Visitors at the Inner Harbor on Independence Day ahead of nighttime fireworks were greeted by a different kind of display: a 20 by 14 foot chalk installation on the sidewalk depicting three hooded sweat shirts — red, white, and blue — and the words "Depraved Dual-Justice" and "We can't breathe."
"This is our declaration of independence today," said organizer Dana Holman, 54.
The work was an installation of Chalkupy, an art movement that uses sidewalk chalk to make political statements. About 20 demonstrators – whose hands and clothes were covered in chalk markings – worked to create the piece Saturday afternoon.
"It's creative, it's peaceful, it's civil," said organizer Claire Kalala, 24.
Chalkupy started in Oakland, Calif., during the Occupy movement that began in 2011, according to activist Naomi Pitcairn.. She said Chalkupy demonstrators have addressed topics such as poverty, homelessness and war through chalk.
Pitcairn, who travels to bring Chalkupy to new cities, Saturday's statement is an objection to a system she said allows police officers to abuse power without repercussions after "hoopla" – protests and media coverage – dies down. She spoke about the case of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in police custody in April. Six officers who participated in his arrest have been arrested and charged with crimes related to Gray's death. All have pleaded not guilty.
"We want follow-through. It's not over until those people have been convicted," Pitcairn said.
Holman said she was there to support the Gray family and "every family who has lost a loved one at the hands of the police."
"A lot of people who are out here chalking have had their own personal experiences with police's use of excessive force," she said. "We feel it because we've experienced it, and that's why we're here today on Independence Day, and we are declaring that this must stop."
Protecting the chalked sidewalk from rain with plastic coverings, demonstrators worked to create the piece from a grid plan. Several participants took turns laying on the chalk-drawn sweat shirts, simulating death.
One man acting out a "die in" was Greg Pugliese who said the burden of fighting for equality shouldn't lie only on the shoulders of black people.
"It seems like it's mostly black people talking about what needs to be done, and that's just not right," said Pugliese, 64.
"We're celebrating Independence Day, and really, the majority of our country is not free," said Rose Kalala, 20, a senior nursing student at Towson University who also helped organize the event.
Kevin Moore, a witness to Gray's death who started a WeCopwatch group to surveil law enforcement, said Chalkupy allows for creative catharsis without the negative associations tied to other forms of protest.
"It's a great way to express your feelings without them finding something wrong with it," said Moore, 28.
Cathy Moore-Coleman, who was walking by the project, said while the installation touches on an important subject, it will take institutional change to affect police brutality and racism.
"I wish it would move beyond a protest," said Coleman, 58. "There have been protests for years across the nation, and it's still happening. I don't know what it's going to take."
Rose Kalala said the nature of the project is collaborative. She noted some passersby picked up pieces of chalk to help create the final picture.
"Anyone can walk up and be a part of it, and that's the point," she said. "What better way to do it than with art?"