The ending that many people here had both expected and dreaded came Wednesday, when prosecutors announced in court that they had given up their effort to hold city police accountable for Freddie Gray's death.

But in the 15 months between when six officers were charged and when all six knew they would go free, a very different series of endings unfolded in another downtown courthouse: Five convictions of five men who helped incite the riots that crippled Baltimore in the hours and days after Gray's casket was lowered into the earth.

All are black, none older than 25, and each is likely to serve years in federal prison.

While no one defends the rioters' destructive acts, the juxtaposition of their cases with those of the officers has only fueled a pervasive sense of inequity in Baltimore's most beleaguered neighborhoods.

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"Poor young black men, once again, get a different quality of justice than others," said James Wyda, the federal public defender for Maryland, who noted that "the justice system depends on a perception of fairness. If communities lose faith, then the whole system is undermined."

For several chaotic weeks in the spring of 2015, this city was the face of a debate about law enforcement's treatment of African Americans. While the nation long ago moved on to fatal police shootings of black men in other cities, Baltimore cannot.

The fallout has been inescapable: A police commissioner fired and the mayor declining to run for reelection; a Justice Department review of practices that may have led to the 25-year-old's fatal injury in the back of a police van; a police department already trying to fix the flawed procedures exposed by Gray's death; a pair of City Council candidates who are expected to win in November and could push for further reform; and a Maryland bill that adds new levels of civilian oversight to police training and disciplinary boards.

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D), the front-runner in the Baltimore mayoral election, talks with residents at Zion Towers on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore in April. Photo / The Washington Post
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D), the front-runner in the Baltimore mayoral election, talks with residents at Zion Towers on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore in April. Photo / The Washington Post

"There's never been more conversation about the underlying issues of poverty and race," said Ray Kelly, president of the No Boundaries Coalition, a consortium representing the struggling West Baltimore communities at the epicenter of the riots. "The death of Freddie Gray gave us more exposure than we ever had for what we have been fighting for."

Kelly made that pronouncement after walking out of a precinct coordination meeting at police headquarters that he probably wouldn't have been invited to before last year's uprising.

But what remains far from certain is whether all of these fresh efforts will lead to real, meaningful change in places that city leaders have tried and failed to reinvent before.

Baltimore's problems go well beyond its poorest residents' battered relationship with police. Many of its children need better schools and places to play, their parents need jobs and decent housing, and young people need a reason to quit killing each other at near-record rates.

Today, more than 15 months after Gray's death, Kelly has legitimate reasons to believe both that change will happen and that it won't.

Last weekend, his group organized a clean up along a block of rowhouses they had tired of seeing used as a ready-made backdrop of blight for TV news reports from the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues, where the worst rioting occurred. But one tidied stretch does nothing to transform blocks of empty, boarded-up homes, plastered with campaign posters and plaques - "We Must Stop Killing Each Other" - from past protests.

At that intersection, the burned and looted CVS has reopened and the check-cashing stores are again ticking along, but several businesses, including Murray's Market and Footlocker, never recovered.

And then there's the citywide blight-removal program, which includes a massive $700 million state-funded effort to demolish hundreds of Baltimore's 17,000 vacant rowhouses.

Experience tells Kelly that the poor residents being relocated are not the target market for the more expensive houses sure to follow. And he has little faith in the green initiative that officials tout as a benefit of the demolishment program. Most of the blocks they take down are followed by a rectangle of new grass. Kelly said those are just weed plots waiting to happen.

To illustrate, he pointed out a neat pocket park that was recently unveiled on Stricker Street in West Baltimore by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Where a block of rowhouses was recently obliterated, two new benches face each other inside a circle of freshly planted locust saplings.

"The governor wants to convince us that the green space is going to look like this," Kelly said, "when we can look over here on the other side of the block and see that it's going to look like this."

He gestured toward a small park created last year that has already become a tangle of weeds, scrubby shrubs and windblown plastic bags. Only a garishly painted wooden sunflower shows that anyone ever had ambitions of making it more than an abandoned patch in a neglected neighborhood.

Sgt. Alicia White's defense attorney Ivan Bates gestures toward her at a news conference after all remaining charges in the case were dropped. Photo / The Washington Post
Sgt. Alicia White's defense attorney Ivan Bates gestures toward her at a news conference after all remaining charges in the case were dropped. Photo / The Washington Post
A massive fire smoldered through the night in East Baltimore after the rioting that began in West Baltimore after Freddie Gray's funeral. Photo / The Washington Post
A massive fire smoldered through the night in East Baltimore after the rioting that began in West Baltimore after Freddie Gray's funeral. Photo / The Washington Post

'Nothing's changed'

Thomas Grant could find just one thing that had improved in the months since Gray's death: The CVS's lightbulbs.

"It's a little bit brighter maybe," said Grant, a 52-year-old auto mechanic, in the store to fill a prescription Thursday morning. "Otherwise, nothing's changed in Baltimore."

That sense of resignation may explain why, despite those charged in Gray's death escaping conviction, no windows were smashed and no cars were set aflame, as so many people in West Baltimore had predicted.

Brandi Murphy is, at her core, an optimist, but these past 15 months have tested her, and not just because of the tumult in her neighborhood.

She's quit watching the morning news before heading to Sandtown's Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center, where she works as the director. Murphy, 36, just can't bear to continue hearing about young black men dying at the hands of police. She suspects that those killings influenced her community's muted response to the discouraging developments in Gray's case.

"If it was singular, if it was just one city, I think people here would still have momentum," she said. "When it's literally across the country, what can we do in one city?"

On some days, though, she can see her one city making progress.

Under Davis, she said, officers have shown up in the neighborhood every month to spend time with the children. They've played basketball and painted together. They've shared cookies and hot chocolate.

"I honestly feel like the police have made a real effort to get in contact with the kids and build a real relationship," she said.

For months, she wouldn't allow the teenage boys in her program to play outside, fearful of what they would look like to passing officers. Lately, she's begun to rethink that rule.

Then, last month, on the first day of the center's summer camp, she arranged a picnic in an empty field across the street from their building.

Toward the end of lunch, as the kids finished their chicken-salad sandwiches and pita chips, gunfire exploded a few blocks away.

She quickly lined the children up and rushed them back to the center, and then locked the door behind her.

And as two men were driven to the hospital where one of them would die, Murphy gave another lesson to her kids about what do when they heard gunshots: Drop to the ground, cover your head, crawl for cover.