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On Freddie Gray’s Birthday, Hopes For Police Reform, Community Change

Image: The sun sets behind a mural of the late Freddie Gray in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland

The sun sets behind a mural of the late Freddie Gray in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., July 27, 2016. BRYAN WOOLSTON / Reuters

Baltimore: ChangeMakers will introduce you to some of the individuals who are engaging youth, seeking to improve their neighborhoods block by block, and demanding that their voices be heard in corridors of power. Each one is different but determined in their own unique way to change the paradigm in the city, pushing to help rebuild it one day, one person at a time.


Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man whose arrest and police custody death last year sparked an uprising in his hometown and built on Black Lives Matter protests across the country and world, might have celebrated his 27th birthday today, August 16.

Instead, Gray sustained injuries in a police van in April 2015 that ultimately proved fatal. His death, ruled a homicide, would yield indictments but no convictions for six officers (three African American, three white) who were criminally charged. Still, there are signs in this city of nearly 700, 000 residents that Gray's legacy can be one of constructive change that uplifts his old neighborhood and the broader community.

Last week, the Justice Department announced that it found reasonable cause to believe that the Baltimore City Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.

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A mural dedicated to Freddie Gray is painted onto the side of a Gilmor Homes housing project building in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

According to the DOJ investigation (initiated by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and supported by Democrats in Maryland's congressional delegation), Baltimore's police department makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression.

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"Public trust is critical to effective policing and public safety," said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. "Our investigation found that Baltimore is a city where the bonds of trust have been broken. …"

But while officials found that the agency failed to provide officers with the guidance, oversight and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally and effectively, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, noted that hope isn't lost.

"In communities across America, even in communities where trust has been broken, we've seen transformative reform rebuild relationships and advance public safety," said Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. "In the weeks ahead, as we negotiate our consent decree with the city, we will seek input from law enforcement and community members. With the city and commissioner's commitment to reform, I am optimistic that we will work to drive that same progress in Baltimore."

Rev. Heber Brown, III is pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist. He believes that social justice intersects with faith and he actively promotes the interplay with spirituality and the aspirations for a better world. André Chung / for NBC News

Some community transformation has already begun. Since Gray's death, various stakeholders have marched, demonstrated, assembled for meetings and formed coalitions.

Indeed, not long after pockets of Baltimore erupted in rioting, looting and arson on the day Gray was laid to rest, clergy such as Revs. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, Heber Brown, and Frank Reid—took to the streets aiming to quell tensions. Moreover, local congregations led by Elder CW Harris, Father Ray Bomberger, Alvin Hathaway and Westley West, to name a few—have built on longtime efforts or instituted newer efforts to help foster peace, boost economic development, engage youth and more.

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"One of the things we did was help feed folks because a lot of the corner stores were shut down after the unrest," said Reverend Brown, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. "We worked with black farmers to bring in produce. We continue to be a helping hand spiritually and in practical terms to our brothers and sisters in need."

Elder Harris and his wife are behind `Intersection of Change' (formerly Newborn Holistic Ministries), a non-profit located in Sandtown-Winchester, a predominately African-American community that Gray called home.

The Harris family, along with executive director, Todd Marcus, have been dedicated to providing programs they say "enrich the economic, social and spiritual lives of West Baltimore residents dealing with poverty related issues."

Elder CW Harris is pastor of Newborn Community of Faith. He and his wife are leaders of `Intersection of Change’ (formerly Newborn Holistic Ministries), a non-profit located in Sandtown-Winchester, a predominately African-American community that Freddie Gray called home. André Chung / for NBC News

The organization, which recently marked its 20th anniversary, has completed significant neighborhood revitalization through the full renovation of six previously vacant and dilapidated buildings; turning 18 vacant lots into community green spaces and meditative gardens; and the creation of a dozen neighborhood murals.

Core programs created and supported by Intersection of Change also include Martha's Place, a recovery program for women overcoming drug addiction and homelessness. There's also Jubilee Arts, which offers dance, music and other classes for adults and children aimed at bringing communities together through artistic expression.

In another part of Baltimore, Bryant—a nationally/globally known AME pastor who appears on the Fox TV series "The Preachers"—leads the Empowerment Temple megachurch. Last summer, Bryant renovated an existing building to house "The Freddie Gray Youth Empowerment Center."

Rev. Jamal Bryant is pastor of Empowerment Temple, and he led several local and national protest marches. His church has opened a new community center named for Freddie Gray. André Chung / for NBC News

Since its opening last July, the center has hosted youth summer camp classes geared towards providing high-quality, enrichment programming. Young campers have been exposed to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM); Fitness, Creative Arts, Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Theatre classes. In addition, free breakfast and lunch is served daily.

Organizers say the center will provide a safe, secure haven for teens and young adults, computer and job training classes, as well as meeting space for community associations and local businesses. Because Freddie Gray and his twin sister Fredericka were exposed to flaking lead-based paint as children and found to have excessive levels in their blood, there will also be lead paint testing sessions sponsored by local attorney, Saul Kerpleman.

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"The issues that Gray and others in contemporary urban communities face are too volatile for residents to have to wait months for change, help in these communities needs to be immediate," said Dr. Harrison Bryant. "In the competitive 21st Century, a city cannot thrive when a significant portion of its residents can't participate in its culture and economy."

Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, who represents the district where Gray lived, called the DOJ report about police/community relations in Baltimore "troubling" but noted that "the first step in fixing a problem is to understand it."

"It validates what so many residents in Baltimore City already know to be true - that the trust between our law enforcement officers and the communities they serve has been repeatedly violated and is in desperate need of repair."

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Cummings adds that Baltimore's police Commissioner Kevin Davis has begun to proactively implement policy reforms to improve the force, including updating its use-of-force policy, and requiring that new recruits spend their first three months in the community in order to learn about the city's people and history. Progress can take place, the Congressman said.

"It underscores just how much damage we must undo, and how much work is ahead of us."

Mayor Rawlings-Blake agreed when speaking about the DOJ findings last week.

"Policing issues have taken on a new urgency in the national discussion in light of the tragic shootings in recent weeks as well as recent developments in our own city," she said. "It is so very important that we get this right."

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