The Fight for Freddie Gray: Dispatches from last week's protests
By By Evan Serpick, Baynard Woods, Brandon Soderberg and and Caitlin Goldblatt
Apr 28, 2015 at 4:06 AM
"All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray." Freddie Gray died on Sunday, April 19, a week after police took him into custody in Sandtown-Winchester's Gilmor Homes. As news spread throughout the neighborhood and the city, various groups and individuals organized protests, marches, and vigils. They spoke of police brutality, of economic injustice, and of racism. Freddie Gray became not just a man who was killed in police custody, but a symbol of all of the injustice endured by African-Americans in poor, drug-ravaged Baltimore. City Paper reporters were on the streets throughout. Here are our dispatches.
Tuesday, April 21
On Tuesday night, hundreds of Baltimoreans turned out for a protest, march, and vigil in West Baltimore.
Helicopters and vans from local and national media outlets, including CNN and MSNBC, clustered around Western District police headquarters as protesters, many of them alerted by Baltimore Bloc's Twitter feed, gathered there Tuesday afternoon. Representatives from People's Power Assembly and FIST Youth Group held banners that said "Black Lives Matter," while many in attendance carried signs that said "Justice 4 Freddie." Reverend Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple on Eutaw Place spoke to the crowd.
At around 6:15 p.m., the group marched from the district headquarters to the site where Gray was taken into custody, reportedly for running away after making eye contact with police officers, near the Gilmor Homes in Sandtown-Winchester. They were joined by dirt-bike riders—including Pug, featured in the movie "12 O'Clock Boys"—who rode through the march popping wheelies and slapping hands.
At the site, there were balloons and a sign where people wrote "get well" wishes for Gray, written before he died on Sunday, addressing him as both Freddie and his nickname Pepper.
Rev. Westley West, the pastor at Faith Empowered Ministries, a church just blocks from Gilmor Homes, led the march and stopped protesters at several points to speak to the crowd and ask for moments of silence for Gray. "We're gonna start a Freddie movement," he said at one point. "We want some justice, we want some peace, we got children that need to grow up on these streets."
In an interview with City Paper, he explained how he got involved in the protests. "People in the community are not happy with what's taken place, so, me being a pastor in the community, I heard the cries of the people that said, 'Hey, this is necessary,'" he said. "We wanted to walk in the community where Freddie Gray is from, so we'd go around the whole community."
As the protesters walked north on Mount Street, east on North Avenue, and then south on Pennsylvania Avenue, cars honked horns in support, while many residents sat on stoops, stood in doorways, and hung out of windows.
Protesters Shaquita Huntley and Tracey Jones took a minute to rest on a stoop.
"I knew him," Huntley, who lives in Sandtown-Winchester, said of Gray. "He lived on my block, like, when he was younger. But I haven't seen him in a long time."
"But we have sons," added Jones, who said her 23-year-old son is also in the march.
"He could've been one of ours," said Huntley.
By around 7:15 p.m., marchers returned to the station, where an impassive line of officers manned a barricade that blocked off nearby Riggs Avenue. Two officers wearing flak jackets watched from a station window, taking pictures of the crowd.
Protesters chanted "No justice, no peace, no racist police" and "Tell the truth and stop the lie, Freddie Gray didn't have to die." Some held up middle fingers at the officers, while others openly smoked marijuana. Some lit candles in memory of Gray, while others tried to engage the officers in conversations, but none of the officers were seen responding.
One woman spoke to the crowd. "I'm scared for my babies," she said. "A mother is about to bury her child—as a mother, that's the worst thing you can imagine. We gotta stand up for him. We gotta stand up for ourselves."
By 10 p.m., the crowd had begun to disperse, but planned to return for another protest the next day and, according to Baltimore Bloc, "every day" this week at 5 p.m.(Evan Serpick)
Wednesday, April 22
As the national media continues to descend on the West Baltimore neighborhood surrounding Gilmor Homes, 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 T. 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 and the Baltimore Bloc—in addition to Rev. 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 Shabazz 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?!" resident Shaun Young—who earlier in the day, grabbed the CNN mic and yelled "Fuck CNN"—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 said 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 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 said, 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 Miss 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." (Baynard Woods)
Wednesday, April 22
They call it "organizing" for a reason.
