Center Maryland: A chance to showcase the unity and healing taking hold in Baltimore

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on December 11, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

It seems almost certain that the trial of William Porter, the first Baltimore City police officer charged in the tragic death of Freddie Gray, will wrap up soon and we could see a jury verdict well before Christmas.

When that happens, the lights and cameras of CNN and the rest of the national news that have set up camp in the city will once again train their focus on Baltimore.

They’ll want to report the verdict, of course. But with harsh memories and images of the civil unrest that broke out in some parts of the city after Gray’s death still fresh, they will be primed to report on any reaction to the verdict too.

This brings us to a press conference that was held earlier this week in which Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called on city residents and visitors to show “respect” in their reactions to the jury decision – and respect for the city and its residents.

The words and messages were timely, on target and served as a reminder that city leaders are mindful that some are worried about a repeat of April as the jury deliberates and delivers a verdict.

While a call for respect and calm from the mayor and police commissioner as the first police officer trial nears its end is not entirely unexpected, they made an interesting point.

The city – the entire city – has an opportunity to show the rest of the country that Baltimore is proud of itself and should have a better reputation than the images played time and again on national TV broadcasts and elsewhere have painted our city. Many have worked hard, the mayor and police commissioner noted, to strengthen connections between police, the business community, nonprofits, anchor institutions, and residents — no matter what neighborhood they live in.

What was particularly remarkable and powerful was the large number of community leaders – some from parts of the city that suffered the most during the unrest – that stood at the mayor and police commissioner’s side at the press conference.

Many of these speakers had deeply moving messages that one can only hope will resonate from City Hall throughout the city and be repeated time and again after the verdict.

Eric Booker, a community leader in East Baltimore, and Rev. Betty J. Brown, a pastor at Mount Calvary Church of Deliverance,were among the community leaders who spoke at the event.

“Unity is going to be the key. No matter what has happened previously,” Rev. Brown said. “We must come together. Baltimore can be better. Just because it got a little crack and got a little broken, it can be better. Let’s get some unity glue and glue it back together.”

Booker had this to say: “I love Baltimore during the highs and the lows. At this time we are engaged in a process and we are healing. You sprain your ankle, it doesn’t heal overnight. It’s a process. I ask you to embrace the process.
“It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and throw stones,” he said. “It’s hard work to get involved with the process.”

As community centers and business were looted and burned during the unrest, Booker recalled, many in affected neighborhoods were saddened. But, he said, strides have been made to rebuild, improve community connections, and address some of the underlying social and economic issues that served as a catalyst for some of the unrest. Much of this has occurred behind the scenes. The entire city needs to understand and respect these efforts.

“Baltimore has risen from the ashes,” Booker said.

Booker and Brown’s eloquent comments are powerful indeed.

They speak to a point of view that can see far beyond whatever happens after Officer Porter’s trial and those of the other five officers charged. They remind us that hard work has been done and more is to come and it will take everyone chipping in.

Hard work like the Community Engagement Center that the University of Maryland, Baltimore has launched in West Baltimore, which provides health screenings, mentoring of young students for medical careers, tutoring for kids struggling with studies and more. Hard work like the HopkinsLocal initiative that will provide entry level jobs at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University for residents of zip codes plagued by high unemployment. And hard work like the Greater Baltimore Committee’s new Coalition for a Second Chance, which will seek to improve the outlook for those returning to society after serving time in prison and the Bridging the Gap program to grow and expand minority businesses. There are many other programs throughout the city engaged in these types of efforts.

These examples are the kind of hard work and unity that Brown and Booker are talking about. With the commitment behind these and dozens of other such efforts to help Baltimore the city is healing and getting stronger.

You aren’t likely to see any of this in headlines or leading the national TV news after the Porter verdict. But, day by day, it’s happening.

Don Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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