Monday night, as protests in Baltimore came to a head over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who suffered fatal injuries while in police custody, it was difficult to discern exactly what was going on and who was perpetrating violence. While pictures of a looted and burned CVS flooded mainstream media, images of people shielding one another and cleaning up their damaged communities took longer to circulate and received less attention. As Kevin Powell wrote in The Huffington Post, although our 24-hour news cycle is “obsessed with race, racism, racial strife, racial violence,” it provides “no solutions and no action steps whatsoever, just pure sensationalism and entertainment.” Out on the street Tuesday night, one young Baltimorean eloquently expressed his frustration with the media’s fixation on black violence to a suddenly speechless Geraldo Rivera of Fox News.
The media’s narrative isn’t the only account that has been contested. On Monday, hours before trouble began, the Baltimore Police Department circulated two claims to local businesses and the public: that high school students were planning violent riots inspired by the horror film “The Purge,” and that rival gangs were coming together in an effort to “take out” police. However, in a widely-shared Facebook post, Baltimore teacher Meghann Harris described a scene of confusion rather than conspiracy leading up to Monday’s riots — students leaving school were trapped in the reported “purge” area by police blockades. And on Tuesday, self-identified gang members stood with the Baltimore City Council to officially deny plans to harm law enforcement.
In the midst of these conflicting narratives, we asked several Baltimoreans what they want the rest of the country to know about the protests and their city. They described a place void of opportunity, plagued with a seemingly uncaring government, and of course, a long history of police antagonism and violence. (A report last September found that in four years, more than 100 people in the city received significant cash settlements or won cases involving police brutality and civil rights violations.) Throughout their varying interpretations of a confusing and heartbreaking situation runs a deep love for their city:
Korey Johnson is a junior at Baltimore’s Towson University. She co-organized Wednesday evening’s student protest calling for the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, legislation that shields officers during abuse or misconduct investigations.
I do not understand how people can fix their lips to utter unkind words about the protestors and “riots” in Baltimore but refuse to condemn the killing of Freddie Gray. It makes me angry that people can spew hatred for their own people, but have no words for the people that are murdering us. We must start treating police brutality as a collective representation of how oppressive the United States and its law enforcement have been to Black people within its boundaries…
Yes, we get it, you’re upset that some kids broke into a CVS and took some stuff, you’re upset because the city is shutting down, but what is ever more sad is that Freddie Gray does not get a chance to be mad or angry or hurt because his life was taken away by six thugs in police suits.
…We have been quiet for years. We have tried to address “black on black” crime for years. (And no, really, please stop talking about black on black crime, it makes me sick.) It is not our problem, it’s their problem. They are the thugs of our communities… They are the ones who are killing our children and justifying it with their institutional protectionism. I am sick of people coming into my city and thinking they know best when they don’t.
Ralph Moore is a longtime community activist in Baltimore and program manager of a housing program for homeless youth.
The looting and rioting are disappointing and the press conference [Monday night] was also disappointing. The name calling by the Mayor and the Council President was unnecessary and potentially inflammatory. We need some concrete ideas on how to fix our city; it has been broken a long time for many of our citizens.
We need jobs for adults and our youth, we need a police review board with teeth, we need an official and immediate end to the War on Drugs replaced by a Baltimore Movement Against Poverty. The business community needs to step up and hire persons — Michael Beatty and his Harbor Point project [a development project set to receive more than $400 million in public subsidies] need to hire Baltimoreans first, and the $1.1 billion dollars allocated to build and renovate schools as managed by the Stadium Authority must employ Baltimoreans first.
And all of us need to engage our youths in conversation. They are angry, some are lost; they are wrong tonight but they remain our children. To call them “thugs” is beneath them and our leaders and the rest of us.
I am opposed to all forms of violence: war, murder, police brutality and the wildness of tonight. But we might bear in mind what Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence,” and too many of our sisters and brothers live with it everyday. Peace and justice for all.
Torena Brown is assistant principal of student affairs at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore.
Please know there were many faith leaders and gang members who went out [Monday night] and tried to stop the foolishness. Today [Tuesday] many people are out cleaning up. There are many churches open for youth to come and dialogue. There will be two town hall meetings for people to get solutions. What we do not want is the events from [Monday] night to overshadow the social justice movement.
