The arrest and death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year old black man and Baltimore native, sparked both peaceful and violent protests in April 2015. Two years later, Baltimore and the Hopkins community are still trying to make sense of Gray’s death and the surge of activism that followed.
Gray died from a spinal cord injury that he sustained while in Baltimore Police Department (BPD) custody. His death came during the early stages of the Black Lives Matter movement, which called attention to how police brutality violates the rights of black Americans.
Following his death, many Hopkins students joined city-wide protests demanding justice. Senior Matthew Brown, a sophomore at the time, remembers the beginning of the Baltimore uprising.
“When I started marching, it felt like everything came together and elevated and activated my activism,” he said. “It was a part of my blackness; It was a part of talking about how messed up the criminal justice system was; It was talking about the innocent life that was taken.”
Senior Corey Payne credited the protests with helping him better understand the city and his role as an activist.
“I fell in love with Baltimore that week when I was out in the uprising,” he said. “My personal, social and intellectual development was really altered.”
Both Payne and Brown believe that student activism at Hopkins has grown since Gray’s death. Payne noted that many students began to organize and continued to be active when they returned from summer break.
Payne and other students formed the Hopkins chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) because they wanted to create a space where activists could continue the work that the uprising had started.
Brown said that, like Payne, he returned to Hopkins in the fall of 2015 with a renewed sense of purpose. As the Black Student Union (BSU) president for that school year, Brown wanted to address the concerns that black students raised during the uprising.
He recalled feeling isolated and marginalized following Gray’s death, noting that racist comments on Yik Yak from fellow students contributed to a toxic environment on campus. Brown said that the campus climate and Gray’s death influenced him to push for more administrative changes.
“The Freddie Gray incident, as unfortunate as it was, really catalyzed us,” he said.
In November 2015, Brown and other BSU members issued a list of demands to the administration calling for an increase in the number of black faculty, cultural competency classes and better support for black students.
They also hosted the Black Student Forum, an event during which students and faculty voiced their concerns about the status of black students at Hopkins.
Brown believes that the BSU’s efforts to pressure the administration to focus on diversity and inclusion have been met with considerable success.
“I think now the freshmen coming in are having a much better experience because a lot of things have changed,” Brown said.
Following the November 2015 BSU protests, the University released its Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion and instituted a diversity and inclusion training program.
Although Brown recognizes that these initiatives are University efforts to create change, he thinks they do not adequately address the BSU’s initial demands.
Payne believes change has yet to happen on an administrative level, although he praised student leaders’ participation in the uprising.
“Students are now standing up and fighting for what’s right,” he said. “That being said, I haven’t seen any significant change in the Hopkins administration.”
In particular, Payne criticized HopkinsLocal, a University initiative to expand employment opportunities for Baltimore citizens, and the University’s development projects with the East Baltimore Development, Inc.
He does not believe these initiatives do enough to improve living and working conditions for Baltimore residents. Instead, Payne views them as efforts to gentrify Baltimore neighborhoods.
On the other hand, University President Ronald J. Daniels recognized the HopkinsLocal program as one of several initiatives Hopkins has promoted to benefit the Baltimore community.
“Our sweeping economic inclusion initiative, HopkinsLocal, took on renewed urgency in the wake of the unrest,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Daniels cited the hiring of 304 workers from underprivileged Baltimore neighborhoods and increased spending on construction projects and Baltimore-based businesses as examples of the program’s success.
Living in the city for the past eleven years, Baltimore Scholar Chijioke Oranye has seen reform efforts on behalf of the government and the University that he believes address socioeconomic problems and issues with policing.
“[The police department] said that the cops would start wearing body cameras,” he said. “President Daniels has made a couple of initiatives to really support social projects for underprivileged black folks and communities in the city.”
Before coming to Hopkins, Oranye lived in a neighborhood between Hopkins and Towson. He characterized his neighborhood as low-income, under-developed, crime heavy and predominantly African-American, a contrast to the nearby higher-income and predominantly white Belvedere Square area.
Oranye said that, because of his experience living in Baltimore, he was not surprised when Gray was killed.
“Freddie Gray’s death was nothing new to me,” he said. “There’s always going to be injustice for less privileged inhabitants of communities.”
Oranye was a senior and student government president at the Baltimore City College high school when Gray died. He explained that there was a sense of urgency throughout the school community to take action.
“I organized one of the first student protests within my school,” he said. “It was protests about police brutality but mostly about being aware of how racism, in different forms, creates inequity.”
Nathan Connolly, the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history, sees a link between the Baltimore uprising and income inequality.
“Whenever you have situations of inequality and what’s perceived to be a lack of responsiveness on behalf of government, you’re going to get riots,” he said. “You’re going to get uprisings. This was true in the 19th century; It was certainly true in the 20th century and now again in the 21st.”
He pointed to the burning of the CVS building in West Baltimore during the uprising as an example of residents protesting the economic inequality in their community.
“It’s a corporation that has demonstrated very little effort in terms of dealing with issues of poverty,” he said. “The targeting of CVS Pharmacy can’t be disentangled from the fact that health care has been one of the most acute sites of injustice facing black and brown people in this country.”
Connolly, who has taught at the University since 2008, believes that improving economic conditions for Baltimore residents will be difficult without government support, saying that universities and businesses have made reforms possible.
“There’s been on one level a responsiveness on behalf of a number of private institutions,” he said. “The University, for instance, has instituted its HopkinsLocal program to try to hire more local Baltimore residents. But a lot of what has happened hasn’t been fully supported by local government.”
Daniels stated that the University has continued to work with the community to create opportunities for Baltimore citizens. He pointed out that Hopkins faculty members have worked with the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) to reduce violent crime using data and research.
“These efforts, which started after Freddie Gray’s death, add to a host of commitments Johns Hopkins had already undertaken to build our relationships with, and support for, our city,” Daniels wrote.
Daniels also mentioned an initiative to provide free eye exams to students in Baltimore public schools, as well as a science, technology, engineering and mathematics partnership between Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and the University. He clarified that Freddie Gray’s death alone did not influence the University’s commitment to Baltimore.
“None of these community-focused initiatives happened because of Freddie Gray,” he wrote. “But our hope, of course, is that our efforts will help to lift the trajectory of this city and all of its residents so there is never another case like Freddie Gray’s.”
In addition to highlighting economic and social problems within Baltimore, Freddie Gray’s death also brought the BPD into the national spotlight.
Many commended Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for pressing charges against the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest but felt discouraged when three of the officers were acquitted and charges were dropped against the other three.
Payne and Brown were disappointed but not surprised by the outcome, while Oranye felt that the officers were prosecuted at all was a sign of progress.
“Even when the officers were prosecuted, I didn’t have hope that they were going to convicted,” Brown said.
Payne argued that the current justice system prevented the officers from facing consequences in court.
“We have implemented structural and interpersonal protections for racist police officers while at the same time instituting structural disadvantages for black victims of police brutality,” he said.
Moving forward, Connolly believes that people should view Freddie Gray’s death as a way to mark change and progress in Baltimore.
“We can keep the moment of Freddie Gray as a touchstone, the same way we look at the murder of Emmett Till in the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “I think that’s a very useful way to engage the event and continue to use it as a standard by which to measure how much progress we are making or not making.”
Correction: A previous correction to this article wrongly stated that two of BPD officers involved in Gray's arrest and transport were acquitted and that charges were dropped against the other four. In reality, three were acquitted and charges were dropped against the other three.