30 Apr 2015

Cleaning up in Baltimore

8:52 am on 30 April 2015

The investigation into the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African American man who died in police custody, is expected to wrap up tomorrow.

The findings will be handed over to a prosecutor who will decide whether to file charges against the six police officers involved. 

Gray’s death, which sparked protests throughout Baltimore, could be added to the list of high-profile cases of black men killed by police.

Fires burn during protests in Baltimore

Fires burn during protests in Baltimore Photo: AFP

Last night thousands of police and troops worked to enforce a curfew on the city’s streets and AP reported police hurled tear gas canisters and fired pepper balls at about 200 protesters.

The protests set off by Gray’s death took a violent turn on Monday after demonstrators clashed with police just hours after his funeral.

About 200 people were arrested as more than 100 cars were set alight and 15 buildings destroyed.

READ: State of emergency declared in Baltimore

Baltimore resident Janea Kelly knows that tomorrow’s outcome could set off more violence in the community.

“The verdict on whether or not the officers will be indicted will affect us greatly. Families are already hurting and the next few days are going to be very tense,” she says.

The 25-year-old lives less than 10 minutes drive from West Baltimore, the neighbourhood where most of the protests are taking place. She works six days a week, half the time in child care and the other half at an organic food market.

“What you have to understand about Baltimore is that it’s still very segregated, both in class and race,” she says.

“West Baltimore is almost an island and many people in the city never go there. There’s a deep systemic disempowerment of that area that has gone on for years, decades even.”

Janea Kelly

Janea Kelly Photo: Supplied

Janea says riots in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson are a reflection of the frustration she and other African Americans feel after centuries of racism.

Despite not knowing exactly what to do, she wanted to help.

“I was just so mad, so angry about the depreciation of black lives in America,” she says. “I woke up in the morning and thought I don’t want this to be another time that I don’t help out, especially since something so close had happened.”

Yesterday, just before she set off to work, Janea created a crowdfunding page in the hopes of raising a bit of money to assist with relief in West Baltimore.

Within a day, she raised over US$2,000 which is 430 per cent more than the $500 goal listed on the page.

“I had no idea how anyone was going to react. I completely assumed I was going to get a huge ‘fuck you’ or ‘why?’ because I’d seen people comparing Baltimore and Nepal and trivialising one for another.”

After visiting West Baltimore yesterday, Janea says there is a lot of work to be done in a community that was already struggling.

“Certain things you could not ignore like the damaged building, vandalised homes and lots of closed shops.”

“Those small stores being out of business is completely critical because they’re vital for everyday needs like milk, bread and eggs that people rely on. There aren’t big grocery stores within walking distance there.”

Janae has been able to get a few days off work and wants to team up with local organisations already working in the area, including one group dishing out free lunches to local children.

“There are kids who rely on school lunches but schools are out and that’s a huge hit to families.”

Since “the needs are constantly evolving” the money Janea has raised will go into a trust fund for things like food and supplies in the community, and in an effort to remain transparent, she wants to post all the receipts online.

Tomorrow's finding into Gray’s death and the verdict on indictment will cause waves around the country, but Janea believes regardless of the decision, it’s an issue that's not going away 

“Historically African American in this country, and other brown-bodied people, have just been so deeply disadvantaged. It’s not something that just be remedied overnight,” she says.

“At the end of the day, these high-risk communities in Baltimore have always needed help. This was a state of emergency prior to the protests. This is all just belated community action.”

Cover image: AFP