Freddie Gray's Death, 5 Years Later Five years ago, the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in police custody sparked civil unrest. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with West Baltimore community organizer Ray Kelly.

Freddie Gray's Death, 5 Years Later

Freddie Gray's Death, 5 Years Later

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Five years ago, the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in police custody sparked civil unrest. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with West Baltimore community organizer Ray Kelly.


Five years ago this week, a 25-year-old Baltimore man died while in police custody. His name was Freddie Gray, and his death sparked days of protests and civil unrest. Eventually, Baltimore signed a consent decree to reform policing in the city, but we wanted to know how much that has actually changed daily life for Baltimore residents, especially African Americans.

Ray Kelly is a community leader who served on the Baltimore Community Oversight Task Force. He told me that Freddie Gray's death turned back the clock on years of efforts to build trust between police and residents.

RAY KELLY: Immediately we knew that we were back to square one. As advocates, we tried to get these issues addressed before it got to that point, but it was unsuccessful. It just exploded in our faces.

CHANG: How much would you say policing in Baltimore has changed the last five years? Has it?

KELLY: So because of the progression of my role as an advocate into now being part of the monitoring team, I know that there has been monumental steps in...

CHANG: Like what?

KELLY: ...The direction of policy reform within the department, training techniques, community involvement. None of this has changed policing at ground level. The distrust is still there. The relationships haven't been built, and the aggressive tactics in our community hasn't changed at this point.

CHANG: So do you think it's just a matter of time, that with more time, the changes that are being made at the policy level will filter down to the street level? Or is there something blocking those changes from getting realized?

KELLY: For first, I'll say there is optimism and hope that eventually there will be this change. I think the problem with Baltimore City is the consistent instability we've had since the unrest. So if you put it in context, we've had three mayors, four commissioners - maybe five commissioners. Until that peace stabilizes, it's going to be all but impossible to move into actual change.

CHANG: I'm hearing you talk about instability at the top levels of government in Baltimore, and it makes me wonder about other aspects of life beyond policing because the unrest that we saw in your city back in 2015, it wasn't just about the policing. It was about jobs. It was about health care. It was about all kinds of inequality. Do you feel...

KELLY: And it's still about those things.

CHANG: So do you feel that what happened in 2015 sparked any meaningful change on those fronts?

KELLY: So at this point, I'll say it sparked a lot of conversation. But still in our communities, we are still seen as the cause of the problem. But there's no effort to actually address the issues that have placed people that live in these communities in this position over the past 50 years. Does that make sense?

CHANG: It does. I mean, we've been talking about all these challenges in your city. We're also living in this very difficult time where we are seeing communities of color taking some of the hardest hits during this pandemic. Can you tell me how much west Baltimore has been affected so far?

KELLY: So we don't have a high count, so to speak, in central-west Baltimore. But I also feel that it's hard to get a appointment with the doctor to give you a recommendation to go get a test. So my fear is that a lot of our people are going to try to tough it out. It's our culture to work through it as black people. And my fear is that priorities will take over, and they'll feel like they have to continue to go to work to try to support their family, and they'll get sick and get their families sick. Organizations are doing what they can to make sure people are getting access to food. And my organization will be out on the corner of Penn-North tomorrow actually passing out masks. We're doing what we can. We're going to overcome it. As we always say, we shall persevere.

CHANG: Ray Kelly is principal at the Citizens Policing Project.

Thank you very much for sharing your time with us today.

KELLY: Thank you for having me.

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