Editor’s Note: #F contributor Aisha Springer lives and works in Baltimore; below she writes about her experience of life in Baltimore during and since the Uprising. Also see the curation here of the evolution of hashtags used to organize the movement in Baltimore.
Since the cameras have left Baltimore, the national media has instead focused on other parts of the country dealing with racial tension and tragedy – unfortunately, there have been too many just in the past two months from McKinney, Texas to the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. While we mourn and process the death of the Charleston 9, we continue to see the interconnections of racism, police brutality, and aggression against black lives in different forms throughout the country.
Since the Baltimore uprising, the mood in the city has been tense, apprehensive, expectant, and hopeful all at once. The grassroots are trying to capitalize on the surge of passion and increased attention around the social problems they have long been fighting against. And there was a surge of passion. Big Brothers Big Sisters reported a 3,000% increase in mentorship inquiries within 36 hours. There has been a slew of town halls, panel discussions, and planning meetings to determine next steps for reform. Though the passion has died down to a degree, those who may have previously been (or still are) apathetic residents living in gentrified bubbles have been forced to confront the reality of the city they’ve adopted as their own. In order to sustain increased passion and awareness, it’s important to make sure the issues raised aren’t erased from public discourse. We must all remember what can happen when police brutality, poverty, inadequate public education, lack of fair housing, insufficient job opportunity, and the underlying structural racism is allowed to continue.
On Saturday, April 25 I met friends and co-workers at a rally to support justice for Freddie Gray and police reform. Peaceful protests had been taking place for days, but only after the events of the following Monday night would the country take notice. We met in front of the Western District police station, not far from Gilmor Homes where bystanders had taken cell phone video of 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s arrest on April 12. That encounter led to his spine being 80 percent severed, his larynx crushed, and the public demanding answers and accountability from the Baltimore Police Department.
Around 3:00 pm, we began marching from the police station in Sandtown-Winchester towards City Hall in downtown Baltimore. Men, women, and children marched together carrying posters and shouting chants that protesters now know by heart: “No justice, no peace;” “All night, all day, we will march for Freddie Gray;” “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” When we passed through intersections, blocking traffic, drivers honked and held up their fists in support.
However, these were not the images that dominated the media. Saturday evening, a relatively small group of people smashed police and civilian cars and destroyed property, and peaceful protesters clashed with baseball fans outside Camden Yards.
On Monday April 27, rumors circulated of a 3:00 p.m. “purge” at Mondawmin Mall led by high school students. BPD also released a “credible threat” that members of the Bloods, Crips, and BGF gangs would unite to kill police officers- stories that the majority of media outlets ran with without bothering to investigate further. (Watch video of gang members’ response to the rumor.) As a result, many schools, businesses, and government agencies closed early.
Before students were released from school, police shut down buses and the subway system near Mondawmin Mall, a public transportation hub that many students use to get home. Children left school only to be met by officers in riot gear and armored tanks. Those who had never planned to be part of any “purge” were left with no way to escape the situation. According to eyewitnesses, police in riot gear marched towards groups of kids to disperse them, though many had no way to leave the area. Then a few kids threw rocks at the approaching officers. This is the point in the story where the mainstream media would have you think the problem began. The situation escalated from there and spread to other parts of the city, setting off a night of riots resulting in 15 structure fires, 144 vehicle fires, and 200 arrests.
That night, I was at home after a day of peaceful protest. It was surreal to watch the very same streets I had marched through become battle zones in front of the nation’s eyes, knowing many people watching would never know or care to understand the full story of what was happening and why. Visceral reactions to destruction of property outweighed any sadness or anger over the taking of multiple lives by police, which was the reason for the destruction in the first place. While it’s valid to be upset over the destruction of businesses, the prioritization of property over lives speaks to the dehumanization of poor black and brown people that is at the root of this country’s worst social problems.
It was extremely frustrating to witness the way the media portrayed events when I had just seen a very different picture. The narrative on mainstream media was predictably different from what was being reported by on-the-ground activists, journalists and witnesses. It says a lot about the state of media and journalism today that I received a fuller perspective of what was occurring from a select group of Twitter users than from CNN or even some local news stations.
In light of this one-sided account, activists sought to shift the media narrative and reclaim Baltimore’s story. The hashtag #BaltimoreRiots was replaced by #BaltimoreUprising. “Uprising” acknowledges the decades-long history of state violence and inequality of which residents of Baltimore neighborhoods like Gray’s have grown weary, while riots focus on the brief, yet destructive actions of a few, with no context or thoughtful examination. As President Obama said, this is a “slow-rolling crisis…this is not new.” Freddie Gray’s death followed by provocation, rather than answers, from authorities were just the catalysts that tipped Baltimore over the edge.
Protests have been peaceful before and since the unrest on April 27. Though it was difficult to watch Baltimore reach this point, it was inevitable given the reality for so many in Baltimore and in no way worse than the constant violence inflicted on poor black communities. National and international attention turned to the struggle of impoverished city residents and the police brutality epidemic that community members have been working to end. On May 1, Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death have received criminal charges, but activists are not placated. Charges do not ensure convictions and neither ensure systemic reform. This is just a first step. Fallout from these events and the same long-term challenges remain.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake finally ended the 10:00 p.m. city-wide curfew on May 3 after appeals from activists, community members, business owners, and civil/human rights organizations such as the ACLU and Amnesty International. Complaints of unequal enforcement, lack of necessity, adverse impact on businesses and vulnerable populations, and the denial of due process rights for those arrested were among the arguments for its end. Twitter campaigns run under the hashtags #EndTheCurfew and #BreaktheCurfew worked in tandem with continued protests and advocacy work.
Now that the dramatic footage of fires and looting has run out and the National Guard and police no longer line the streets, national media outlets have left the city to pursue other stories. Here in Baltimore, community members hope some good will come from this experience by creating a sustained focus on improving the lives of the city’s poor and marginalized people. Marches and rallies continue, as well as advocacy work, planning meetings, and town halls to determine next steps.
As a Baltimore resident involved in social justice work, I am aware of the challenges that stem from institutional racism and marginalization of the poor, leading to justified feelings of anger and powerlessness. But what stood out the most for me during the weeks after Freddie Gray’s death was the incredible strength of the Baltimore community. That includes the people who show up each day for marches, community leaders who provided lunches to students when schools were closed, residents who cleaned up the streets after Monday night’s destruction, and others who continue to contribute their time and skills in any way they can. #BMoreUnited encompasses this spirit; we are now even more united in this longstanding struggle and are committed to seeing it through together. This is not only a time to amplify our voices for justice, it is also a time to show love to our Baltimore neighbors. In an environment where poor black and brown lives are devalued, ignored, and taken with ease, the act of showing love and genuine concern is in itself a revolutionary and transformational act.