At the busy intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues, police cars blocked several lanes of traffic on the afternoon of 12 April. Nearly a dozen Baltimore police officers herded a growing and increasingly angry crowd on to the sidewalk, as three men stood by the open doors of a police transport van of the same kind that carried Freddie Gray a year earlier, in handcuffs.
The man being arrested was Shaun Young, 27, who last spring became emblematic of Baltimore’s outrage over Gray’s death when he grabbed the microphone from a CNN correspondent during a sprawling protest and declared: “Fuck CNN.”
Behind Young, the pharmacy that was burned to the ground in the ensuing riot had been rebuilt, a “now open” sign hanging on the new brick wall.
But to Young, many of the circumstances that spurred the riot are much the same as when Gray died a year ago, on 19 April 2015. Gray’s arrest for an alleged illegal switchblade, and his death a week later, spurred escalating protests that cast an international spotlight on police and race relations in Baltimore.
“It’s the same politics, the same policies being enforced, it’s a different enforcer. What policies have changed? Now you get in the paddy wagon they’re gonna buckle you up,” he said. (Gray was not wearing a seatbelt while he was transported in shackles to the police station. He allegedly died of spine injuries sustained while he was in the van.)
“They’re still going to do whatever the fuck they want to you but when you get in the paddy wagon you’re going to have a buckle.”
There have been some modest changes to both policies and practices since last year. There are more officers on foot patrol today than there were this time last year and fewer jumping out of cars to clear the corners. Baltimore’s police chief, Kevin Davis, says that he “is not interested in locking up drug addicts” but instead wants to target violent repeat offenders and condemns the tactics of zero tolerance, saying that they destroyed the bonds between police and community.
The legislature passed a police reform bill that increased funding for community policing and offered incentives to officers who live in the city. The bill failed to include measures that would give the civilian review board independent power that would make it easier to investigate officers accused of misconduct.
But Young’s arrest on the anniversary of Gray’s shows how fragile these reforms can be on the ground.
Young said his friend was recording the arrest of someone else when an officer “smacked his phone on the ground”, cracking the screen, and told the friend to get his phone “out of my face”. Young, infuriated by the incident, says he yelled at the officers and they started touching him.
“There’s a thousand witnesses! Are you just ignoring what we’re saying? He was only recording,” one man in a crowd circling around a police commander said of Young’s friend. “What y’all do is let him go!” Others screamed “unnecessary arrest”.
“OK, I said ‘fuck you’ but that’s in my first amendment right to say ‘fuck you’,” Young said of the incident. “I’m sorry. But then they just grabbed me and threw me on the ground and said we’ve got you under arrest.”
Though Baltimore city police assisted in the arrest, it was an officer of the city’s environmental police force, charged with protecting the water supply, who actually arrested Young. The officer had responded to a call for assistance in the initial encounter, according to a spokesperson, who would not say why the officer felt it necessary to arrest Young.
Young was charged with disorderly conduct, refusal to obey and interfering with an arrest. These are the kinds of discretionary charges that used to bring in the big numbers driven by former mayor Martin O’Malley’s “zero tolerance” policy, which saw more than 100,000 arrests at its height in 2005, most of them African Americans.
Like Freddie Gray, Young has had run-ins with police before, mostly for marijuana but also for other drugs. A 2013 ACLU study, which led to the decriminalization of small amounts of the drug, showed that 90% of the people arrested for pot in the state were black – a rate more than twice the national average. And the incarceration rate in this neighborhood is more than six times the national average.
In the same way Young yelled as police handcuffed his friend, others were yelling on the sidewalk as Young was taken into police custody.
“I got the right to speak! I got the right to speak!” one man yelled, and the crowd encircling the officer started clapping. “We know y’all crooked. You crooked and criminal, that’s why everything you get you deserve!”
One more wrong move and things could have gone off again.
Young grew up in the neighborhood with his mother, who owned their home until 2008, when the city took it for back taxes and sold it for $300. It has been vacant ever since, Young says, one of the hundreds of homes that contribute to the 33% vacancy rate in Sandtown.
Like Gray and many other young men in the neighborhood – where unemployment is more than 50% – Young has had a difficult time finding a job. But he managed to get by.
“You survive. I been through the worst of the worst. You’ve got to be grateful for every moment. But look where we’re at. You’ve got abandoned houses, drugs, people dying every day,” he said. “Just because you’re surrounded by negativity doesn’t mean you have to engage in it.”
