Baltimore, where democracy and chaos meet

On the streets of Baltimore this week, the line between justice and injustice blurs.

Mar 1, 2020, 4:54 am*

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Before the violence began on Monday, gospel music led the funeral session for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died last week from injuries sustained while in police custody, the spark on the tinder of Baltimore.

The city soon rang with sounds of burning riots as Baltimore County fell to violent bursts across the city. The scene on W. North Ave., just a few blocks from the New Shiloh Baptist Church, where Gray’s funeral took place, transformed into the surreal as police blocked streets while violence and looting continued down the street.

“There are definitely bad cops, but I’m glad the police are here today.”

A man drunkenly swayed in an intersection, dancing to the loudspeakers while looters walked casually by with arms full of stolen goods, while down the road, a Michael Jackson impersonator vigorously danced to “Earth Song” on top of a truck. His manager handed me a CD.

“What about us!/I can’t even breathe!,” the sound system blared, as people cheered.  

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“Fuck the police, and justice for Freddie and all, but this shit is ridiculous,” said one man as he walked around, filming the destruction on W. North Ave. on his phone.

A man who identified himself as Vernon ran up to me and told me flee the area. “I just saw a woman get beat real bad, you gotta get out of here,” he said, urging me towards the line of riot police holding ground at the intersection of W. North and Pennsylvania. The street was eerily empty. Residents stood in dismay at the destruction of their neighborhood.

Rioting began earlier in the afternoon as a rally organized by local high school students, believed to have been originally intended as peaceful. Police responded to the rally based on suspected anticipation of gang violence. According to the Mayor’s Office in information released Tuesday morning and reported by the Baltimore Sun, the city saw 202 arrests, 144 vehicle fires, and 15 burned structures since Monday afternoon. 

Carol Shaeffer

Residents of the Mondawmin neighborhood, where the violence first broke out, asserted that many of the rioters came from other parts of Baltimore City, coming in on the public transit system to specifically target the mall.

“There would be no Mondawmin if the police weren’t here,” said a 68-year-old man, who wished to remain unnamed. “The things [rioters] did, that had nothing to do with this boy’s death. I can’t tell if it’s anger at this boy’s death or if they just want to destroy. There are definitely bad cops, but I’m glad the police are here today.”

A woman sitting on her front steps, who identified herself as Annette, told me, “All this rioting and looting, it doesn’t make sense. This is just a riot.” 

“Yea they killed Freddie,” she continued. “Justice needs to be served, and those cops need to be put in jail. … Everyone they put in that paddy wagon, they never put seat belts on them. I’ve ridden in the back of a van, handcuffed. Never put on seat belts.”

Officials have condemned the violence as senseless acts. “This is not protesting, this is not your first amendment rights, this is just criminal activity,” said police commissioner Anthony Batts in a press conference Monday evening.

“Fuck the police, and justice for Freddie and all, but this shit is ridiculous.”

Repeatedly referencing the rioters as “thugs” and “criminals,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that a citywide curfew between 10pm and 5am would be in effect for a week beginning Tuesday night, lasting until May 4. She came under fire for comments made to the Baltimore Police Department, asking them to “give those who wished to destroy space to do that.”

Rawlings-Blake received little applause at the Gray funeral for her attendance, while her mayoral predecessor, Sheila Dixon, inspired a standing ovation, reflecting a sentiment of disapproval over Rawlings-Blake’s leadership.

A group of clergymen and other peacekeepers gathered and marched throughout western neighborhoods, linking arms and singing psalms of peace to calm the rioting. According to those marching, there was no official call to come together, rather an assembly of peacekeepers was gathered at the scene.

“I called my friend and told him I was coming down here, we were able to stop some kids from looting, and then we ran into this mass,” said 21-year-old Shaquayah McKenzie.

“Where are the adults as the vanguard? This is not how you get justice,” she added, echoing some of Commissioner Batts’ sentiments expressed earlier in the evening, urging parents to “take control of [their] kids.”

Councilman Nick Mosby of the 7th district suggested that members of the march “engage young people” to convert them to peaceful protest and non violence. Soon after, a group of young men on cars appeared, and a woman shouted as she entered the crowd, “These are the boys we need to save! He’s hurtin’! We gotta talk to him.”

“I’ve never seen a fire put out a fire. And that’s the way it’s going to have to be. That’s the way it’s going to have to be,” said one of the young men identified by the woman. “A lot of people don’t understand where the cause is from. Before it got here … we said if they ever kill an African-American in our city, we’re gonna wreck this bitch. I love where I’m from. I’m from Baltimore City. I love where I’m from. But we are not gonna take bullshit from nobody.”

The woman pleaded with him, “Come on, talk to me, but not with all the negative media.”

“Let him speak, ma’am! He’s speaking the truth,” another shouted.

“We got Bloods, Crips, [Black Guerillas], Latin Kings. Everybody that was beefing with each other is now united together to fight for this cause,” said the young man. “So we’re not doing this for nothing. We’re labeled Bodymore, Murderland for a reason. ‘Cause we don’t take no shit from nobody. Not the police, not white people, not nobody. … We fight for what we stand for.”

A man pushed through the crowd, hugged the young man and pushed him away from the interaction. The group called for moment of silent prayer.

Carol Schaeffer

As streets became increasingly blocked by lines of police, plumes of smoke and fire engines speeding through intersections could be seen in virtually every direction. 

By Tuesday morning, the streets had cleared and volunteer clean-up crews had taken to the streets as clergy members gathered again for psalms and hymns, praying to take the first step to rebuild the community.

Photo via Carol Shaeffer

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*First Published: Apr 28, 2015, 3:23 pm