Reports from the resistance
The murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police and the eruption of militant protests have propelled the resistance to police violence that emerged on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, last year onto a new terrain--this one located an hour's drive from the nation's capital.
After the dramatic clashes with police on Monday, April 27, that left dozens injured, including officers, along with vehicles and buildings damaged, Baltimore residents continued taking to the streets in the days afterward--and opponents of racism and police violence gathered in other cities to show their solidarity with Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter uprising.
Here, we publish accounts of the demonstrations on Wednesday, April 29, from several SocialistWorker.org contributors: Brian Jones, Lucy Herschel and Heather Kangas reporting from Baltimore; and Danny Katch in New York City.
ON WEDNESDAY, I had the opportunity to travel to Baltimore. I'm not from Baltimore, and I certainly can't claim to have acquired profound insight in just one day, but I can report on what I saw and what people told me. If I had to draw one provisional conclusion, it would be this: There is a widespread Black radical consciousness in this place.
I saw police and state troopers in full-body riot gear at the Mondawmin Mall, waiting for high school students to arrive when school got out. They lined up in front of chain stores--Marshall's and Dunkin' Donuts among them. I saw armored personnel carriers rolling through the streets.
As I stood in the mall parking lot, the troops kept coming. I couldn't help but think about the wages--with overtime, no doubt--paid to law enforcement officers, and all the fuel for those Humvees.
I wasn't alone in my thoughts. "Excuse me, sir!" a young man near me yelled out to a nearby officer. "How much for one of those shields?"
His name was Kentrell. The 17-year-old high school student said he didn't understand what the police were hoping to accomplish. "You can beat me down all day," he said, "What's that gonna do?"
To Kentrell, the misdirection of resources seemed like a slap in the face. He told me recently that the drinking fountains at his high school had no water for two weeks. And that wasn't the only outrage on his mind. "They built a new casino," he said, "but I've still got old textbooks in school."
Kentrell had come to the edge of the police phalanx, hoping to engage some of them in dialogue. Now it was time for him to go. Before he left, Kentrell called out to their line, "Our pain is real!" They didn't respond, but he added, "Please don't hurt us!"
I saw boarded-up homes and boarded-up stores--most seemed to have been that way for a long time. The word "neglect" came to mind on several back roads and even on main ones.
Chain stores, on the other hand, seemed to attract attention--or at least attracted guns and cameras. Not too far away from the mall, at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenue, a boarded-up CVS was the site of a media frenzy. The CVS sign was visibly burned. Beneath it, several media teams had staked out their operations--with lights, cameras, even portable teleprompters.
Nearby, 47-year-old Shawna Eaton held a sign nearby that read "Stop Lethal Force." I asked her what motivated her to come out with her sign. She replied:
I felt so tired. Usually I just sit home, but I just couldn't sit home this time. I grew up in this neighborhood. I have sons also, and you have to think it could be them. I'm out here because of my children. I want to see them stop using lethal force.
I pointed out the corporate logo over our heads. "It's because of the corporate world that things will change," Shawna said. "You mess with their bottom line and it will change."
Nearby, I met up with Gary Nelson, a Baltimore native and a firefighter. He was a little exhausted from fighting the blazes from previous nights. He told me he felt mixed emotions while battling the fires, but he wanted nothing to do with condemning rioters or looters:
The real looters are sucking Mother Earth dry--clear-cutting forests, polluting the water, which is the commons, polluting the air with impunity. Those are the real looters. When people are taking toilet paper and Pampers and cases of water, that shows how poor they are--the destitute poor conditions in which they are living.
Gary, who, as a firefighter, works frequently alongside police officers, nevertheless remembers police brutality as a constant feature of life growing up. "It's like the Dred Scott decision, which said there was no law for a Black man that a white man had to respect," he said. "Dred Scott is alive and well in the hearts and minds of a lot of people today."
Gary remained optimistic about the Baltimore uprising:
I hope the sleeping giant has awakened. This is an opportunity for us to give a real, serious, consistent pushback against the prison-military-industrial complex. When we see the economic disparities, it's obvious that capitalism does not work. And I remind people regularly that we Black folks were a form of capital. We were property. And I'll be doggone if I'm ever going to go back to something like that.
I told Gary about the high school student I spoke to whose school didn't have working water fountains, and he could relate:
When you're demonized, and you wonder why things are the way they are, and you've been marginalized your whole life, and then, when you first become aware, it's quite shocking. You rage against the machine. That's what these kids were doing--they were raging against the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy--that's not my phrase, that's bell hooks' phrase.
Gary and I had the pleasure of joining a march of several hundred--maybe even a thousand--such young people shortly after our talk. We marched from Penn Station to Baltimore's City Hall, chanting, "All night and all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray!"
Allison, a 23-year-old student at the University of Maryland Baltimore told me that she was "passionate about this because Freddie could have been one of my cousins." The fundamental problem, as she put it, was prejudice: "It doesn't matter how educated I am or where I live. I'm always gonna be Black, and people are gonna see that and judge me. That's what they did to Freddie Gray."
Allison was glad to be marching, but also recognized the absurdity of it. "It bothers me that I'm out here marching, and it's 2015," she said. "As far as we've come, I shouldn't have to be out here. People shouldn't have to wake up thinking that protesting might not do a damn thing. We have a Black president. Anything is possible, but we're still being killed."
The march was organized by two students from Towson University, Korey Johnson and John Gillespie, Jr. They not only planned the march from beginning to end, but led it from a microphone hooked up to a sound system on the back of a pickup truck.