Around 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Rev. West, Baltimore Bloc organizer Abdul Salaam (who in 2013 was removed from his car and beaten by the same officers involved in the death of Tyrone West), and PFK Boom of Out For Justice quietly took a crowd of 60 or so down Riggs Avenue, away from the Western District police precinct and eventually onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
There, Salaam and PFK Boom began communicating to West and others to "tighten up." Throughout this improvised march, which would eventually go downtown to City Hall, then attempt to traverse I-83 and return to Gilmor Homes, this pattern remained: West's enthusiasm and energy leading the march, Salaam and PFK keeping the march from devolving into chaos.
West has become a controversial figure in the protests. Although his church is just blocks from Gilmor Homes, where Gray lived, there have been murmurs among some organizers since Tuesday, when West appeared to lead the march, that the reverend isn't to be trusted or that he doesn't know what he is doing. Wednesday night, Rev. Heber Brown III, a pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, tweeted an image of West and wrote, "This guy said some good stuff at MLK Boulevard part of march, but then tried to lead folks down 95 & up 83. Not good." (To be clear: West did not lead people down I-95, though I-83 was attempted—something which had been done successfully at previous protests.)
When City Paper spoke to West on Tuesday, he explained that he knew Freddie Gray only as someone from around the way, though they'd "had words" and he said positive things about Gray as a "great man."
West is also a bit of an entertainer. On Tuesday evening, he rushed through protesters along with the 12 O'Clock Boys like Sandy in "Grease." Some Googling reveals that late last year, he went quasi-viral when he told kids in his congregation to "nae nae the hell out" of their bodies—a reference to rap group We Are Toonz's playful 2013 hip-hop hit 'Drop That #NaeNae.' Video of kids in church doing the nae-nae dance led website AllChristianNews to suggest West is a "buffoon," while The Root writer Yesha Callahan said, "I can't say I've seen kids that excited to be in church."
West knows how to work a crowd, but then again, he is a pastor and his passion is sincere. Maybe too sincere.
On Tuesday, West told City Paper that he wanted the march to walk the areas in which Gray lived. But he seemed to have become more ambitious by Wednesday, when he paused in front of the Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue to allow everybody to catch up and then told the group that the police plan was "to have us in one area." But, he said, they would move through the city. West began quoting Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, almost like a mantra, over and over, in the same hypnotic tone.
Where Pennsylvania Avenue meets Martin Luther King Boulevard, West stopped traffic and walked over to the street sign bearing the civil rights leader's name and pointed to it proudly. "Look what Freddie did to Baltimore," he yelled, and began quoting King again: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
People stuck in traffic began angrily honking. It was the first time that day the cars weren't honking in solidarity. Next, West directed the crowd to get in a circle and then he created a smaller circle inside. In the outer circle, a young kid in a black hoodie and camouflage True Religion jeans, demanded "Fists up." As cars honked, they turned and glared at them, as other kids stared the stopped cars down.
"Our men are dying, our children are dying, I'm getting tired of it," West shouted.
Everyone sat down on MLK.
Then, West moved the crowd toward downtown and headed up MLK, running between cars. Many of the kids moved ahead of West and it was the first of many times in which it seemed like he might lose control of the march. You could hear mothers telling their kids to go to the sidewalk if they got lost and telling them to find West or another leader if there was a problem.
At West Franklin Street and MLK, the crowd once again sat down. When the crowd moved on, a car driven by an older white man sped forward but was stopped by the crowd. Salaam yelled, "Hold the front line." The kid in camo True Religions walked up to the front of the car and put their fist up. They demanded the white driver do the same. Other cars pumped their fist and were let through. This guy would not pump his fist. The police arrived and finally got the man through.
West took the crowd to Saratoga Street, then down Paca Street, and then across Pratt Street to the Inner Harbor. In front of the Gallery, West again stopped and instructed everybody lay down on the ground. West began running around, pumping his fists, dancing. He moved the chant to a rhythmic call and response: “We got what? Power!” Kids near and inside the Gallery moved toward the protest.
"These motherfuckers are serious," one kid joked with his friend. They joined in.
