The injustices that fueled Baltimore’s unrest five years ago still exist, activists said during recent weeks of demonstrations, as do instances of police brutality and misconduct.
But while much of the nation protested in ways that sometimes ended in violent clashes, Baltimore marchers kept violence and conflict to a minimum while still making sure their message was heard loudly and clearly.
In large part, organizers say, that’s because of lessons learned over time. And, they say, Baltimore is now embracing a new strategy of making sure things change for the better.
“In many respects, Baltimore is one of the cities people understand to be the place of an uprising that gives energy to a national conversation,” said Dayvon Love, director of public policy with the nonprofit Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, which helped organize some local marches. “Conversations are already being held [here] on these issues.”
Five years ago, when Freddie Gray died of injuries suffered while in the custody of Baltimore Police, the city erupted. The community could no longer be silenced, protesters and supporters said.
The protests are “different” this time around, said Ralikh Hayes, deputy director of OrganizingBlack, pointing to steps that demonstrators have taken to raise awareness while avoiding confrontations with police. For example, organizers often have chosen not to hold rallies at night, a time when Hayes said they have found police to be more aggressive toward protesters.
Hayes and others said no one should mistake the protesters’ orderly approach as a sign that Baltimore has fixed problems that have long plagued the city.
“Nothing has changed in Baltimore. Corruption is still rampant in Baltimore police and City Hall,” said Hayes, whose OrganizingBlack has been doing grassroots work in the city for 15 years.
The effort to shift Baltimore’s place in the national narrative over race issues has been in the works for quite a while, activists say. These efforts go beyond just making the community’s voice heard to making sure the movement remains sustainable until change finally comes.
That goal is still a work in progress, Hayes and others said. Instances of police assaulting or violating residents’ civil rights persist, highlighted by dozens of Baltimore officers arrested and convicted of assault and other charges in recent years. Some of those assaults have been caught on tape, allowing people to see incidents such as an officer breaking a man’s jaw or a veteran sergeant arresting a local man for no apparent reason.
And then there are the underlying issues. The city’s Black communities still suffer from blight, an issue activists say has been ignored by city leaders for years and discounted when people discuss Baltimore’s homicide rate.
Addressing poverty and the need for socioeconomic change is at the heart of the Baltimore protests. Not only do protesters want to defund the police department, they want that money to be invested in Black communities to reverse decades of decay.
The desire to change a broken system could be heard in the energetic chants of demonstrators calling the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others killed by police. Chants like “I Can’t Breathe” have evolved into a symbolic cry for justice in demonstrations that have amassed thousands on Baltimore streets.
Caryn York works with the Job Opportunities Task Force, a city nonprofit that advocates for policies and programs to increase the skills, job opportunities and incomes of low-wage workers. She says many Baltimore neighborhoods have been forgotten and left to survive on their own.
“It’s no secret that in the absence of economic opportunity, you will see crime. Survival kicks in,” York says. “If you kick out money for police all the time or other systems and barely have money for affordable housing and education and other critical factors that ensure a safe sustainable community, you are going to get what you see.”
While York and others say economic opportunities for Black Baltimore residents haven’t increased, problems between residents and police have continued.
In 2019, more than a dozen officers in the Baltimore Police Department were arrested, sentenced or suspended, many on charges of assault or unlawful arrests. Many of the arrests were caught on videos that went viral, making it easier for young Black men to have their stories heard.
These crimes were separate from those of the notorious Gun Trace Task Force, which robbed residents with impunity until federal prosecutors stepped in. So far at least 14 task force members have been arrested or convicted, with sentences ranging up to 25 years in federal prison.
Body camera footage led to the arrest and criminal charges against a veteran police sergeant. The video of a May 2019 incident shows Sgt. Ethan Newberg arresting a man who criticized Newberg’s tactics as he was detaining another man. Newberg was suspended without pay and charged with assault, false imprisonment and misconduct after chasing a man down and grabbing him. Another officer was seen tackling him and placing him in handcuffs.
When the video surfaced, all charges against the man were dismissed and outrage against Baltimore police grew.
A month later, Arthur Williams, a former Baltimore police officer, was found guilty of second-degree assault and misconduct for the beating of a man in East Baltimore, an incident captured on a body-worn camera in 2018. The victim, Dashawn McGrier, suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs and other ailments, according to his attorney.
Such incidents have helped to shape the demands of activists calling for Baltimore to reimagine policing. They have also caused “hopelessness and despair” throughout the city, Love said.
Brittany Oliver, of the nonprofit NotWithoutBlackWomen, has been organizing protests in Baltimore over recent months. Oliver wants to make finding a place in the conversation for Black women to thrive a priority, adding the protests against police brutality are just one aspect of the fight for justice. Change should aid all people affected by inequality, she said.
“The reason why it’s so important for Baltimore to be a part of this movement is that these issues that happened with George Floyd are not isolated incidents,” Oliver said. “People have been protesting for justice and equality well before George Floyd, Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.”
As demonstrations continue, so does the quest for political change.
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“Real revolutionary change is about building black determination so that we can control our own destiny. And that is the biggest threat to white supremacy both here in Baltimore and nationally,” Love said.