They’d already marched across the city for more than an hour Wednesday when they arrived in front of the Baltimore City Police Department headquarters. Shawn Mackey, 26, led the hundreds of protesters up to the barricades, where he faced off with two police officers — and asked them to kneel with him.
Then Mackey said he witnessed a moment that showed him the officers wanted to be part of the community. They kneeled with him. Mackey, a Baltimore man who hurled bricks at officers in the 2015 unrest, bowed his head and laid one hand on each of the officer’s shoulders, in an almost prayerful embrace. He whispered in their ears: “I thank you for your service. I love you as a man. Now that you have knelt with me, can you walk with me?”
In that moment, Mackey and the officers locked arms and began to walk.
Baltimore’s black youth are helping lead a movement to end racial injustice that is grounded in the collective memories of the city wrenched apart, with neighborhoods in flames and businesses looted. They carry the same bitterness, anger and frustration, and still yearn to overthrow the institutions they say oppress them, but they will do it differently this time.
“We only knew to go to war with them," Mackey said. "This time we have a bigger purpose.”
Added Kwame Rose, who also took part in the protests after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015: “I would say that the young people are more organized as a whole, the activist and protest community in the city are more mature. We are going to show the world that Baltimore has a message and it isn’t through destruction. We are going to destroy a system."
Across the nation, tens of thousands of people have filled the streets after the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who was held down under the knee of a white police officer for several minutes. Some young people say the fierce reaction tapped into anger from three years of Trump administration policies and a pandemic that has amplified existing inequities. In the last seven days, cities such as New York and Los Angeles have seen violence, but Baltimore has remained calm.
Today’s teenagers and college students came of age protesting gun violence, climate change and racial injustice. They say they have watched adults and elected leaders do nothing to tackle these issues. They are showing up on podiums and at police lines because they believe it will be up to their generation to solve these problems.
Mackey is working with a coalition of city youth leaders to bring dozens of young people to marches. Each day, they meet an hour before the protest to talk about using non-violent strategies to confront people in power.
“Rioting and burning our city down is not going to change anything," Mackey said.
Ruben Amaya, a Stevenson University student who has planned a protest in Towson for next week, said he and his peers can’t sit back anymore.
“We look up to our leadership. For years, you don’t see any change," he said, noting it has been 56 years since the Civil Rights Act passed. “We have to take this into our own hands.”
The younger generation still sees themselves as revolutionaries, but they are hopeful, and they are directing their rage. Aleisha Murdock, a 20-year-old Morgan State University student, believes change will come out of this moment.
The deaths of Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbury, a black Georgia man shot while out for a jog, sent her into the usual spiral of anger and emotional turmoil. She loves to run and she does so in a predominantly white neighborhood. Since Arbury’s death, she’s begun calculating the risk of getting some exercise. But she focused her creative mind this week and wrote new words for the national anthem that began “I cannot breathe.”
Then she showed up at a street protest with a message of love: a shirt that said “Hug, Don’t Shoot.”
Another student leader, Omer Reshid, a Pikesville High School senior, also is helping organize a protest, this one in Baltimore County.
“I am scared and angry and frustrated,” he said, “but at the same time I am really hopeful that there will be a change.”
Reshid said he has always been frightened when he’s driving and encounters a police officer. The teenager will make the first right turn to get away, even though he knows he is doing nothing illegal.
“I am scared as a black man. It is only a matter of time that I will be in a situation that puts my life at risk,” he said.
He believes today’s protest leaders will become tomorrow’s leaders.
Antonio Moore, a 20-year-old from East Baltimore, has started going to the protests because of Mackey. Moore felt gratified that the city’s police commissioner, Michael Harrison, came out to talk to them, but now wants to see discussions with legislators.
“I am feeling in control of our own narrative and what we want the world to look like,” Moore said.
He thinks that if elected officials are as responsive as the police commissioner, there could be a significant conversation about policy and legislative changes.
These youth are yearning to be part of something bigger, said Stefanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins University professor of sociology, who interviewed 150 youth in Baltimore after the 2015 uprising.
“You grow up with families that are generations deep in the struggle to have the same privileges, freedom, rights as their white neighbors," DeLuca said. "I think that creates a legacy, a feeling of deep frustration and anger, but also wanting something different.”
Referring to the concerns of residents over squeegee kids on street corners, DeLuca said the city works to “contain” its youth rather than viewing them as young people with potential.
“We don’t focus on our youth as assets," she said. "We don’t do enough to provide them with the raw material to be who they want to be.”
The role young people play in shining a light on inequities is hardly new, said Hahrie Han, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins.
“They feel the traditional institutions of government have lost their legitimacy," said Han, noting that young people of color have been "holding the center of gravity” in these protests.
But these young leaders say that white allies will be critical to their success.
One of them, Quinn Fireside, who graduates this spring from The Baltimore School for the Arts, is planning a march for next week with classmates.
“In this country, most of the time police officers, they will listen more to white people than black people,” Fireside said. “The only responsible choice as a white person is to use my voice, to use my face and my body to protect black people so they can live their life."
Leader Kwame Rose said that when white people grow uncomfortable, there will be change.
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“The burden rests on white America,” he said. “We have been fed up. It is time for white people to step up.”