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Baltimore, a year later, debates if Freddie Gray is 'role model'

BALTIMORE – Freddie Gray looms larger in death than he ever did in life.

Gray – the man who died in the back of a police transfer vehicle – has been widely exalted as a civil rights martyr, a fallen hero and a role model. The city continues to prosecute the arresting officers in the case, with the second trial set to begin next week after a jury deadlocked in the first.

A year ago exactly since riots about his death finally tapered out, Gray’s face adorns a two-story mural on the side of a row house in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester community, where he lived and was arrested. Flanking him: 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.

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 him 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 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, he 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 black leaders, however, suggest that Black Lives Matter distracts from black-on-black violence, responsible for well over 90 percent of homicides in 2015 – Baltimore’s deadliest yet, with 344 people murdered, 93 percent of whom 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 as 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?”

In a nine-minute Facebook video posted in early April that has been viewed about four million times, retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who is black, 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 Memphis billboard: “Black lives matter. So let’s quit killing each other.”

Davis paid 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.” 

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 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 is 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 are rampant – other memorials provide sad testaments to the endless killings.

 Within a few blocks, on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon, you can find four makeshift memorials – balloons tied to light posts or signs, each representing a life cut short by a recent murder.