Rep. Elijah Cummings joined the mayor and community leaders in emphasizing peaceful protest in the wake of Freddie Gray's death in police custody. (Baltimore Sun video)
Throughout last week, as Baltimore officials tried to enforce a curfew at Pennsylvania and North avenues, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings was on the scene helping to calm tensions at the site of some of the worst rioting. Each night protesters attempted to violate the city-imposed 10 p.m. curfew, and each night Cummings and others tried to persuade them to leave.
The Baltimore Democrat says he saw anger, fear and frustration but also hope, inspiration and love. He talked with The Baltimore Sun about the regular citizens he saw step up in a trying time, the most surreal moment he witnessed, and the surprising alliance between authorities and street gangs.
The Sun: We've been talking about community people who stepped up to calm the tensions in Baltimore. Tell us what you recall.
Rep. Elijah Cummings: I saw several instances of that. When I arrived on the scene on North and Pennsylvania Tuesday, I saw this tall guy who was telling people to, "Lock arms, lock arms." At first I thought he was locking arms to tell people, "We're not going anywhere. We're going to go against the police." Then he said to me, "Congressman, you need to lock arms, too. I'm not here to go against the police. I'm trying to get [curfew violators] out of here."
He did the same thing Wednesday and Thursday. He would tell people to lock arms in front of the police and everyone would follow him. He was like our general. He was invaluable. I didn't even know his name.
He wasn't out there Friday or Saturday, but I saw him downtown by City Hall Saturday. I said, "What happened to you? I needed you."
He said, "You had three days of training. What'd you want?"
The Sun: What was the most intense moment that you can recall? Did you ever feel like you needed to protect authorities from rock-throwers?
EC: There was a car on fire. And the police were trying to get up about five blocks to protect the firefighters. They came to me and said, "We need cover." The smoke was up in the air. You could see it. We began to march for blocks. We knelt down. And this was one of the most surreal events of my whole life. With 200 police behind us, smoke everywhere, we look up in the air, and we see this man dancing like Michael Jackson to "They don't care about us." It was surreal. I felt like I was in a movie.
The Sun: What lessons do you think you learned from talking with folks at Penn and North?
EC: I saw one young man at the protest and the police said, "Mr. Cummings, watch this guy." I go up to him, talk to him. I said, "I'm glad you're here. We really do have to peacefully protest." Then I said, "I love you, man."
He looked surprised. He said, "I'm 23 years old. No man has ever told me that he loved me."
He started helping me get people lined up. The next night he was back again. He said, "Mr. Cummings, I'm ready for duty."
What I discovered is that people want respect. They want to know that they're recognized. They want to know that you hear them.
One young man told me, "I can't take it no more. I feel like I'm in a coffin trying to claw my way out."