Next, West said they would move to City Hall, and he rushed up Calvert Street, a few boys on bikes ahead of him leading the way. At Calvert and Baltimore streets, a marcher lay down in the road, his arms behind his back as if they were handcuffed, and West and others feigned kicking and stomping on him. At the end of Baltimore Street as the group approached the Baltimore Police headquarters there, a wall of officers stopped the protesters, who stopped cars on South Frederick Street.
West, inches from the police, told them that those that killed Freddie Gray should be "fired and thrown in jail," and added, "No more suspension with pay." He quoted Martin Luther King some more.
A man in a pickup truck tried to burst through but was stopped by the crowd. The man rolled down his window and began pleading with the group. PFK Boom told him to "be patient."
"I have more respect for these protesters than they do for me," the driver, who told me his name was Tim, said. He continued on, "I don't come to their homes and do this."
When West finally moved the crowd up South Frederick toward City Hall, Tim once again tried to move forward. The police stopped him from driving behind the protesters.
At City Hall, West stood in front of the fountains and kneeled with a number of children. Photographers and news cameras ate it up. They also ate up a scowling contingent of teens mean-mugging and mimicking a cocking-a-gun-and-firing motion. Many looked on in disdain and others asked them to stop. As the crowd moved closer to City Hall toward the War Memorial, PFK Boom spoke to these kids for about 10 minutes, telling them to chill out.
In front of the War Memorial, cops stood on the other side of a metal fence, a scene that recalled the Western District earlier: police just a few feet away, the marchers yelling and pleading with the police who stood stone-faced. A wild-eyed white guy screamed, "Y'all a bunch of bitches." Teens nearby started laughing at him. A wiry teen smacked him on the shoulder: "You tell 'em, man." A white guy with a megaphone and a Che Guevara belt buckle stalked the periphery of the crowd and ranted, competing with West and others.
West, it seemed, intended to move the crowd back toward West Baltimore. The guy with the megaphone yelled "83!," and a few punks in hoodies concurred, so West paused for a moment and then shrugged and moved to I-83 via Gay Street. He appeared to be reacting to the group rather than leading them. At some point around this time, Salaam and PFK Boom left the march.
"83 shut it down!" became the chant.
Police were ready at the I-83 ramp. West and a few associates ran to the front of the crowd to ease tension. A police car parked on I-83 turned into a bench for people who were just excited to touch or sit on a police car. One woman joked about pissing on the car. Finally, West moved the group off the ramp, police at the end of the ramp moved out of the way, and the group, which had lost its form, wandered toward Saratoga.
Others stayed behind. They wanted I-83. Kids began running through traffic on Gay.
"Pastor West! Pastor West!" a young woman screamed. "Someone get Pastor West!"
West, at the front, near Holliday Street, turned and urgently dashed back. A group of people still wanted the highway.
"Don't turn back!" West yelled to those still under I-83. A few people were lying on the ground in protest; others were pounding on cars. These were almost entirely teens, some tweens. West got most people back onto Saratoga.
"Anybody left behind is part of the problem," a young woman yelled.
"Listen to your pastor," a woman declared, as West yelled for everyone to follow him.
Back on familiar ground, West moved the crowd up Saratoga to Pennsylvania and back to the Western District, a police helicopter spotlight following them for most of the walk back. (Brandon Soderberg)
Thursday, April 23
As helicopters flew low over downtown Baltimore and dozens of police officers stood in formation behind the barricades separating City Hall from the plaza in front of it, Rev. JamalBryant, of the Empowerment Temple, addressed hundreds of assembled protesters: "We're not here calling for revenge—we are calling for justice. Shame on the Baltimore Police Department for putting up these barricades."
Bryant added that Freddie Gray's funeral would be on Monday, April 27, at 11 a.m. at New Shiloh Baptist Church and said individuals visiting houses of worship on Sunday are encouraged to wear gray to show solidarity with Freddie Gray. He concluded that, "No matter how many barricades [the police] put up, they cannot stop the voice of the people!"
Thursday marked the sixth day of protests following the Gray’s death. Among the residents protesting were members of the Baltimore City Council, ACLU, Nation of Islam, Baltimore Bloc, SEIU, and some Baltimore City public defenders, but Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who gave a press conference on Friday, was notably absent. Some protesters felt they could take care of their communities better than local government and law enforcement.
