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Students try to reclaim identity

Students in Baltimore seek to reshape protest message.

Baltimore students staged mostly peaceful mass protests Wednesday to reclaim an image that was tarnished when scenes of young people hurling bricks and bottles at police officers this week were broadcast around the world.

In the schools and in the streets, students lamented the demand for justice that they said was lost in the riots that rocked the city Monday. The violence followed two weeks of mostly peaceful protests after the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who suffered grievous injuries after his arrest near the Gilmor Homes.

The unrest started Monday with a violent exchange between students and police at Mondawmin Mall, exploding into looting and fires throughout the city. Classes in city public schools were canceled Tuesday.

On Wednesday, students condemned the behavior of their schoolmates. After school Wednesday, hundreds returned to the streets to make it right.

"I thought it was very important that the media, the world, see the youth care about Baltimore," said Darius Craig, a senior at Digital Harbor High School. "I want people to know that we love our Charm City."

Students, wielding signs that read, "Rights Not Fights" and "Voice not Violence," linked arms with teachers, pastors, politicians and the rapper Wale as they marched from the Federal Hill school to City Hall.

They chanted one message: "We love Baltimore."

Police and school officials say the students in the confrontation at Mondawmin came from nearby high schools, including Frederick Douglass. The youths yelled not only about Gray's death, officials said, but also their own volatile relationship with police, including what they said has been harassment at the Mondawmin bus stop.

On Wednesday, separate marches of high schoolers and college students joined at Penn Station and continued to City Hall. They were back on message about wanting justice for Freddie Gray and better treatment of black residents by police.

"We do have opinions," said organizer Korey Johnson, a 19-year-old junior at Towson University. "We're the ones getting murdered in the streets."

They had a specific demand: repeal the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, the legislation that provides legal protections to officers during the investigation of abuse or misconduct.

Leaders and educators said students may have been provoked by the sight of police with helmets and shields at Mondawmin when they got out of school Monday, and by the Maryland Transit Administration's decision to stop bus service at a transportation hub used by 5,000 students each day.

City schools CEO Gregory Thornton said he was "completely caught off guard" by the decision to shut down the buses on Monday.

Meghann Harris, a teacher at the Baltimore Design School, went through Mondawmin on Monday to take students home herself. Shortly after 3 p.m. Monday, Harris said she saw a small group of students pushed back by police with shields.

"It just seemed unfair, like they were set up," she said.

Police again instructed the MTA to close the Mondawmin bus and train stations on Wednesday an hour and a half before Douglass students were to be let out of school.

Mondawmin Mall was surrounded by National Guard soldiers on foot and in Humvees, and Baltimore police and Maryland State Police in full riot gear. The MTA said it would reopen at 1 p.m.

As Harris prepared to attend the student-led protest Wednesday, she said it was unfortunate that the violence, and not the restraint or the provocation beforehand, captured most of the attention Monday.

Harris said students face challenges in the impoverished city, and are "trying to find a way to process their emotions."

"They need to advocate for themselves and have the world listen to them," she said. "Right now, the world is dismissing them."

Thornton welcomed students back to Frederick Douglass High School on Wednesday. Students said they were looking forward to redeeming their name.

"The hoodlums that were here, they're not here anymore," sophomore Dominick Carter said.

At the march Wednesday, Frederick Douglass senior Diondre "Grim" Jackson said he was "living proof there is goodness, good in this community."

"Everyone says youth have no voice," Jackson said, hoarse from chanting. "This is showing them youth are willing to lose their voice for justice."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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