It was clear from the beginning of the program that this struggle would be inclusive. As Korey told me:
I think that it's important that when we're dealing with issue in the Black community, that we say that all Black lives matter, not just Black men or Black women or queer Black women or queer Black men or poor Black women or poor Black men...or even moving outside of gender binaries...trans Black women or trans Black men or people who don't self-identify as any gender at all. I think it's important to understand the value of Blackness as a multiplicity, as something that is always different, that is always criminalized, but as something that is beautiful as well.
Commenting on the tremendous diversity of the multiracial crowd of (mostly) young people who joined the march, John said, "At the end, I said that this is the beginning of a beautiful struggle, and that was part of the beauty in it. The beauty is that there were so many different kids, so many different families, there were men walking with young babies on their chests, there were so many different beautiful people out here, standing for justice and standing for what is right, in peace."
Korey chimed in:
Not to criminalize other political strategies because we understand the conditions that caused people to riot on Monday, we understand the conditions that allow for outrage in our city. We just feel like we used those conditions to mobilize for a different cause, but we fully respect those people--we have nothing against anyone. We're out here for ourselves, to represent the youth voice and to show that we aren't thugs, like our mayor says. We're not thugs like our governor says. We're something more. We have a voice, and we're willing to fight for our community.
While the media obsess over whether or not the protesters in Baltimore are "violent" or "peaceful," ordinary people--high school students, moms, firefighters, college students--are developing a deeper analysis of where this new movement is coming from, and where it is going.
Lucy Herschel and Heather Kangas
BALTIMORE WAS calm, if tense, during the day on Wednesday. National Guard troops in armored vehicles could be seen throughout parts of West Baltimore.
By mid-afternoon, scores of police and state troopers in riot gear were lined up at the bus depot at the Mondawmin Mall, waiting for school to get out. However, unlike the explosive confrontations on Monday--when authorities provoked a clash with stranded high school students by closing the local transit station and then moving in against the youth, the afternoon was uneventful, and the police presence seemed more like ominous overkill.
Protesters and news cameras congregated throughout the day at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues, the site of the infamous CVS that was set on fire on Monday.
The message we heard over and over again is that the killing of Freddie Gray has tapped into a deep well of anger about racism and the dire conditions of Black America. According to 24-year-old Kyree Brown, who lives near Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray lived and was murdered:
Everybody is talking about Freddie Gray. It isn't about Freddie Gray. It's about the politicians and about us feeling that we're still in slavery. There are things that we want to get changed. Barack Obama keeps speaking about change, but change hasn't come yet. Nobody sees Baltimore on the map. So we're letting it be known--that we want change.
Baltimore college students organized an energetic and multiracial protest that marched through downtown in the early evening. The demonstration included students from Coppin State University, Morgan State University, Towson University, the Maryland Institute College of Art, Goucher College, University of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland-Baltimore and Loyola University Maryland.
More than 1,000 students, along with other activists, marched in a loop from Penn Station to City Hall and back. Students organized separate events on campus before converging downtown.
The energy was contagious, and the turnout shows young people are serious about organizing against police brutality. It also seems like many students witness injustices on their own campuses and want to connect these experiences to the larger discussion of criminal justice and racism.
Many marchers expressed the sentiment that the murder of Freddie Gray opened up systematic and ongoing grievances of Baltimore residents.
Marisela Gomez, a public health professional and activist who was at the protests, talked about the amount of money being spent on policing and tax breaks to corporations--at the same time as poor neighborhoods are starved for resources:
We're basically selling our cities. We give tax incentives here to the developers to the tune of $45 million, and yet we can't renovate a recreational center in our poorest neighborhoods. We're shutting down fire stations and rebuilding infrastructure for developers, and we can't pave an alleyway in East Baltimore.
We're in an uprising right now, and with uprisings, the demands can be very transient. We're focusing on the police brutality, but it's not just that. This is not just about police brutality, but a policing system that really is part of a wider system of oppression. Police have morphed from overseer to the control of people who are considered inferior and not worthy of respect. We're fooled into thinking that we really want to provide education equally, and it's just not so. So instead of giving kids education, what we're going to do is police them.
The media may have proclaimed calm arriving in Baltimore, but residents are gearing up for more protests in the coming days--including Friday and Saturday, which are likely to be bigger than today.
AS MANY as 5,000 gathered in Union Square in New York City on April 29, chanting "Baltimore! We got your back!" in an action called by Millions March NYC.
Police were noticeably more aggressive and confrontational then they had been during the days of protests last December after two grand juries failed to indict the cops who murdered Mike Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner here in New York.
Organizers were hoping to march to Time Square, but before they made it half a block away from Union Square, cops blocked their path, with clubs swinging and arrests made without warning, including some of the march organizers.
After that came a tense 20 minutes as the NYPD blocked protesters' path on both sides and charged aggressively at the front line of protesters who were standing on the sidewalk. Eventually, the march fragmented into a series of splinter marches that took to the streets and sidewalks of the West Village and Chelsea--including the West Side Highway. Arrests for the night reached 100, according to reports from activists.
At the rally before the march, speakers included a number of family members who have lost loved ones to the NYPD, including Akai Gurley's aunt Hertencia Peterson, Alberta Spruill's niece Cynthia Howell, and Gregory Chavis' mother Danette Chavis.
Other speakers included Dante Barry of Million Hoodies, Monica Davies of Black Lives Matter, Asha Rose of BYP 100 NYC, and Lisa Orta, whose nephew Ramsey Orta has been targeted by the NYPD ever since he took the crucial video of the murder of Eric Garner.
The NYPD clearly came out tonight determined to show protesters that they own the streets. This might be part of a nationally coordinated decision in the wake of Baltimore but it also could have local roots. Even before the two NYPD officers were shot by a disturbed gunman, Mayor Bill de Blasio and police chief Bill Bratton were showing signs of moving toward a crackdown on street protests.