(Credit: Donald Logan) Benny Carter Jr. and a friend working out at the Upton Boxing Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. “When I hit them bags, I hit all the people that ever said no to me.”
Benny Carter is 15 years old and has spent most of his life around Mosher Street, in the heart of Sandtown-Winchester-Upton. A fourth generation Baltimorean and a ninth grader at Digital Harbor High School, he was on suspension most of the school year and spends much of his time on the same streets that Freddie Gray grew up on. Like Gray, who died in police custody last year, he has had a few “drug-related charges,” as he put it.
“I didn’t know Freddie, but I know how the boys be, so I felt his pain,” Benny said.
Based on his experience, Benny is absolutely certain of one thing.
“Police hate black boys. It don’t even matter if we good or not,” he said while looking at a video of the death of another black man, Alton Sterling, who was shot to death in Baton Rouge, La., as police tried to arrest him for selling CDs outside a convenience store there. The video has gone viral in social media; the death has led to protests throughout the country.
The death of Sterling and of Philando Castile, killed during a police stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., a day later, have fueled conversations all over the country. Few places know this unease as well as the residents of West Baltimore.
Melvin Rivers Jr. hopes that the unrest he is seeing around the country since the deaths of Sterling, Castile and police officers apparently killed in retaliation in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, does not ignite things in Baltimore.
“I just hope it’s not here again,” he said. “So many of us are still hurting over Freddie. I don’t know if we can handle any more.”
A little over a year ago, Baltimore was the center of the world’s attention, due to riots in response to death of Gray. Six police officers have been charged in his death; so far, three of them have been acquitted after trials. Another trial in scheduled to start July 27.
“Police been throwing us around and beating our ass for years, man. Freddie just brought some fame to it,” said Rivers, a regular on Pennsylvania where every corner is busy with men and women lounging and doing sidewalk commerce.
Rivers said he cried watching the killing video of Sterling’s death. “Man, I was balling. I seen some stuff in my day, but that man laying there, all shot up by the boys is definitely up there.”
Rivers, like a lot of men in the area, has had experience with police and the criminal justice system. Now 46 years old, he said he has been “in and out since I was in juvie.”
“Two of my sons were in there with me, too,” he added.
Now he is trying to set a better example by working, though he said that is a struggle. “Since I been out, I been washing cars to support myself anyway I can. Don’t no woman want no man washing cars at my age,” Rivers said.
Over on Garrison Street, Ny’asia Mitchell, 27, says she has lost all the males in her family to the prison system at some point. “They either go to jail or end up on Facebook like Alton Sterling and them men the way times are now,” she said.
“My father was killed over a drug deal gone bad when I was about 8. My brother was killed from messing with his best friend baby mother,” she explained as her mother, Sabrina Byrd, added, “Us women the backbones of these streets because we keep giving them our boys to die and lock up.”
Byrd has had her own experiences with police, who she said have a perception of blacks before they even meet them.
“I could be leaving church in my Sunday dress driving one of them fancy cars and police would stop me and probably ask who vehicle I’m in,” she said. She felt Castile’s death personally. “When I saw him laying in that car dying, it took me back to when I held my son head after he was killed in 2008.” Her son was shot to death in a car by his best friend.
Even though Mitchell, her daughter, is a student at the Baltimore City Community College studying to be a nurse’s assistant, Byrd still worries.
“I just hope that my daughter stays out of trouble, because I really fear when my cell phone rings sometimes,” she said. “This city is just crazy right now.”
Mitchell, said she thinks that killing cops in retaliation for the years of “power against us” isn’t the answer. “That’s a family that’s hurting, also. We can’t take the law into our hands.”
Back on Pennsylvania Avenue, hundreds of youth find an alternative to the criminal life at the Upton Boxing Center. Benny Carter spends hours there. His dream is to “make it out and do something bigger, like Tank.” Gervonta “Tank” Davis is a rising professional boxer from West Baltimore, who is being groomed by undefeated retired heavyweight boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.
“Upton is my release,” Benny said. “When I hit them bags, I hit all the people that ever said no to me.”