As the sun set on Saturday evening, a few hours before the 10 PM curfew set in for the fifth consecutive night, Baltimore rapper Neru Isis began a chant from the stage of The Crown, a club on the north side of the city. “If we stand united, and have each otherʼs backs, we can take over the system, and take our freedom back!” they repeated until the crowd joined in, repeating it to the frenetic beat booming from the speakers.
As the crowd danced — almost two weeks after the arrest of Freddie Gray, the twenty-five-year-old who died after his allegedly illegal detainment by six Baltimore City police officers — a group in greater need of catharsis amassed near the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues in West Baltimore.
The area, just blocks from the Gilmor Homes public housing complex where officers arrested Gray on April 12, has become a popular staging area for demonstrators protesting police brutality in Baltimore. It is here, where media trained their cameras last Monday on a burning CVS and destroyed police cars, that a sort of ad hoc festival atmosphere has taken hold in the daytime, bringing in people of all ages, ethnicities, and gender expressions — playing music, discussing developments related to protests in the city, and chanting for justice for Gray and other victims of police brutality.
Indeed, the scenes of a “Baltimore burning” eagerly broadcast over cable news have given way to a new normal: a palpable sense of community at marches and ubiquitous professions of Baltimore pride.
The announcement last week that charges would be brought against the six police officers involved in Gray’s death hasn’t demobilized protesters. Instead, Friday and Saturday saw some of the largest marches and rallies since Gray’s death. It seems many demonstrators view the charges as a victory to build on — and build power from — not a reason to go home and let the court system work its magic.
For now, Baltimore has become the focal point for the national — if not international — movement against police brutality. Last Wednesday, protesters in New York City marched in solidarity with Baltimore (and were brutally patrolled). And on May Day demonstrators across the United States and even the world invoked Baltimore.
Of course, Gray’s is only the most recent high-profile police brutality case in a city with a long history of racial oppression, economic injustice, and police brutality. Baltimore is a creative hub, but it’s also a city that has had a lot done to it, it’s a city that doesn’t forget easily, and it’s a city that’s tired.
It’s the intermingling of these elements — the Michael Jackson protester and the bloodied face of a black demonstrator who nonviolently resisted the city’s curfew — along with a nascent unity, that has defined the Baltimore uprising.
What have that unity and protest looked like?
Last week, demonstrators from East Baltimore and West Baltimore — the poorest sections of the city, and longtime rivals — converged downtown and marched together towards City Hall. Grayʼs family and friends joined with those of Tyrone West, a Baltimore man who died in police custody in 2013 and whose family has demonstrated every Wednesday since.
The Bloods, Crips, and Black Guerilla Family declared a truce before the protests hit their stride and ran basketball tournaments for children at local parks. Periodically, members of different gangs have tied their colors together as a sign of unity.
When an armored police vehicle drove into the crowd at Pennsylvania and North last Tuesday, hundreds of protesters raised their hands, began chanting, “Hands up, donʼt shoot!” and walked it back over a block. It did not return.
Despite the positive atmosphere of these gatherings, which often consisted of hundreds or even thousands of people, many wondered aloud whether anyone would notice. Already-suspicious demonstrators were enraged at coverage that ignored largely peaceful protests, at media figures who opportunistically arrived after never having ventured into Baltimore’s streets.
Everyone paid attention last Monday. During Grayʼs funeral, the police department released a statement announcing an allegedly “credible threat” posed to officers by a “gang partnership,” and a student “purge” supposedly circulating on social media. By the time students left school that afternoon and walked towards the oft-used transportation hub at West Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall, a large group of police had amassed to order them to return to their homes.
Without the ability to leave safely, some students began running away, while others responded directly to the antagonism of the officers. Cops then shot rubber bullets and arrested many in the area — including those who were recording the event, and whose photos and videos included images of officers throwing bricks at teenagers. (Earlier, Gray’s family had requested that protests not take place on the day of the funeral.)
The flare-up at Mondawmin Mall sparked a continuing discussion about whether police officers’s presence had antagonized the teenagers there. The gang truce had existed prior to that Monday, and leaders identified it as a way to unify as a family in order to promote community self-determination — not further the violence perpetrated by traditional police tactics.
One resident of West Baltimore asserted on the day following the riot that the students “knew cops had already beat people, killed people, and then show up with guns and shields when you’re just trying to go home — what are you going to do?” When officers began ordering the evacuation of school buses and blockading roads to prevent student dispersal, frightened students realized they were already being treated as criminals.
After the initial eruption, the chaos spread through the area; a CVS, a payday loan store, and several police cars were among the targets. After the evening’s property destruction and looting, in which officers arrested more than two hundred people, thousands of Baltimore residents pledged their time to a citywide clean-up. The next day, on which public schools were closed, a large and varied group of organizations and individuals distributed food and supplies to residents of West Baltimore, and some provided alternative programming for children.
The same day, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a 10 PM to 5 AM curfew in response to Monday’s property destruction, as well as Saturday’s unrest. The latter began during a peaceful march near Camden Yards that became violent when marchers encountered drunk, mostly white sports fans who chanted and shouted inflammatory remarks at protesters. (After finding riot police guarding Camden Yards, some protesters also destroyed police cars and looted some stores.)
Ostensibly covering the entire city, the curfew was much more heavily enforced in predominately black neighborhoods. When it was enforced in white areas, it was only after protesters visibly resisted — and even then, the disparities were stark.