My heart aches from all of the events that took place. To see my city, the place I was born and raised be destroyed by idiots has angered me. I am saddened by those misguided young people who will not even understand the ramifications of their actions. These acts of rebellion will affect all of us. Those who looted, destroyed property, set fires and attacked police were not fighting for Freddie Gray… I shop at Mondawmin Mall. I commute through the areas on North and Pennsylvania Ave. My daughter rides the bus in the area. I just can’t believe they would destroy their own areas and limit the resources that we have in the city.
There will be a price paid by all city taxpayers for the hundreds of manhours for police, city workers, etc… Businesses have lost a lot of money and some may not reopen. Jobs may be lost. The city will definitely lose revenues from canceling events and ball games. Again, people who work the stadium lose out.
So if your goal was to make things worse for the citizens of Baltimore, you have accomplished that. This was an opportunity to show us coming together for social justice. I am just as outraged by the loss of Freddie Gray and all who lost their lives at the hands of police. I am also outraged by those who lose their lives daily by our own people… Please pray for Baltimore, our leaders, our children, teachers, parents, and all who are affected by this.
Meghann Harris is an educator at Baltimore Design School. Her eyewitness account of students penned in and unable to get home in the hours before the rioting differed from how the situation was widely reported.
It’s hard to explain to the general masses just how much a child goes through in Baltimore… A lot of people are looking at all the students who rioted and saying, “Oh, well they’re animals, they’re thugs, they’re criminals.” And what they’re not looking at is that a lot of these people have multi-generational trauma, they are the descendants of slavery, they come from poverty, they come from areas of high crime, they come from huge deficits. Where a white kid starts is nowhere near where an inner-city African-American child starts.
These students live in communities where police have treated them unfairly their entire lives, and white people are just catching on to the fact that, huh, maybe cops aren’t good to black people. At the same time, there are huge dropout factories within the inner city, [yet] some are going to be the first in their families to graduate high school or graduate college. Some are going to be the first to go to a job where they aren’t making the minimum wage and having to work three jobs at once. And those are incredible achievements, because they are working their way out of war zones.
One of my students said today, “You know, they just know that they can snuff us out. That’s something that cops know. But now, we’re giving them even more of a reason to do it. They didn’t even have a reason before, and they could have just done it.” It’s really depressing to hear my students talk that way. She shouldn’t have to think that. They shouldn’t hear out of the mouth of their mayor that they are thugs either. These are kids in mourning. They are trying to come up with a response. Did people take advantage of the situation? Did people loot? Absolutely. You have a lot of crazy things going on at once. Could the situation have been handled better so that it did not escalate into what it was on Monday night? Abso-freaking-lutely.
Marjorie Nicole Foster is a nursing student, former algebra teacher and mother of two young adults in Baltimore.
My heart is heavy and torn. I love Baltimore. I was born, raised, went to school and decided to raise my family here. I also have a strong love and connection to my culture and race, especially the youth. I will not waver in my permanent love or dedication to either for a tragic temporary situation. So to sit back and watch the people I love destroy the city I love is disheartening.
The young people are not protesting the isolated killing of Freddie Gray. They are fighting for the countless injustices that have gone unnoticed and unaccounted for by the very people that are supposed to serve and protect them. I have an 18-year-old son and although he has never been in trouble and is a full time college student, I literally fear for his life every time he leaves the house, knowing full well he may not make it home to me for no reason of his own. So imagine the fear, hopelessness and powerlessness the youth themselves live with day to day, to know your life or death doesn’t matter.
The protest started peacefully with 10,000 protesters of all ages, colors, backgrounds and economics classes, united in prayer, focused on positive change. When those chants for “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE” fell on deaf ears, the atmosphere shifted. Once the protestors reached Camden Yards they were met with profanity, beer and drinks being thrown on them by unruly Orioles fans, in addition to overly aggressive police attempting to prevent the groups from clashing. The police pushed the protestors back into the city to protect the fans and downtown Baltimore. The force they used was unwarranted and unmatched. This was the turning point and the youth decided they would not stand for being unheard voices anymore.
