This is What Democracy Looks Like: A new generation of activists emerges from the turmoil of the Ferguson and New York grand-jury decisions

City Paper

When the protestors took a step back, the police stepped forward. It was 24 hours after a grand jury in Missouri failed to indict a police officer for shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, and violence was about to erupt between Baltimore Police and the protesters who had been shutting down the city’s streets for most of the day, in one of the biggest demonstrations that Baltimore has seen in years. 

The protesters, who had just shut down I-83, were now about to disperse down Fayette St. An officer said “We need a skirmish line” and the police—both Baltimore City and state—lined up to block Fayette Street, refusing to let protesters pass. Many demonstrators rushed toward the line of police and the scene was getting chaotic as people began yelling at the officers. “We can walk wherever we want,” one protester said. 

“Let’s push through,” someone else yelled. 

Joseph Kent, a 21-year-old Morgan State student who had led a group down from campus, and Tré Murphy, an 18-year-old organizer with the Baltimore Bloc, who is a student at Bowie State University, positioned themselves between the crowd and the police. Kent, whose voice was hoarse from chanting and singing, took the megaphone. “There is no walking this way,” he said. “This is not up for discussion.” Kent, wearing a bright yellow coat, a black cap, and gold fronts on his teeth, is a charismatic figure who was at the center of much of the  day’s protests, but the crowd, both weary and angry, was still surging towards the police line.

“Everybody back up,” Murphy, who wore a red X on his cheek, yelled.

“Back up,” someone else yelled.

“No justice, no peace,” someone chanted, trying to get the crowd to march away again. 

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was standing nearby during the stand-off. “So far, people are just expressing pain,” he said to City Paper as a man, who appeared to be intoxicated and wasn’t wearing a shirt, stormed toward him. Batts interrupted himself and stepped back. Three leaders of the Baltimore Bloc, who were known as marshals and were wearing red Xs on their backs, ran up and grabbed the shirtless man and pulled him off as he was yelling. Batts disappeared into the sea of uniforms.


Kent, who would later be described by longtime organizer Rev. Heber Brown III as “Martin Luther King with tattoos and gold fronts,” and Murphy did not know each other until earlier that afternoon, both part of a new generation of activists who have arisen out of this tumultuous historical moment. 

Though it formed earlier, the Baltimore Bloc grew up around the protests surrounding the death of Tyrone West, a 44-year-old African-American man who died of issues from an exacerbated heart condition after being beaten in police custody in 2013. Though it was offically deemed that the Baltimore Police Department was not responsible for his death, West’s family and a group of supporters have continued to maintain that the police beating killed him.  “West’s family had joined together with community people because of the injustice that had come across the city,” said Murphy, who started organizing when he was 14. “They said, ‘hey, we have a real problem here,’ and then a small group of folks committed to working on a long term strategy to work on police brutality.” But, Murphy says, to really tackle police brutality, they have to tackle the structural racism and oppression at the heart of the anger surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, which was greatly compounded by the police shooting of a 12-year-old African American boy, Tamir Rice, in Cleveland on Nov. 22, only days before the grand-jury decision was announced.

“This is what democracy looks like,” the crowd chants as Joseph Kent and an unidentified woman lie on the ground at the Monument Lighting. ( J.M. Giordano )

“Baltimore Bloc had begun to convene a week before the [non-]indictment came,” Murphy said. “We sat down at the table to see what our response would be . . . and we decided that either way we were going to take to the street because there was this issue of systematic oppression that we can’t remain silent about and we have to begin this larger conversation.”

Kent, on the other hand, was not an activist. He organized open-mic nights rather than protests.  But he was galvanized by the failure of the Missouri grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mike Brown.

“I was watching it on TV at home when they made that decision,” Kent said. “The next day I came up to Morgan. A lot of people was having side conversations and they were talking about it so I was like we we can’t let this happen, it’s unfair to our people, and just because it’s in Ferguson don’t mean that it won’t happen in Baltimore, Maryland. So after that we got a lot of people together and said we have to let ourselves be heard.” 

Kent says the group that gathered at Morgan State on Nov. 25 had initially intended to stay near the university and later get rides downtown to meet up with the Baltimore Bloc protest that was meeting at City Hall. But the first march kept gathering people as it moved from the campus to Cold Spring Lane to York Road to Greenmount Avenue and finally onto St. Paul Street, and they ended up walking all the way to City Hall, where the Baltimore Bloc was mobilizing people.

Murphy was the lead marshal at the City Hall protest. He says there were two primary concerns: “How do we keep our folks safe because of heavy police presence? We have seen police will shoot and kill based off instinct,” and “How do we make [the] most meaningful impact that we’re not going to tolerate police brutality anymore?” 

There had been protests in Baltimore in August, when Officer Wilson first shot Brown, but they were rather small. But when prosecutor Bob McCulloch sounded more like a defense attorney than a prosecutor as he announced that Wilson would not be indicted, the sense of pain and outrage, both in Baltimore and around the country, was immediate and palpable. It felt like something had to happen. In Baltimore, small groups began to protest that night, but most began to plan for a national day of action, billed #ShutItDown, for Tuesday evening. 

When City Paper arrived at the protest at about 6 p.m. on Nov. 25, both sides of the street at Fayette and President were blocked by hundreds of people and Baltimore City police were joined by a phalanx of state police officers, who stood in a line across the road, everything bathed in the flashing red and blue strobes of police lights. Helicopters circled overhead. The crowd chanted “No justice, no peace. No racist police” with real anger—the last bit eventually morphed into “fuck the police.”  

