed again if we don’t deal with the root causes of the problem,” he said.