The weather is hazy and hot when the crowd of about 200 people gather at McKeldin Square on Friday, July 8. There is an open mic for anyone who wants to speak, and they do—passionately. They speak about the unfair distribution of wealth in this city, about police power, about ineffective politicians.
While they talk, I look up at the tall buildings that surround the Inner Harbor. I think of how exposed and vulnerable we all are. I think about how the heat makes this part of the world feel like the air has been sucked out, like someone wrapped us in steaming, soaking wet blankets. I think about the two men who people here are gathered to remember—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—young men who died bloody, public deaths. I think about the five police officers killed in Dallas not even 24 hours before.
Renee Washington steps up and takes the microphone. She says that her fiancée was killed by Baltimore City Police 16 years ago.
She says that police can go into neighborhoods and do what they want. She says that she wants to be respected as a parent to raise her children without outside intervention, to keep them safe from police.
"No one has the right to take anybody's life," she says.
There is still no justice, she says. "So I'm going to keep walking and fighting and one day we're all going to get justice."
A little while later, Tawanda Jones steps up. Jones' brother, Tyrone West, died in police custody three years ago. Since then, she's been fighting to make sure that no one forgets. "Ya'll angry? Because I'm angry as hell right now," she says. She asks the crowd, what does fighting look like? "Sometimes neglecting your kids because they know that mommy gotta do what she gotta do so that they can be safe."
"This is about humanity."
Over the last few weeks, I've spent hours in court, covering the trials of two of the six officers accused in Freddie Gray's death—Officer Caesar Goodson and Officer Edward Nero. Here is what I have learned: I know that if I am arrested and injured, it's up to the arresting officers to decide if and when I get medical treatment. I know that, in the event of my death, and in the extremely unlikely event that the officers who last saw me alive are tried in a court of law, their lawyers will blame me.
"An accident can be just an accident. The cause of the accident can be the person himself," Goodson's lawyer, Andrew Jay Graham, said during his opening argument.
I have learned what I already knew: I am not safe.
I have had a lot of talks this week. I talk to my college roommate about the inherited pain that comes with being a black parent. I talk about slave mothers who killed their babies, rather than have them endure the cruelty of slavery. She talks about how frightened she is to be pulled over for even a minor traffic infraction. I talk to my father, who says he has warned my brother to stay in line if he's ever pulled over by police. He doesn't know what to say when I tell him it doesn't matter what we do if we're pulled over by the wrong officer.
The demands that black people have are so simple that it's crazy that they cause controversy.
"If you do something wrong and you're breaking the law, you deserve to go to jail," Jones said during the Friday protest. "We have not been violent. That's not us."
These are disclaimers she shouldn't have to give. Without them, however, the people who don't understand and don't want to understand will lump her in with the person or persons responsible for the deaths of those police officers in Dallas. They're disclaimers Donald Trump doesn't have to give while stoking the flames of racial hatred as he campaigns to lead this nation.
Black lives matter because black lives are unsafe. Black lives are unsafe because we live within a system that is not designed to protect them. Any discussion about race that ignores this basic, central fact is just noise. Any discussion about race that isn't focused on fixing this problem is a waste of time.