Freddie Gray died after he tried to run from the police. Some might think he was wrong for provoking a chase, but the thousands of people now protesting across the country know that getting killed as a consequence of running away is like getting killed for trying to breathe: you can’t be blamed for wanting to bolt when the system is stacked against you at every turn.
But in the wake of the massive uprisings, many are still standing together, not just against the ongoing police terror, but against what they see as a broad assault on the city’s working-class and black communities. Activists on the ground understand why a kid might want to run from the system, and some are seeking a new path to “development,” one that intertwines resistance to state violence and economic justice activism.
United Workers (UW), a Baltimore-based human rights and labor organization, is pushing a broad-based program of “fair development,” as a grassroots alternative to city policies that they believe are steadily hollowing out the city with “redevelopment” schemes that aggravate inequality.
By prioritizing commercialization over social equity, UW organizer Todd Cherkis says, “The jobs that the city produces are low-wage service sector jobs, tourism jobs down at the harbor, where you can’t really make it. And there was this kind of boiling point.”
Although the city has touted massive, publicly funded development projects led by the insular political elite—aimed at restoring the damage wrought by a historic loss of traditional industrial jobs—UW sees these efforts as an economic dead-end.
According to a 2011 investigation by UW and National Economic and Social Rights Initiative on the city’s program to revitalize the Inner Harbor, the project has led to jobs plagued by “systematic failure to pay workers a living wage; chronic wage theft; and working conditions offensive to human dignity, including verbal abuse and bribery by supervisors.” Basic benefits like healthcare are sorely lacking. The group has demanded that the city authorities and investors work in collaboration with community members to create “Fair Development Agreements…that mandate living wages through vendor lease-agreements and the establishment of a fund to address workers’ healthcare and educational needs.”