The cars started lining up before 10 o’clock on a blustery morning — just a handful at first, then a few dozen more. Soon nearly 100 vehicles filled the parking lot of St. Matthew Catholic Church.
Passengers popped out, exchanged markers, and scrawled messages in bold colors on their vehicles: “Black Lives Matter,” “I Have a Dream ...“ Say Their Names.”
“We’re going to sow the seeds of love so that we can reap the harvest of Dr. King’s dream!” Jordan Casper, a young African American DJ, thundered into a microphone. “Now everyone honk as you drive off!”
With that, the first-ever Martin Luther King Jr. Day Black Lives Matter car caravan across Baltimore was under way.
Casper, 26, a rap musician and producer from Harford County, is a leading member and organizer of the Black Lives Matter Interfaith Coalition, an activist group whose members have been staging regular social-justice demonstrations in the Baltimore area since last summer.
Sponsored by more than 30 churches, synagogues and social- and racial-justice nonprofits, the organization planned the procession as a celebration Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the thirty-sixth time the nation has celebrated the occasion as a federal holiday.
The event, one of dozens held in honor of the legendary civil rights leader in the area Monday, began as Casper addressed the parking lot full of drivers and passengers, introducing the themes of the day.
Democratic Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos followed with brief remarks, as did Martina Hazelton, the co-founder of the Lifer Family Support Network, a group that advocates for the humane treatment of people serving long sentences in Maryland prisons.
The vehicles headed out in single file, horns honking and warning lights flashing, following a previously mapped, 10-mile route through Northeast Baltimore, East Baltimore, North Baltimore and back to the church on Loch Raven Boulevard for closing remarks and a prayer by another co-founder of the council, Baltimore entrepreneur KeSean Johnson.
“We cannot afford to move at a snail’s pace to find liberty and justice for all,” said Johnson, who is Black and a member of the Bolton Street Synagogue, a sponsoring congregation. “Now more than ever we should appreciate life and ensure that every American has the opportunity to enjoy theirs as well.”
Johnson called for police reform during his remarks, including the removal of school resource officers from public schools and the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a measure that grants police officers due-process privileges beyond those provided to other citizens.
Critics say the measure — adopted in 16 states, including Maryland — makes it too difficult to discipline officers who have violated citizens’ rights, including those who act with brutality toward minority citizens.
Johnson made a connection between its potential repeal and the kind of human rights measures King advocated throughout his ministry.
“These measures will be good because they allow all citizens of Baltimore ... to create a system of resources that protects the public interest and makes Maryland the example for a fractured nation,” Johnson said, and dozens honked their horns in response.
The group that would become the Black Lives Matter Interfaith Coalition got its start in July, weeks after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, when members of St. Matthew’s ― a Catholic parish known for its multicultural congregation and outreach to immigrants — held a rally in support of social justice. It drew about 30 people.
Two weeks later, members of nearby Faith Presbyterian Church joined a second St. Matthew’s demonstration, more than doubling attendance, said Ryan Sattler, a parish member and coalition co-founder.
“We believed that God was wanting us to continue the Black Lives Matter rallies,” Sattler said.
As the group held rallies at high-traffic locations around Baltimore every two weeks, the crowds swelled, eventually topping out at more than 200, Sattler said, before a spike in coronavirus cases forced planners to move its meetings online.
With the pandemic still ongoing and the King holiday approaching, Sattler said, the coalition faced a challenge: how to maintain a safe environment while doing justice to his legacy.
Their solution was the caravan — a procession that would allow for social distancing but still allow for high visibility and making a joyful noise.
As the vehicles made their way north on Loch Raven Boulevard, east on Belvedere Avenue, south on Belair Road, west on North Ave., and north again on Charles Street, they encountered organizers holding “Black Lives Matter” signs at each intersection to keep them moving in the right direction.
One, Ann Kehinde, said bystanders at a bus stop on North Avenue burst into spontaneous chants of “Black Lives Matter,” and Bill and Frances Beard, Silver Spring residents and members of the Church of the Resurrection in Burtonsville who joined the caravan, said they saw raised fists and thumbs-up and heard honks of approval from passers-by throughout the more than hour-long odyssey.
“We are so encouraged,” Frances Beard said. “The support was amazing. What an opportunity this was to share a message.”
Sattler praised Monday’s “amazing” turnout.
“I never knew how beautiful the sound of car horns could be.”