In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, photos and video of a city in flames played on a loop in the national media, spurring fear and leading distant viewers to believe that Baltimore was burning for days. Those in the city felt the impact of that fear—in the crowded police presence at protests and the inconsistently imposed curfew. But those of us on the ground, especially those who came out to march, also felt a surprising and tangible sense of hope. So much has been made of a city on fire—but hope was another flame.
On Monday, April 27, youth in school backpacks were confronted by police in riot gear, and anger and frustration erupted for a night. But the next morning before the sun had even fully risen, community members were on the streets cleaning up. And later that day the peaceful protesters were marching again. Hundreds, maybe thousands of protesters marched through Baltimore every day that week, so many of them that standing at the front of the line you couldn’t see the end. Some held signs, while others handed out granola bars and water bottles. That’s the kind of place Baltimore is—fierce, resilient, the kind of city where, the day after riots, people march, and when they march they bring snacks.
I didn’t witness the clashes with police, which to my knowledge were largely confined to the post-9 p.m. hours when the curfew was being enforced. The mood at the marches was one of solidarity and resolution. Protesters learned call and response chants by heart: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it, shut it down.” Sometimes it felt strangely like a celebration. At a rally at City Hall on Friday, after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s press conference, the mood was festive. New signs created that day read “Convict all 6,” and “Thanks, Mosby!” (This sign included a hand-drawn portrait by some speedy artist.) That evening, after marching from the Inner Harbor to West Baltimore and back, citizens young and old, black and white, could be seen doing the Wobble on the lawn outside City Hall.
The marches led some lifelong Baltimoreans into parts of the city they had never visited. They marched next to people they might otherwise never have met, and in some cases, felt the presence of police in a fundamentally different way than they ever had before. This is important. We at OSI-Baltimore think of change as the transformation of policies, practices and beliefs. For so many reasons, it is people’s beliefs that can be hardest to influence. To me, it’s these moments of empathy and resolve, grown from shared experience, that can catalyze the meaningful change that we need. As passionate minds come together to focus on solving intractable problems and bridging deep divides, let’s remember this.
On Saturday, May 2, I walked with a friend to a free concert by the cast of the musical ‘Marley’ at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues—the site of the burned CVS that has become the heart of the protests, or as one of our Community Fellows called it, “Baltimore’s Tree of Souls.” On the way we saw National Guardsmen in helmets and goggles riding a tank down the middle of the street raise their hands to wave at a little girl in a yellow dress with white beads in her hair. The walk was longer than we thought, but we made it in time to hear about half of the concert. Towards the end, the cast launched into “Three Little Birds.” We stood at that now symbolic corner and watched strangers from all over the city with their arms around each other swaying and singing along to the music: “Every little thing is gonna be alright.”