On Saturday night, white protesters in the Hampden neighborhood, looking to highlight the unequal application, were met with fifty riot cops. They received multiple, almost begging, warnings from officers, and not one of them was arrested; protesters at the Pennsylvania/North Avenue intersection that night were pepper-sprayed, beaten, and jailed.
There have been additional authoritarian impositions over the past week. Baltimore police revoked legal observers’ official city passes, which allowed them to remain outdoors after 10 PM, and at least ten were arrested Saturday night. Police also threatened to nab any credentialed member of the media who strayed from designated press pens; five journalists have been arrested during the protests, and video evidence shows officers physically attacking at least two journalists.
As of Sunday night, 486 individuals had been arrested as the result of involvement in the Baltimore protests. Though police picked up many individuals for curfew violations, daytime protests saw officers periodically grab people, then draw them behind the police line for arrest. This number included activists, juveniles, legal observers, street medics, journalists, and some people who were simply attempting to return home after school or work.
Protests have occurred every day since Gray’s death, and have ranged from organized marches — most of which have involved shutting down streets and intersections, or generally disrupting traffic — to ad hoc rallies.
When extended chants break down during marches, many protesters simply repeat a tried-and-true one: “Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!” The 12 OʼClock Boys, a local dirt bike group known for its daring tricks, often make appearances, swooped in and out of the throng to applause.
One of the largest protests was the student march last Wednesday, as the Orioles played to an empty stadium. Thousands peacefully walked the miles between the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown and City Hall, carrying banners that read, “I am Freddie Gray,” and, “Poverty is violence,” while chanting and singing.
Leadership of marches has usually merged, given that protests typically occur in the same areas. Baltimore youth, including Morgan State University student and activist Joseph Kent, Gray’s younger friends and family members, and members of the Baltimore BLOC, comprise part of the organized leadership, while religious figures, such as Rev. Heber Brown III and Pastor Jamal H. Bryant, offer counterpoints for more traditional forms of activism.
Differing perspectives and connections to politicians create the potential for tension, but thus far the groups have marched together and unified over community support. (Other organizations, including Baltimore People’s Power Assembly have also played a role in the protests.)
Over the past couple weeks, a wide array of groups have contributed to the protests in a variety of ways. Artistic collectives have produced posters, those with medical training have helped people recover from pepper spray in the streets, and teachers have sought alternatives to enrichment activities for their students when schools have been closed. Public defenders and private lawyers working pro bono have participated in some actions, filed habeas corpus petitions, and spoken out against the conditions and punitive bail visited on imprisoned protesters.
But perhaps most strikingly of all, the uprising last Monday hasn’t soured people on participation. Indeed, after property destruction and looting occurred, many Baltimore residents did not leave West Baltimore or stay in their homes; the crowds at marches and rallies actually swelled. Even people not usually targeted by law enforcement didn’t retreat from protest activity.
If it would be hyperbolic to say Baltimore is a wholly united city, it’s safe to say the movement has thrust together people in struggle and solidarity — precisely the precondition for a more equitable Charm City.
On Sunday morning, Rawlings-Blake announced she was ending the curfew, two days before it was originally intended to expire. It seems the actions of a relatively small, majority white group over a couple of hours carried more weight than the actions of a largely black group of hundreds, even thousands. Yet it also demonstrated a level of solidarity from white protesters, and the feeling of unity in the city.
Also encouraging is that protesters haven’t let up, even after Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, announced on Friday that all six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray would be charged and arrested. (The $500,000 bail for a teenager charged for destroying a police vehicle the previous weekend exceeded that of all officers.)
Seen by some as a sort of mic drop, Mosbyʼs statement stood solidly in favor of seeking justice through the legal system, indicating that officers “failed to establish probable cause for an arrest.” Mosby, who comes from a family of law enforcement officials, used the language of the protests to communicate her own quest for tangible justice, and described the death of Freddie Gray in unflinching detail. She also clarified that “the accusations [against] these six officers are not an indictment of the force.”
The Fraternal Order of Police immediately asked Mosby to recuse herself from the investigation, defended the officers charged, and even started collecting donations for the six cops. The actions of the police union — who during Maryland’s legislative session helped kill all substantive police reform legislation — only underscored how difficult it will be to obtain a conviction. The protests had to continue.
To that end, organizers have refused to stop placing pressure on the state to convict all officers involved in Grayʼs death and permanently alter laws governing the scope of police powers. As one of Gray’s friends said at a April 23 rally, “Stay in the streets. You are doing the right thing. Don’t let anyone tell you to wait for the system to work. We’ve seen how the system works.” Even after Mosby’s announcement, activists have heeded his advice.
This appears to signal the Black Lives Matter movement’s vitality. Baltimore hasn’t been placated by a single triumph; it has higher aspirations. And it has galvanized protesters in other cities to mobilize and build power, even as the movement in Baltimore draws on the lessons of Ferguson and Sanford and New York City.
Collective action usually begins at the local level, but it must recognize the way local issues relate to broader movement and systemic issues. In recognizing that they’re fighting structural problems that won’t be solved by more people of color in political office — Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner are black, as are three of the six officers charged in Gray’s death — the movement in Baltimore has demonstrated its clarity of mission, even as it recognizes its herculean task.