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Why we should call recent Baltimore events an 'uprising'

What should we call the events that transpired in Baltimore this spring and continue today?

There has been a fair amount of confusion around Baltimore and beyond over what to call "the events" of April. Riots? Unrest? Neither word seems to adequately capture what transpired this spring and continues today.

We call it an uprising. A look at what happened shows why.

Protests over the arrest of Freddie Gray began on April 18, while the 25-year-old was still fighting for his life at the University of Maryland Medical Center from injuries sustained while in police custody. Protests continued after his death on the 19th, often centering around Sandtown-Winchester's Gilmor Homes, where Gray was arrested; the Western District police headquarters just blocks away; and City Hall.

At the time, I was editor of Baltimore City Paper (I left in August to join Open Society Institute-Baltimore), and I attended the protests on several days. People from established activist and religious groups sometimes took charge. But just as often, young new leaders like Joseph Kent, Kwame Rose, Westley West and PFK Boom led the effort, and they brought other young people enjoying the new experience of speaking out about the deeply problematic conditions in their neighborhoods and their city.

At the Western District headquarters, you could see young people challenging police officers they knew well from confrontations in the neighborhood. Others, there and elsewhere during these protests, spoke out about entrenched poverty, lack of economic opportunity, corrupt politicians, substandard housing, ineffective schools, white supremacy and racism. It was clear to anyone present that a social movement was emerging.

On Saturday, April 25, thousands of Baltimoreans met at Gilmor Homes and marched to the Western District headquarters and then to City Hall, where they poured into War Memorial Plaza, chanting "all night, all day, we will march for Freddie Gray!"

The effort started strong but was fairly disorganized — not surprising for an emerging social movement — and trailed off after some inflammatory speeches, leaving riled up protesters with no outlet for their ire. One contingent headed down to Camden Yards, where the Orioles were scheduled to play in a couple hours, chanting "No justice, no game!" Some blocked traffic, threw rocks and smashed a police car. Others scuffled with patrons at bars near the stadium.

Two days later, after Freddie Gray's funeral, students at Frederick Douglass High School were dismissed from class to find that buses and trains at the Mondawmin Metro stop — where many of them usually caught their ride home — had been shut down because of rumors of a student-led "purge." Officials had closed the station, blocked off several streets and flooded the area with police officers in riot gear. Dozens of frustrated students were surrounded, unable to leave the area. Some began throwing bricks, rocks and bottles at police — and some police began throwing them back. Adults joined in the violence, and it spread; there were fires, looting and injuries to both rioters and police. The day after, Baltimoreans turned out in droves to clean up the mess. The peaceful protests resumed as well, despite National Guard troops moving in and the implementation of a curfew. After the 27th, there was no significant violence or property damage in the city.

And the protests still continue today, as we saw during recent court proceedings.

Just as importantly, the conversations about how to address the deeply rooted problems of injustice continue. At OSI-Baltimore, we are a part of that conversation and search for solutions. In May, we founded the Baltimore Justice Fund, to "support focused interventions to improve police accountability and police-community relationships, reduce the number of Baltimoreans caught up in the criminal justice system, and engage Marylanders, especially young people, in advocacy for programs and policies to increase opportunity and racial justice." We recently made the first round of grants from the fund.

So what do we call these events that led to the creation of our fund and an awakening of city youth? "Riots" might be an appropriate word for the incidents on April 25 and 27 when fires burned and property was damaged, but it hardly applies to the creation of a potentially transformative movement dedicated to changing Baltimore. "Unrest" — a media favorite — is more benign, but hardly descriptive.

To describe the broader series of events — including weeks of protests, marches and the mobilization of thousands of Baltimoreans into a movement to change the status quo (orders of magnitude more than the number involved in the riots) — uprising fits best. And we hope it will be the beginning of long-overdue changes needed to reform the broken criminal justice system in Baltimore, reform our police department, improve our schools, help more people escape addiction, lift more people out of poverty and do 100 more things that Baltimore so desperately needs.

Author and OSI-Baltimore board member Taylor Branch, at an event we sponsored this spring, said he also sees an "uprising." The Baltimore movement brought "to the surface things that have been there for a long, long time, in a way that may force people to do something new," Mr. Branch said. "No movement ever started until people did things they never did before, with some sense of trepidation. … People are not taking this as something they're trying to forget, they're taking this as something they're trying to address."

For so many in Baltimore, going back to the status quo is unacceptable. For them — and for us — looking forward and building on the uprising is the only way forward.

Evan Serpick is director of strategic communications at OSI-Baltimore. His email is evan.serpick@opensocietyfoundations.org.

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