One of Gray's friends implored the crowd: "Stay in the streets. You are doing the right thing. Don't let anyone tell you to wait for the system to work. We've seen how the system works."
As the crowd departed City Hall and moved west toward downtown, police cars and officers riding motorcycles took to the roads adjacent to the protesters' route. Chants of "Hands up, don't shoot!" and "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" continued, occasionally to the sound of cars honking along to the beat. Those leading the march broke into a sprint to the front of the U.S. Courthouse on Lombard Street, chanting, "Freddie."
The march briefly gathered on the grass in front of the courthouse, with Freddie's friends offering passionate words about how his death had affected them, his family, and his neighborhood as a whole.
The group marched toward the Inner Harbor, where police officers stationed themselves in front of Harborplace doors to prevent occupation. Those assembled dipped briefly into Federal Hill and then began to head toward the Western District police station. Police cars and vans blocked nearby interstate entrance ramps in an apparent attempt to prevent marches onto the highway.
After several miles of marching, the large group stood before the barricades separating them from police officers, including some brought in from other districts, guarding the station.
Officers on the steps of the station took turns filming the rally. Early on, a younger man spoke about life as a West Baltimore resident, stating, "It would've been us. We've gotta deal with murder every day, and from [the police]. We're tired people. Leave us alone."
National camera crews milled around, interviewing various people and filming the action. Children holding their parents' hands carried signs that read "I am Freddie Gray." Many officers did not initially make eye contact with the people before them chanting and asking questions, but at one point, a white male officer responded to an older man repeatedly asking why police target black people with "I don't know." Police transport trucks sat on the perimeter of the block, though only two arrests were made by the end of the night.
Around 8 p.m., a small group of young men began a series of impromptu re-enactments of atrocities historically committed against black people. They began with a simulated lynching wearing fake handcuffs and utilizing an American flag and concluded with the choking death of Eric Garner, which began a chant of his now-familiar last words, "I can't breathe."
As the rally dispersed in the late evening, the police officers had begun to relax and chat with those people who remained, some of whom they seemed to know from the neighborhood. Activists distributed quarter sheets to promote a march from Gilmor Homes to the Western District police station, then to City Hall on Saturday. As one elderly woman left, she told a friend that, "The mayor won't show up for us, but we're showing up." (Caitlin Goldblatt)
Friday, April 24
A group of about 20 gathered at the corner of Eutaw Street and Lexington Street across from Lexington Market around 5:30 p.m., organized by Baltimore Bloc with Abdul Salaam and PFK Boom, as well as Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West. PFK Boom gathered the group around and discussed the plans for what to do with a small group and also teased that Saturday would be the big one. It seemed as though people were tired, both those who did show up and presumably the many more anticipating the next day's big protest.
The group began walking, starting off in the middle of Eutaw Street from the beginning and headed toward the Orioles game, which was just beginning. Two police cars followed behind. As the group approached the Eutaw Street entrance, security for the Orioles seemed panicked and many Orioles fans were annoyed or mocked the crowd. After a few moments, the police arrived and the protest moved toward Pratt Steet and then into the Inner Harbor, with a cluster of around a dozen officers following behind on foot and the crowd singing "I got a feeling," a popular chant that picked up during Baltimore's Ferguson-related protests inthe fall. A young protester, the same one that put his fist up during Rev. West's protest on Wednesday, offered protesters oranges.
At the Inner Harbor pavilion, the officers stood in front of the entrances, preventing the protesters from entering. A back and forth occurred with the group moving between the two entrances, attempting to fake out the police. Finally the group moved on, curling around the World Trade Center and up Pratt against traffic. Near the World Trade Center, two officers stood holding large batons.
The group rushed up Pratt and then onto Light Street between traffic leading to the inevitable confrontation with drivers, who seemed intent to not wait for the protesters. PFK, Salaam, and others encouraged the protesters to let cars through. At one point, a truckwitn a Confederate flag on it attempted to strike protesters, which led to some pounding the truck, and the police walked up to the group. The officer said, "You're protesting, I'm fine with that," and explained that preventing cars from moving is a safety concern. Boom told the group not to touch the cars. An officer muttered to another officer, "works for me."
