Amid an ongoing national conversation about racial equality and police brutality, demonstrators gathered Friday throughout Baltimore in recognition of Juneteenth.
Juneteeth is a celebration of the anniversary of the liberation of the last slaves in the United States in 1865. The holiday gained more recognition nationwide this year, the 155th anniversary, in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; and Rayshard Brooks of Atlanta — all of whom were black — and the protests that followed.
The day’s demonstration began in the early afternoon with dozens of protesters gathered at Baltimore City Hall. At about 3 p.m., more than 100 demonstrators, organized Good Kids Mad City, Organizing Black and other community groups, began marching from McKeldin Square to Federal Hill Park. The crowd chanted “Say Her Name” and “Say His Name,” honoring Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, who was killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida, last month.
As the protest made its way down Light Street, passersby honked in support. When the group reached Federal Hill Park, protesters raised a Pride flag and a Transgender Pride flag, the latter of which had a black fist in the center. Then, the action turned celebratory, with attendees spreading out into the park, playing music and dancing as black-owned businesses sold food and wares.
Destiny DeShields and Destini Philpot of Bmore Youth Coalition, which co-organized the action and celebration at Federal Hill Park, said they had a simple reason for choosing to march in the neighborhood.
”Federal Hill is so white,” DeShields said. ”And we want to disrupt white spaces and make white people uncomfortable, as black people have been in this country since the very beginning.”
Philpot went on to explain that they wanted this action to focus on not just black lives, but the intersections with other identities.
”That’s why we hoisted up the black trans flag: Because a lot of the times, when we’re screaming ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we’re not acknowledging the struggles or other minority groups or identities within being black,” she said.
Philpot later performed a spoken word poem critical of America’s history of racism called “Red, White and Blue” while others burned a U.S. flag nearby.
A third demonstration carried a spiritual tone as it began outside of the Baltimore Police Department downtown offices and made its way to Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum, drawing a line between past and present. The “March for Freedom: Are We Really Free?” demonstration, sponsored by Change Starts With Hope and Woodlawn Park Church of Christ, kicked off with prayers and an a cappella rendition of “I Really Love the Lord.”
As the protesters moved into posh Harbor East, Perry McAlister, a Baltimore City Public Schools fourth-grade teacher, said he’s tired of sitting back and feeling helpless while kids as young as his students remain vulnerable to police killings.
“Tamir Rice was killed when he was 12. My students are 10,” he said. “For me, it’s like, I can no longer sit with a clean conscience knowing that they need more.”
McAlister said Friday’s demonstration also occurred against the backdrop of two crises: that of the coronavirus, which has disproportionately sickened black people, and that of racism. He’d like to see a restructuring of police so students like his fourth-graders could have more opportunities and less fear.
Next to the bust of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist from Maryland who escaped slavery and went on to advocate for emancipation, protesters knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time a police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck before he died. Only the organizers’ quiet singing of “Hallelujah” and the sound of a Baltimore police helicopter circling overhead cut the silence.
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Samuel Knight, interim minister at the Church of Christ Northwest in Pikesville, said Juneteenth takes on a more spiritual tone since the day centers around the ideas of humanity and equality — and that all people are created in the image of God. He thinks it should be a federal holiday.
But in addressing the crowd, Knight said black people aren’t free because the law has been specifically and systematically manipulated over time to oppress people of color.
Some people “want us to still be enslaved,” Knight said, as evidenced by the fact some of the country’s Confederate statues still stand.
“Black people are finally free to the extent that they can be considered citizens, but there’s still a long way to go,” he said.
Speakers also expressed hope and optimism at the level of engagement in the U.S. centered around issues of racial and social justice. J.C. Faulk, CEO and founder of Baltimore’s Circles of Voices, said he’s encouraged by the generation of young black people — and their white allies — who are driving the Black Lives Matter movement.
”They’re really about to do this thing,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Phillip Jackson contributed to this report.