As the national media continues to descend on the West Baltimore neighborhood surrounding Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray lived and was arrested before suffering fatal injuries in police custody, so do activists from other areas.
The scene on Wednesday evening was almost carnivalesque. The Baltimore Police Department set up barricades around the Western District office, which was guarded by a phalanx of police officers—though, unlike during the earlier #blacklivesmatter protests, Commissioner Anthony Batts was notably absent. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was attending a fundraiser for councilman Eric D. Costello at Ryleigh's Oyster. CNN, however, had its own private security guards, wearing badges around their necks, and various news vans commandeered the street like tanks.
Early in the evening, as rain fell on the few dozen people gathered around the barricades, the protests felt locally driven—particularly by those in the neighborhood who knew Gray. There were other local protest leaders such as Abdul Salaam, who was himself pulled from a car by police and beaten in 2013, and the Baltimore Bloc—in addition to the Rev. Westley West, who led the previous day's march. But when a group of local leaders, led by West, began marching toward City Hall around 6 p.m., a large group arrived at the corner of Mount and Riggs streets, including members of the Nation of Islam, the NAACP, and Black Lawyers for Justice, whose Malik Shabbaz began to commandeer the rally, talking into a megaphone and offering the local community "a strong black hand for standing up for yourselves, finally."
Some in the crowd weren't buying it. "What are we doing other than standing here listening to you?!" Shaun Young yelled at him.
As other ministers and public figures arrived, it seemed that the megaphones were overlapping with one another in attempts to turn the spotlight on themselves.
Among the national figures, one stood out for his efforts to avoid the spotlight. DeRay McKesson, one of the most well-known social media presences and civil rights leaders to emerge from the Ferguson protests, walked along in his iconic blue vest, trying not to be noticed.
"Can we talk later?" he asked City Paper early in the protest, saying that he takes up "too much space*" at these protests as it is.
McKesson grew up in Baltimore and worked for the Baltimore City Public Schools as a strategist before he moved to Minneapolis to work as a school administrator. When protests broke out over the police shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, he left the job and went to see the growing protest movement for himself. He has since become a crucial figure in the movement for police accountability, co-founding "This is the Movement," an online newsletter providing information about protests, and disseminating news from across the country through his widely read Twitter account.
We caught up with McKesson again later in the evening, after most of the crowd had dispersed, standing off to the side with City Councilman Nick Mosby, with whom he has had a relationship.
McKesson says that, having seen so many protests, it is a bit strange to be back in his hometown. And he notes that it's also different here. "It's the only city we're protesting where everybody's black: the mayor, all that stuff... But it's also really funny to be in places where people are so adamantly 'we're not Ferguson.' It's like, 'No, y'all are.' It's just as messed up as anywhere else."
McKesson, who is in town through Saturday, is excited to see the protest community develop in Baltimore. "It's this idea that protest is disruption, that protest is confrontation, but it's also community. What happens is that you see people come together who never would have come together otherwise," he says, gesturing at the diminishing crowd. "That is not an insignificant part of all this. People are physically together in ways they would not have been."
He also noted some other opportunities peculiar to Baltimore. "I think that the demands are really clear here. [The officers] should be fired, they should be investigated. I think this will be a hard protest community to appease with anything cosmetic, given that we all have stories of the policing. I remember being pulled over the last time I lived here. An officer, I got pulled over for a traffic stop and he approached my car with his gun drawn right at my window—and I'm in Roland Park across from Ms. Shirley's. There's no neighborhood WASP-ier than Roland Park."
Gilmor Homes is a far site from Roland Park, but it was clear from the taunts and jeers that the crowd lobbed—along with cups and a pylon—at police, that to many in the neighborhood, police presence feels like an occupation. And yet, despite the tension and the inherent tragedy in the situation, the event could occasionally take on the feeling of a block party as people passed around blunts and talked with friends in front of the corner store at Mount and Riggs streets.
"I forgot to bring cash," McKesson said, pointing at the store, which advertised Lake Trout on the front. "It's a corner store. I miss that. It's when I come back that I remember why it's called Charm City. There's something about this city that's just really beautiful."
*An earlier version of this incorrectly quoted DeRay McKesson as saying he takes up "too much gravity" at protests. The correct quote is "too much space." City Paper regrets the error.