On Monday in Baltimore, Brandon Scott witnessed something that amazed him: members of the Baltimore Police Department taking a symbolic knee in sympathy with a cheering crowd of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in front of City Hall.
“As a kid growing up in Park Heights, it’s not something I thought I’d ever see,” says Scott, a 36-year-old West Baltimore native and City Council president. Scott, who has been running for mayor (he’s trailing former Mayor Sheila Dixon, but election results from Tuesday remain incomplete), has been a fixture at the protests against police violence that have sprung up citywide since the death of George Floyd on May 25. Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police has a particular resonance here: It echoes the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old West Baltimore man who died from injuries suffered in police custody, touching off days of unrest that included violence, arson and looting. Invoking the city’s name in the five years since has become a shorthand for urban chaos.
Playing against stereotype, Baltimore has so far been one of the few U.S. cities where mass protests against police violence have remained peaceful. No curfew has been imposed. Governor Larry Hogan sent Maryland’s National Guard to Washington, D.C., not Baltimore. Despite daily and nightly protests for several days, including a huge downtown march on Monday to City Hall that lasted well into the early hours of the morning, the “Deadliest Big City in America” has emerged as an oasis of relative calm, even with only minor damage and a handful of arrests over the past week. “I’ve left feeling inspired,” says Scott.
That’s a big difference from the Baltimore of five years ago. What happened?
Part of the credit may go toward law enforcement. As the episode outside City Hall shows, the city’s police has managed to avoid using the escalation techniques that many other departments have deployed, and its messaging during this crisis has been more sure-footed. In a video statement on May 29, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison called the killing of Floyd “disgusting” and “horrific and heartbreaking.” He praised the Minneapolis police commissioner’s quick decision to terminate the officers and added police officers “must intervene” in the bad actions of other cops. The Baltimore Police Department later posted photos to their Facebook page showing several uniformed officers marching, linked arm and arm with protesters downtown.
But despite pledges of post-Freddie-Gray reform and a slew of youthful turnover among the city’s political leadership, it’s not like police corruption and brutality disappeared in Baltimore after 2015 (see the almost unfathomable documented crimes of the police department’s infamous Gun Trace Task Force, which carried on a three-year campaign of detaining and robbing civilians of cash, property and drugs that they later sold). And Baltimore’s overall crime rate has remained stubbornly stratospheric: Homicides in the city claimed 348 people in 2019, the highest number in a quarter century. With 58 murders per 100,000 residents, Baltimore is still the deadliest city in the U.S. with a population larger than 500,000.
Some local leaders say that the relative calm this week is a hopeful sign that the city has made progress in its efforts to rein in the violence. “We’re in the midst of healing and reconciliation in Baltimore,” City State’s Attorney General Marilyn Mosby, who brought charges against the six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest, told CNN Wednesday morning. Mosby was the youngest chief prosecutor of any major city when she was sworn into office in 2015. “That’s why you see peaceful protest in Baltimore.” Mosby also touts several accountability reforms that grew out the Freddie Gray case and subsequent Department of Justice consent decree, including the placement of cameras inside all police vehicles and the launch of the city’s police body camera program.
But most observers in Baltimore give credit to the city’s social activist community — led now by veteran community organizers who have already been tested by the protests of 2015.
“President Obama and [former Baltimore] Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called us ‘thugs,’” says Baltimore photographer Devin Allen, who shot the iconic Time magazine cover image of a protester sprinting away from club-toting cops in April 2015. He now mentors local youth and works as an acclaimed photojournalist. “People expect that reaction from Baltimore. A lot of us didn’t want the city burned then. But it was different. We were alone then. Now we have leaders who have been through all that and don’t want it to happen again.”
Civil rights activism and protest have always been in the city’s DNA — this was the birthplace of Thurgood Marshall and the home of a groundbreaking NAACP chapter in the 1930s; in 1955, Morgan State students staged a pioneering lunch-counter sit-in in downtown Baltimore that marked an early civil rights milestone. That spirit has now moved to the forefront of Baltimore culture. A rising number of still-young black leaders, including artists, writers, activists, educators, and elected officials, have emerged in recent years. Black-led grassroots organizations such as Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and Baltimore Bloc have advocated for policy initiatives such as bail reform and led the effort to block the constructions of a new youth jail. The Ceasefire anti-violence movement, led by community mediator Erricka Bridgeford, has established a calendar of quarterly anti-violence demonstrations that have become part of the city’s fabric.
Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West was killed by police, and Kelly Davis, whose husband Keith Davis Jr., was shot and nearly killed by police, also have become key police reform and protest leaders. Supporters of the imprisoned Davis have been fighting for his acquittal in a controversial, years-long homicide case that includes three previous unsuccessful prosecutions.
Younger elected officials like Scott are also in this mix: In 2018, Scott authored legislation that established the city’s groundbreaking Equity Assessment Program, aimed at eliminating structural racism and other forms of discrimination in the city’s budget process.
It’s on the streets, however, where one can best see how efforts to keep the peace amid Baltimore protests are playing out.
On Monday night, a large and increasingly tense crowd of people milled about downtown, long after the original day-long march ended; police had repeatedly asked them to disperse. With helmeted officers waiting nearby, 26-year old Kwame Rose grabbed a megaphone and told fellow protesters it was time to go home.
“That was the third warning. If you’ve never been to a f—ing protest before, that means now they [the police] can do whatever the hell they want,” Rose, dressed in black T-shirt and ballcap turned backwards, informed a tide of still-restless youth. “The third warning means if you are a minor and you don’t want to go to jail — go home. Go home. We did what we came here to do tonight. Do not turn this into something this doesn’t have to be. I’ve been where you’re at, five years ago.”
Rose tells people to go home instead of getting hurt or locked up in a COVID crisis. Notes he was arrested five years ago pic.twitter.com/b4087dvXri
— Justin Fenton (@justin_fenton) June 2, 2020
In a scene later posted to Twitter by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, Rose continued. “Tomorrow we come back and show again. Do not give them what they’re looking for — do not give them another excuse. The goal is for everyone to get home safely.”
Rose was only 20 when he famously got in the face of Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera, confronting him over the network’s coverage of the protests while ignoring Baltimore’s underlying poverty crisis and social issues. He’s since became a sought-after public speaker and settled into a City Hall position, helping launch a program to transition the city’s “squeegee kids” into more formal employment. More recently, during the Covid-19 outbreak and unemployment crisis, he’s been working with the D.C.-based World Central Kitchen to deliver meals to Baltimore families.
Also on the scene at local protests has been artist and activist Aaron Maybin, a former pro football player who teaches art at a West Baltimore elementary school. Together, Rose and Maybin proved to be effective in tamping down on aggressive protesters who were throwing water bottles at police. At one point, Rose was seen turning a white protester over to nearby police officers; the man, he said, had been throwing fireworks.
“People were mad and beating on the guy,” Rose says. “I did not want it to devolve like that. I did it for his own safety. I knew the cops wouldn’t hurt a white guy. I marched the entire route, marshaling the protest, trying to keep people safe. I want to go to bed with a clean conscience.”
With Allen, Rose, and Maybin at recent protests have been dozens of other black community leaders who have gained the respect of the city’s new youth protesters, who Rose and Allen, 31, already call “the next generation.”
“The peaceful protests, that’s a testament to the community leaders who have emerged and work they have done since 2015,” says Rose. He and Allen specifically highlight the boots-on-the-ground efforts of activist Carlmichael “Stokey” Cannady (a recent candidate for mayor), East Baltimore ex-offender and activist Terry “Uncle T” Williams, and Ralikh Hayes, a member of the Baltimore City Youth Commission. Allen also mentions the nonprofit COR Health Institute and its 35-year-old founder Munir Bahar, who previously directed the local anti-violent movement known as the 300 Men March. Bahar and seven to 10 of his youth members each night have also been instrumental in keeping Baltimore’s protests from losing their focus.
So far, those efforts have paid off. It’s a sign, says Rose, that this community has learned a lot since the spring of 2015. So has he.
“I didn’t know what I was doing that day,” Rose says of the night he got in Rivera’s face. “I was just angry. I’m only 26, but I’ve been there. Now, I know we have to think strategically.”
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