When he saw the video last April of three police dragging Gray into the van as he screams in pain, Young felt broken, in despair. “That shit hurt me to my motherfucking soul,” he said. And he was ready to fight for his city. But he also started to see the power of the image to communicate circumstances that Baltimore’s black community had long suffered in relative silence. Gray’s death might not have gained national attention had Kevin Moore not disseminated video of the arrest.
Young went out to join the thousands marching to the police station protest over Gray’s death, and eventually grabbed the microphone from CNN’s Miguel Marquez on air.
“You can’t keep doing this shit to people,” Young said into the camera. “Motherfuckers ain’t gonna take it.” Marquez tried to take the microphone back. “Fuck him, fuck you, fuck that,” Young yelled. “Fuck that, straight up. Fuck CNN. We here. Straight up. Straight up.”
Later that week, as protests escalated into tense confrontations, Young got between the police and the crowds, pleading for peace. At one point he ran in to help photographer Joe Giordano, who had been knocked down by the police. (Giordano has taken photographs for the Guardian.) Noah Scialom, another photographer, gave Young a camera and he began documenting his neighborhood.
“One of the reasons Noah gave me that camera is because I have inside access, like you don’t get a lot of black people like ‘I’m going to walk around and take pictures’ so there are significant moments that get captured,” he said. “It became my, I don’t know, my outlet from the negativity; I was feeling all this bullshit, it was just like, ‘I’ll take these really nice pictures and save these moments’.”
Like many residents of the city, Young feels that his life was changed by those weeks when his neighborhood was the epicenter of protests, even if many policies weren’t. Though he had sold drugs before, after the protests he began looking for something bigger to do with his life. When he’s not spending time with his two daughters – or scrambling for money, since he is not regularly employed – Young is taking photographs. He hopes to get a job so he can buy a video camera and tell “the story of everyone around me, collectively. That would be a hell of a story,” he said.
“You did not teach me how to empower myself. You teach me how to live off your system,” Young said, acknowledging that there are few opportunities outside of the drug game.
“You get put in a situation where it’s like, ‘drugs available, let’s get some money’,” he said. “And then you got the police in black neighborhoods just looking for drug dealers and drug transactions, and it’s just like, why? And then you start thinking about the war on drugs and looking at privatized prisons and it’s just like all against my people.”
It was rage against that system of policing that blew up on 27 April 2015, the day of Gray’s funeral, when the CVS pharmacy was looted and later burned in rioting that spread throughout the city.
“None of that shit was organized. That many motherfuckers were mad, that wasn’t all [Gray’s] friends,”he said. “That many motherfuckers were upset and that doesn’t get attention.”
“A lot of these establishments and these stores wondered why they got burnt down during the riots, right,” G Black, a friend of Young’s, said last fall.
“They think that we’re just crazy and we’re just knuckleheads burning down our own communities, but if you ever heard of a method to the madness, here’s the method. My mother worked 25 years. For 15 of those years, she patronized your store every day – eggs, cheese, tunafish, crackers. Thursday, she’s a dollar short. She just wants some tunafish and cheese to feed her son. You tell her no. So when your store get burnt down because my mother had to come home and couldn’t give me that tunafish, I think that’s the method.”
Carde Cornish, another young photographer who worked for city councilor Nick Mosby and lives in the neighborhood, said “everybody’s ignoring the bigger picture”.
“You shouldn’t be able to come to where people live and just treat them any kind of way,” he said. “It’s a racist-ass system and these circumstances – it’s not like people chose poverty.”
Even Davis, the police commissioner, who took over when his predecessor was fired after a spike in homicides last July, sees the city’s structural problems as the root of the events that he calls an unrest, a riot and an uprising “because all three did happen”.
“The government institution that’s dealing with all those other societal government failures” – such as education, health and housing – “when they go away, there’s the police right here. And we’re the ones left handling the mess.”
Davis said that his officers, like the rest of the city, suffered from PTSD following the weeks of protests, the riot and the week-long curfew.
But for Young, the cycle of arrests that bred the protests hasn’t changed.
“Why I feel horribly bad is, I removed myself from the negativity of this environment and he did the same … and that happened,” Young said of his friend’s arrest. “He knows I always have my camera, always record, and he knows I don’t have my camera with me and he took that initiative and ended up getting locked up for it and I feel horrible.”
Young and his friend were released the day after their 12 April arrest at the corner of Pennsylvania and North. But when Young went to court this week, he was arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court for a drug charge last year.
“In the party wagon,” he texted. “I had a warrant for a FTA [failure to appear]. Should be home in the am.”