"We been peaceful all day, and now everybody want to show your ass," Joseph Kent, a 21-year-old student from Morgan State University, said from the center of the crowd near the end of Tuesday's protests over the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri. "We're not here for that."
He was responding to an altercation that had occurred a few moments earlier, after the group, which was a mixture of people such as Kent who had marched downtown from Morgan State University earlier in the day, and those who had come from a later protest organized by the Baltimore Bloc, exited the ramp from I-83, which they had been blocking, onto President Street.
A car gunned the gas briefly, looking as if it was going to accelerate and hit some of the protesters who were blocking the road. Immediately, a large group began yelling and shouting. But when one man ran over the top of the car, the Baltimore Bloc organizers, called marshals, took control of the situation and got the crowd moving again. "There are kids in the car," one said.
"No violence, no violence," another said. "Keep moving. Keep moving."
A moment later, Kent, wearing a bright yellow coat and a black hat, approached and leaned over to the car window, negotiating. The car turned and moved on, but the group had to address the issue, which was when Kent took the bullhorn and told them to keep it peaceful.
"That's a contradiction," a woman shouted at him. "Because [the driver] tried [to hit us]. Do not, do not, do not blame this on us!" she screamed. Others started yelling. The group seemed on the verge of losing control.
Then one of the marshals took the megaphone. "I need everybody quiet. Everybody. We went all day doing nonviolent protest. We went all day making a statement. Morgan folks been out since the morning. Some of us been waiting for this, we've been waiting for justice," he said. "And we ain't about to mess it up. If you can't march in peace and nonviolence, then you gots to go. I'm gonna say that real clear. You gots to go. And if anybody, anybody starts any violence, we just going to single you out and you got to go."
"They the ones who violent. They gotta go!" someone yelled.
"Hold on one second," Kent said. "For the lady who was just here, don't misinterpret." Then he walked through the throng and approached her and they talked quietly. Then the group began to march and chant again.
This scene shows the difficulties organizers can face running nonviolent protests, and the birth of a new generation of leaders.
Kent, who is also a musician, says the next day by phone that he has been organizing since middle school. He began marching at 11 that morning and helped lead the group of protesters through the campus at Morgan State, meeting with the president of the school to try to convince the administration to close the school for the day, and then going from Cold Spring Lane to York Road to Greenmount Avenue and finally onto St. Paul Street and down to City Hall, where they met up with the Baltimore Bloc group.
"Everyone knows me at Morgan already, organizing and making sure everything running the correct way and peaceful and everything like that," he says. "So, everybody already knows I'm going to do things the right way, so when everybody else and community people and civilians and people who joined and saw that the Morgan students were looking up to it, before you knew it, the whole city was on my back and I was just carrying the whole city."
He is quick to point out that "it's really not about me, it's about the purpose why we were out there."
But when emotions are running high, confrontation is a possibility and it is important for there to be people who can deal with those situations. At the very end of the night, as the protesters were dispersing, Kent took the mic to arrange rides for students to get back to Morgan State. But police, who said "We need a skirmish line" and blocked Fayette Street, would not let protesters pass. Many rushed toward the line of police and the scene was getting chaotic as people began yelling at the officers. "We can walk wherever we want," one protester said.
Kent and several Baltimore Bloc marshals positioned themselves between the crowd and the police. Kent took the megaphone again. "There is no walking this way. If you don't have a car this way, you can't get through," he said. "This is not up for discussion." But still the crowd was surging towards the police line.
"Everybody back up," a marshal yelled.
"Back up," someone else yelled.
One of the marshals began to get the protesters to form a line with their arms raised in the traditional black-power salute as the police formed a square around them, blocking every road. Kent stepped off to the side and began talk to an officer. "I see you're trying to help," the officer said. "And Shorty [the activist and homeless advocate] has a lot of influence, maybe you can get them to go this way."
A few moments alter, Kent and other organizers asked the protesters to lock arms. "If you're not prepared to go to jail tonight, you need to move," he said. The group, with locked arms, began to walk toward Baltimore Street. The line of police parted. The group turned left and began walking down the Block as smoking dancers and doormen gawked.