They expected Baltimore to erupt.
The New York Times telegraphed it in a multiple-choice news quiz, offering “Baltimore” as the first of four possible answers to the question of which city George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, died in (it was Minneapolis). Fox News reported that Baltimore residents were stockpiling “mounds of bricks and bottles … ahead of expected George Floyd unrest.” And CNN tried to will it into being by showing images of protesters setting cars on fire in Philadelphia, and falsely claiming the scene was occurring in Baltimore.
Downtown, Baltimore businesses boarded up their windows and doors with plywood. And some that were open, despite coronavirus, closed early, as did the Baltimore Board of Elections — on the eve of the primary. “I can’t have my people jeopardized,” Director Armstead Jones told a reporter June 1st. “We’re right there at City Hall.”
But aside from a few isolated incidents — a small fire was set at a bank, several stores were vandalized, a city van was broken into — Baltimore has been a model of how to peacefully and stirringly protest racism in America, specifically the killing of black men by police officers.
There are some theories being posited about why that might be. We have a few ideas of our own, but first, here’s why it isn’t.
It’s certainly not because the pain of George Floyd’s killing on May 25th by a white Minnesota police officer and all it represents isn’t deeply felt here. If anything, the anguish is more acute in Baltimore, which is still processing the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who was fatally injured in Baltimore police custody five years ago. Gray’s death led to a federal civil rights investigation that exposed a pattern of police “conduct that violates the constitutional and federal statutory rights of City residents” — black residents — and prompted demands for reform that we’re largely still waiting to see.
It’s also not because Gov. Larry Hogan called in the National Guard in 2015, in response to the uprising over Gray’s treatment and death, as the Maryland governor suggested to President Donald Trump during a White House call with the nation’s governors last week. “It’s been mostly peaceful, I think, because they’re at this point maybe afraid to take action in Baltimore,” Governor Hogan opined, claiming credit by pointing to his earlier act. Baltimoreans may be afraid of a lot of things — lead poisoning, an inferior education, limited job opportunities, systemic racism, homicides, violent crime — but we can assure you the governor’s military threat doesn’t weigh heavily as a deterrent.
And we highly doubt it’s from issue fatigue, as some have suggested on social media, claiming Baltimore has been fighting this fight for so long, that residents are worn out. All kinds of protests have been carried out in the city for going on two weeks now, without signs of stopping — from the huge gatherings of thousands to the single protesters standing alone with a sign or fist raised on city streets.
No, it’s more likely that Baltimore has been fighting the fight for so long, particularly in the past five years, that residents have learned how to do it more effectively, and with more focus, than those in some other areas of the country, where the wounds are still so raw that smashing something seems the appropriate response.
Of course, there are other factors involved, including the measured and at times empathetic response from Baltimore City police officers, some of whom have taken a knee in solidarity with protesters or read aloud the names of police brutality victims — the right thing to do. No good cop can be comfortable with what was done to George Floyd. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Baltimore Mayor Jack Young deserve credit for going into this with a plan to ensure that the police didn’t become part of the problem.
Protesters themselves have also sought to keep things safe and nonviolent, calling out those who might be looking to stir things up and calling on city advocates, activists and leaders, including Council President Brandon Scott, to help keep the peace. There’s no tolerance for outside agitators or other opportunists seeking to use Baltimore to make a name, loot from its stores or destroy for the sake of destruction. Freddie Gray taught residents what to expect — whom to welcome to the cause and whom to reject.
“They call us the most disrespectful city, but we are the ones that actually didn’t act up the way everyone else expected us to,” one demonstrator, Terri Simms, told The Sun’s Justin Fenton last week. “Baltimore — we have moved on."
Baltimore clearly still has years to go to make the changes the city so desperately needs, but residents have learned much about how to ask for it so they’re heard. We hope their efforts continue, every day, until the results are seen.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.