“If you out there, you’re gonna be locked up with a misdemeanor.”
Donnail Lee gives his young neighbor a dubious look. “They can’t lock everybody up,” he tells her.
“It’s what they said…” she replies, as police helicopters fly overhead.
It’s 20 minutes to curfew in Gilmor Homes—the housing project where Freddie Gray grew up—on Tuesday, the night after the rioters had looted businesses and burned down buildings in West Baltimore. Lee, 34, had known Freddie for nearly a decade and heard Gray’s screams when he was detained by police around the corner from Lee’s home. A bystander’s video shows officers pulling Freddie into their car, his leg appearing to be bent under him. Freddie died days after being in police custody from a spinal cord injury, whose cause is still being investigated.
“They’ve been doing this for years—just people couldn’t prove it,” says Lee, sitting on the front stoop of his home while his three young kids sleep inside. At Gilmor Homes, the stories are around every corner of these identical red-brick buildings, which lie just blocks from the charred remains of the CVS.
Sherry Johnson, 40, remembers being thrown on the ground and kicked in the stomach by police who detained her and her cousin. She told them she was pregnant just to get them to stop—so they switched to using their elbows instead. “They said we ‘fit the description,’” recalls Johnson, who had no idea why she was being arrested. The charges were later dropped.
Ten minutes before the first 10:00 p.m. curfew since Monday night's uprising, and the younger kids have cleared out of the yard, leaving two roaming cats more room to play. Johnson sits on the stoop next to Lee’s wife, who had put on Lauryn Hill over the sound of the choppers. But fear, bordering on paranoia, is settling in.
“The National Guard is planning to shoot and kill. Shoot and kill. They’re going to take us down,” another neighbor warns them.
“Take who down?” Johnson says.
“I’m not messing with ‘em,” he says. “They comin’. Watch how they do the sweep.”
More of Sandtown-Winchester’s residents end up in prison than any other neighborhood in Maryland, according to a recent report from the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative. Between 2005 and 2009, one out of every four juveniles in Sandtown-Winchester was arrested—a rate that’s far higher than the rest of Baltimore.
Gray had a trail of relatively low-level drug offenses before he was arrested. Lee himself has been in and out of prison since he was 17. He started in the drug trade when his mother became an addict, leaving him to take care of his seven brothers and sisters. “I found a way for us to pay the rent,” says Lee. Since he got out the last time, after serving three years for conspiracy and car theft, he’s sworn off his old life. He’s married now and doesn’t want to jeopardize the Section 8 housing voucher that’s secured his young family a place in Gilmor Homes. “When the police raided my house that last time, I gave it up, it wasn’t worth it.”
But Lee’s criminal record has made it hard for him to find enough work to support his family, as well as the child support he owes for his two oldest children. Like 20 percent of the neighborhood, he is unemployed; his wife works as a school janitor. “You get tired of looking for work—it forces you to want to come back,” says Lee, pointing out the dealers who were roaming around the neighborhood. “They’re just trying to get their money because they can’t get no jobs.”
Their trade diversified this week after the riots burned down not only the CVS, but also the corner store right across the street from Lee’s home. “Because the stores aren’t open, people coming out and asking, ‘You got this, you got that?’” he says.
On Monday night, some of the looters came over to hand out liquor and chips to Lee and his neighbors as they watched the chaotic scene unfold from their stoops. But the mood quickly darkened when rioters set the corner store on fire, threatening to engulf the adjacent townhouses. They raced across the street to wake up their sleeping neighbors and help two wheelchair-bound residents out of their homes.
Lee didn’t have to explain what was happening this week to his kids. “They’ve seen it for themselves—they know everything,” he says, adding that they’re already well aware of the problems they could face with the police. “A lot of stuff goes on in front of their faces,” he says, recalling the lessons he learned at a young age when dealing with law enforcement. “They’d say, ‘Give us a gun, we’ll let you go.’ Sometimes we give them money, they let us go.”
The Baltimore Sun revealed the shocking scope of the problems. “Over the past four years, over 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations,” the paper’s investigation read. It continued: “Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones—jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles—head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests.”
Eight minutes until curfew, and a helicopter passes overhead with searchlight that passes over the building. Barely anyone is walking through the courtyard or surrounding streets, except for a couple across the way that’s having their usual nightly fight and Miss Sheila, an older woman with a wicked smile on her face.
“I’m telling you, they’re locking you up!” Lee’s neighbor shouts out as Miss Sheila cackles in laughter.
Johnson knows the police aren't the only problem. Before she moved in, someone was shot in the head just a few feet away from her new home. Her 23-year-old son moved in with her briefly about a year and a half ago, but she forced him to move out after he had a gun pulled on him. When I ask Lee if he's worried that his own kids will end up in trouble, he simply replies: “They’re following the crowd. These days you have to be.”
Zero minutes to curfew. Their protection is each other, Lee explains, pointing to one of his neighbors across the yard. “He’s watching, making sure nobody come here and start nothing.” As his friend had warned another heading to her late shift at work—one of the few exceptions to the curfew: “If you have to walk, put your hands up!”