Ex-drug offenders turned activists offer advice for Baltimore's future

There have been numerous “bad guys” portrayed in the media following the uprising in Baltimore after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody.

Reporters who mistook black people for other black people, systemic racism, Twitter users who posed as looters, “thugs” who destroyed property, people who called protesters “thugs” and overly aggressive police officers — have all been singled out at one time or another as being an agitating factor in Baltimore’s seemingly unsettled current state of affairs.

One notion that everyone can agree on is that Baltimore has an uphill battle to climb in terms of being a fair and functioning city and re-adjusting public perception. Redemption for whichever “bad guy” will not be painless and will surely take time.

Earlier this month, theGrio.com spoke with two men who know what it feels like to be pegged as the bad guy and who know first-hand about the journey to start life over.

Kevin Shird, a Baltimore native who spent a total of 12 years in prison on drug charges, believes that his hometown can recover, but it will take work.

“First they need to insure that justice is received in the Freddie Gray police brutality homicide,” said Shird, who has a memoir called Lessons of Redemption. “Those officers have to be jailed. We’re talking about murder. There is indisputable evidence in the case. They can not be allowed to walk. Secondly, they need to put new policies and procedures in place to make sure that the police brutality in Baltimore ends as well as add body cameras to all police officers in Baltimore. And lastly, they are going to have to construct a comprehensive public campaign to rebuild the relationship with the citizens of Baltimore.”

State Attorney Marilyn Mosby seems to be in agreement with Shird. Last week, she announced that Freddie Gray’s death has been ruled a homicide and that six officers involved in the Gray case will be charged. She had this to say:

To the youth of this city, I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s ensure that we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause. And as young people, our time is now.

The youth have been a big part of the conversation about Baltimore, and young people play a major role in Shird’s life. Today, Shird is co-founder of the Do Right Foundation, an organization that focuses on youth development and substance abuse prevention.

But in his youth, Shird was running the streets of Baltimore, selling drugs and dodging the police (for various reasons). He understands the frustration the young people of Baltimore feel, and he also knows that issues of excessive force involving the police department are not new.

“Everybody in the Western District knows that if you run from the police and you get caught, you’re subject to a beating by cops,” Shird said. “It’s a situation that has been going on even when I was out in the streets hustling two decades ago […] This incident with Freddie Gray should not have been a surprise to anyone in that area. No one should have been surprised.”

Being treated in such a way by the police can perpetuate feelings of disdain. Two weeks ago, the Baltimore Police Department issued a statement saying that they had reason to believe in a “credible threat” that gangs in Baltimore (specifically the Bloods, Crips and the Black Guerilla Family) were banding together to attack white officers.

Baltimore gang members went on camera to dispute that contention. To those not in the street life, gangs are often only associated with negative activities like violence and drug dealing, but some seek to help gang members channel their energy into more positive pursuits.

TheGrio.com spoke with the alleged former leader of the Crips Rollin’ 60s in Los Angeles, Eugene “Big U” Henley. The California native served 13 years in prison on drug-related charges and now heads a youth-centered non-profit called Developing Options, which he founded in 2004.

“They hype the fact that you see young kids reacting to murder,” Henley said. “People are reacting to violence against them. You have a victim who is saying ‘I’m tired of getting beat. I’m tired of getting murdered. But at the same time, I tell young people to take a political stance and have a voice in how these police officers get these jobs. Let’s address these issues now.”

Henley and Shird both agree that a multi-pronged approach to addressing the systemic issues in Baltimore is the most likely way to usher in positive change.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.