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Two Years After Freddie Gray's Death, What Is The State Of Baltimore's Youth?


Two years ago tomorrow, Baltimore erupted in violence after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young black man fatally injured in police custody. The unrest exposed problems faced by many young people in that city - lack of jobs, rising crime and deteriorating neighborhoods. NPR's Pam Fessler looks at what, if anything, has changed.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: A few dozen students, their parents and activists held a rally this week with several members of Baltimore City Council encouraging them to fight proposed cuts to after-school programs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Over loudspeaker) Absolutely. Thank you so much, Councilman.


FESSLER: Young people here are worried that some of the millions of dollars that poured into the city after the unrest will dry up as memories fade. Nineteen-year-old Samirah Franklin lives in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, near where much of the looting and riots broke out two years ago. She says it's discouraging that the pace of change is so slow.

SAMIRAH FRANKLIN: The need has not diminished but yet again we had to fight for the one thing that you guys gave us because of the unrest. You know, it's just - it's very frustrating but that hasn't stopped the work, of course.

FESSLER: The work she's talking about is with the Baltimore Youth Organizing Project, a group that emerged after the unrest as part of a summer jobs program. That's one promising sign since the riots. Young people are a lot more active and engaged in city politics. Franklin says they want more jobs and something to do after school.

FRANKLIN: We're still fighting for the basics. You know, most young people in Baltimore city can't walk down the street and go to a rec center and have quality recreation in a safe place and that kind of thing.

FESSLER: And providing opportunities for young people was also the topic at another forum last week in East Baltimore. City Council President Jack Young told community activists and residents he's trying to shift more money from the city's police department to the schools.


JACK YOUNG: We need the arts. We need physical education. We need the music. We need all those things so kids can have an outlet to channel that energy into something positive, which will keep them from being out on the corners doing all those negative things that we all hear about every day.

FESSLER: He also noted that Baltimore has just approved a new $12 million a year youth fund to provide other programs for kids and teens. East Baltimore resident Randall Nathaniel Bacote Jr. says he's seen other promising signs too, including some thawing in intentions between young people and police, which was at the heart of the protests after Freddie Gray's death. The city and the U.S. Justice Department recently signed a consent decree calling for major reforms in Baltimore's police department.

RANDALL NATHANIEL BACOTE JR.: I notice that there are a lot more police officers out in the streets actually talking to and being more so proactive with the community. Instead of just trying to police the area, they're actually sitting down and talking to people that they are supposed to protect and serve.

FESSLER: Although there's still a lot of mistrust, Bacote notes there's been a surge in drug trafficking and violence in the city. More than a hundred people have already been murdered this year.

BACOTE JR.: It's scary in this city, man, that at any time, somebody out there could just snatch you away from everything for little to no reason.

FESSLER: In fact, a young woman who was supposed to appear at this forum backed out at the last minute because her sister's partner was murdered. Her brother was murdered in January. Stefanie Deluca, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who's spent years tracking Baltimore's youth and organized the forum, says the constant violence and poverty can take a toll on even the most determined young person.

STEFANIE DELUCA: This resilience is passion. The raw material is there but you can only sustain that without support for so long.

FESSLER: Which is why she says it's so important to provide things young people can hold on to like a job or a skill. She thinks that's starting to happen and is encouraged that the city now seems much more eager to invest in its youth. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Baltimore.