At the corner of Light Street and Key Highway, the group sprawled out but was also scattered. Again, cars tried to get around or seemingly test the group. One officer came up and explained that the group could "sit down" or "squat down" but could not simply mill around. Someone yelled "fuck the police" and was quickly silenced.
The group continued up Light Street into Federal Hill and, at East Montgomery Street, ran into the Baltimore Bike Party; some participants raised their fists in solidarity and others lifted their bikes. The city’s drivers appeared to be so much more forgiving to the Bike Party than protesters. As the Bike Party continued up East Montgomery Street, the protest followed the group and the Bike Party continued. Abdul Salaam joked, “We going bar-hopping.”
At William Street the group stopped in the middle of the street, allowing cars to pass by, but fervently wrapping up the night in the street. PFK Boom gathered the group and said this was a "test run for what we can do with little people." A police helicopter whirled above. Activist Duane "Shorty" Davis said, "This is about social and economic deprivation," and added, "with less than 50 people we can shut shit down." He pointed out that the protest tonight made the BPD come out and it "disrupt[ed] their cash flow."
Bill Bleich, a retired teacher from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and part of the Progressive Labor Party, spoke. He had pulled a Confederate flag off the truck of one of the people who tried to hit the group and proudly showed it to the group. Others were asked to speak as well, including James MacArthur, aka Baltimore Spectator, and a woman who encouraged everybody to gather and do this everywhere, even when you're in line at Panera Bread, she stressed, because those people need to hear it too or perhaps they already agree.
Allen Walker, a teenaged rapper from Westport, talked about his brother who was shot on March 5. "I saw him breathe his last breath," Walker said, adding that the cops arrived and "looked at him and let him die, they don't care." He added, "I had a whole agenda today," pointing out that he had no plan to join the protests but rolled up on the group at Lexington and followed. PFK Boom gave him a hug and welcomed him.
PFK Boom decided to bring the group back and added that they should return more calmly. "We came raw," he said, and told the group to return "professional," and they did. (Brandon Soderberg)
Saturday, April 25
At 1 p.m. on Saturday, members of the media and police officers outnumbered anybody else at City Hall by a 10-to-1 ratio. A Malcolm X speech played over loudspeakers as a dozen national and local media vans set up camp around the perimeter of War Memorial Plaza. Vendors, selling T-shirts with messages such as “Stop the Violence” and “Black Lives Matter,” stationed themselves on the north and south entrances. It had the feel of a large, sanctioned event, like the Million Man March or an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C.
And that's exactly what it was. Elected officials, including Councilmen Brandon M. Scott (2nd district) and Carl Stokes (12th district), circulated through the initially meager crowd. When Scott came to the microphone to make some remarks, one protester shouted ,"I guess the mayor is too busy to come down here!"
The crowd slowly built with families, older folks, and other people who chose not to join the marches that had started in Sandtown-Winchester earlier in the day. There was much discussion of when the marchers would arrive. "I hear they're 40 minutes away," one organizer was heard whispering to another. There was a white dad and kids, all wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, a little white girl with a "stop genocide" banner, and a little black boy, barely able to walk, toting around a "police brutality" sign. Artist Paul Rucker's tapestries, one of which features Trayvon Martin in the crosshairs of a gun, were a big attraction and discussion point on the lawn.
By the time the first wave of marchers arrived, the plaza was about one-quarter full. When they did arrive, pouring into the plaza, they were chanting, “all night, all day, we will march for Freddie Gray” and were greeted like conquering heroes. Before long the plaza was filled to capacity—the most common estimates were between 1,000 and 1,200 people—and Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice, spoke to the crowd. Dozens of police milled around in front of City Hall, which was separated from the plaza by a solid 50 yards, but stayed entirely out of the plaza itself.
Perhaps the lack of a police presence helped to lend the gathering a much more relaxed feel than any in the previous seven days. There were great ovations when protesters pulled down the American flags from the flagpoles to the left and right of the microphone, and tried to replace one of them a black-and-white version.
Surprisingly quickly—maybe an hour after the last group of marchers arrived—the program ended and the crowd dissipated. With about a quarter of the plaza filled, someone yelled in the microphone, "We're going to Camden Yards! We're going to shut this city down!" A handful of those in attendance—maybe 50 people—began to walk, some chanting, "no justice, no game!" (Evan Serpick)