…This is nothing more than children tired of being beaten by the system. Yes, they are unruly and violent but what part of fearing being shot down in the streets daily isn’t violent? … I know destroying the city of Baltimore is misguided, but finally they feel they are being heard and watched. My heart mourns for the children that truly understand that they will never get the justice or peace they crave.
Stephen Robinson grew up in West Baltimore and currently resides in Baltimore County.
For years, the city’s been giving the police more than they can handle. They are dealing with people who live in a city where they don’t own anything. The city that the local government cares about is only the harbor, Camden Yards, and casinos that were supposed to give money to the schools. One year, the city had a choice to put money into housing but they chose to build that hotel downtown. Not all cops are bad, but the ones that aren’t never speak up against their coworkers that plant drugs on people, write false reports on people, or the ones who beat people up and drop them off in the wrong neighborhood.
What’s needed are leaders who pay attention… The community doesn’t want a Band-Aid of food stamps and free housing. They want opportunity. They want all ex-felons like me to be able to get a good-paying job. (I’ve now been working the same job for eight years since I was released from prison.) Right now the governor is cutting funds for schools even more. The local government has been all take, take, take away and not giving.
Robinson also related a conversation he had with his 13-year-old son:
No, he wasn’t involved, but this is him explaining how his generation in Baltimore feels. He stated, “Dad, the reason this is going on is because Freddie Gray was the tipping point. I tried to tell [other students] just go home. But they were saying it’s WAR, time to purge and make them listen. Dad, we kids know the truth that adults have been trying for years to get things fixed and y’all’s way isn’t working. For years they have been closing city schools, after-school programs — and now they’re cutting and taking more money from us. But they built a new casino that we don’t get money from down the harbor.”
At this point I was shocked. He then continued, “We don’t own anything in the city. Those stores have insurance… Dad, those police haven’t even said sorry or it was a mistake. They’re sitting home eating good, happy with their families.”
So I told him I understand, but I need him to remain out of it.
Ayanna Harrison is a senior at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore.
I am pained at the sight of my burning city. I cried because I know it was wrong. We made it harder for ourselves to survive in the “jungle” of Baltimore, the place people may or may not know of, or are ashamed to speak about. But at the same time, my generation has caused awareness. The emotion, the hurt, the loss of family, even the absence of hope in my city rose in the smoke. Each brick, rock and piece of plywood has a little message that exalted the words that my generation had to say:
“You took my father away.” “You are the reason that we are so scared.” “Why should I have to work 10 times harder than your children?” “Why are you more privileged than us simply because of your uniform and badge?” “We have homes we want to go back to, a mother to hug, a television to watch, a family to be surrounded by.” “I do NOT deserve to be harassed.”
As a young woman, I can honestly admit that I’m afraid to bring children into the world because my son will not be able to walk the streets, surrounded by law enforcement, with his hands in his pockets. My beloved son would have to work 10 times as hard because he is an African-American man under a Constitution that was not meant to protect him or made for him. He will have to accept the fact that a white man will get hired for a job before he is… I’ll have to tell him to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times if he’s ever pulled over, to never look in the eye of a police officer or run, even if you’re scared, because you will become a target. You still run the risk of being questioned or harassed, but you have a chance of leaving with your life.
For my daughter, I’d have to tell her to keep her chin up, her standards high, and strive for higher education so she can live well. You must work even harder because you’re a black woman. High corporations will leave you feeling like a fly in the buttermilk, since most are run by whites… If you live in a predominantly white neighborhood, you run the risk of having police being called on your children because their presence in that part of town would be mistaken for someone breaking in a house.
I cried because I realized I love my generation. We have so much to offer as a race, as people. We are feared either way, seen as a threat — whether it be from being smart and intelligent, and making smart moves to change things in our favor like Martin Luther King, or taking to the street with violence or action — because we receive the same treatment from those who oppress us, as Malcolm X stated.
But, being a part of the human race, and being the descendants of kings and queens or civilized people as we are, we matter. We must unite and unite quickly, and fight for what we believe in, in order to make a change. We are the future. Black lives matter.
Some commenters above provided us with reflections that they also shared on Facebook.