One African-American woman in black boots and pink leggings stood with both hands flipping birds at the cops as the chant turned to “Hands up, don’t shoot. No justice, no peace. Fuck the police.” The chant was growing louder. People were angry.

“This is bullshit,” one Baltimore police officer muttered to another. But most stood by stoically. 

“Can’t stop, won’t stop,” the crowd chanted. “Til killer cops, in cell blocks.” 

“Let’s go!” Murphy said, leading the march along its intended route. “They got these streets already blocked off.” 

The call echoed through the crowd, which began to march towards the Harbor. 

Morgan State University protesters blocking Cold Spring Lane on Nov. 25 ( J.M. Giordano )

After the march made its way to the Inner Harbor and back to President Street in front of the police headquarters, a large group began to push onward up onto I-83. At the same time, another group, the People’s Power Assembly, which organizes around labor and social-justice issues, was closing down streets in other parts of the city.

“Lock arms, lock arms,” Murphy said. He was joined by Duane “Shorty” Davis, a well-known homeless advocate and activist, Abdul Salaam, an activist and mental-health worker who was pulled from his car and beaten by police in 2013 shortly before the death of Tyrone West, and Joseph Kent. 

“In advance we had planned out the march, but when we got on the ground and we noticed that we had to apply more pressure, things began to change,” Murphy said later. “One of the police officers tried to incite an argument with one of our protestors, so that puts most of the community folks over the edge, we’re right here by a highway we’re going to have to take the highway because it’s clear that our lives still don’t matter.”

The decision to take 83 split the protest, as some marchers went in the other direction. When Murphy’s group reached the exit ramp, the marshals began to yell “Come on, come on, get that ramp!” People rushed to the side to make sure cars could not exit. Police lights formed a line in the distance. The highway into the city was closed.  

Standing with the marshals in front of the crowd on I-83 with an “Anonymous” Guy Fawkes mask on the back of his head,Shorty connected Ferguson with Baltimore, where a series of Sun and City Paper stories have drawn attention to expensive settlements over police misconduct. “If you look at this crowd, there’s black people, white people, Hispanic, Indian, it’s multiracial and multicultural,” Shorty said, gesturing. “You got people dying in Ferguson but you got people being killed here in Baltimore, Maryland and the State’s Attorney won’t prosecute these dirty cops. They killed Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson, you beat Abdul Salaam, you even tried to lock me up for exposing the corruption here. But I’m still out here. I ain’t going nowhere. We’re gonna shut you down, believe that.” 

As the protest began to leave I-83, Kent and Murphy organized rides for various student groups to get back to their campuses. Coming down the bridge, they walked past the two remaining tents at Camp 83, where a number of homeless people had been living under the overpass, bathed in a dirty yellow light.  

As they came down onto Holliday Street, a car gunned the gas briefly, looking as if it was going to accelerate and hit some of the protesters who were blocking the road. Immediately, a large group began yelling and shouting. But when one man ran over the top of the car, the Baltimore Bloc marshals took control of the situation and got the crowd moving again. “There are kids in the car,” one said.

“No violence, no violence,” another said. “Keep moving. Keep moving.”

Video that Baltimore Bloc later posted shows the man in the car pull out a metal object and wave it. “Yo motherfucker’s got a gun,” someone yelled. “You got a gun?” Baltimore Bloc put a caption on the video: “‘Zimmerman’ pulls out a gun and points it at the protesters.” 

A moment later, Kent, who says it was not a gun, but a knife, approached the car and leaned over to the window.

“Hands up, Don’t Shoot.” ( J.M. Giordano )

He says he was thinking about how he had been told that CNN’s coverage of the Morgan State protest earlier in the day had referred to it as a “riot.” He didn’t want that to give anyone any excuses. 

“He was about to get out of the car with a knife,” Kent recalled later. “I went up to the window and apologized on his behalf and our behalf and I apologized on behalf of us as a unity . . . Even if the driver of the car was wrong it wasn’t right for the young man to run on the car. That little action could have turned a rally into a riot.”

The car turned and moved on, but the group had to address the issue, which was when Kent took the mic. “We been peaceful all day and now everyone want to show your ass,” Kent said. “We’re not here for that.” 

“That’s a contradiction,” a woman shouted at him. “Because [the driver] tried [to hit us]. Do not, do not, do not blame this on us!” she screamed. Others started yelling. The group seemed on the verge of losing control. 

Then Murphy took the mic. “I need everybody quiet. Everybody. We went all day doing nonviolent protest. We went all day making a statement. Morgan folks been out since the morning. Some of us been waiting for this, we’ve been waiting for justice,” he said. “And we ain’t about to mess it up. If you can’t march in peace and nonviolence, then you gots to go. I’m gonna say that real clear. You gots to go. And if anybody, anybody starts any violence, we just going to single you out and you got to go.”

“They the ones who violent. They gotta go!” someone yelled.

“Hold on one second,” Kent said. “For the lady who was just here, don’t misinterpret.” Then he walked through the throng and approached her and they talked quietly. Then the group began to march and chant again.

“I talked to her personally,” he said later. “Because how she was talking it was being direct to me and not to the people, so I got direct back to her. I didn’t want her to misinterpret me and what I was saying. Our whole message of being out there was positive and order being aggressive to our message but having peace and no violence.”

After this encounter,  the weary protesters went to Fayette Street where they continued arranging rides when the police would not let them pass the skirmish line.

Kent found himself standing between the police and the protesters. “They were face to face where they could actually touch each other,” he recalled. “I didn’t want anyone to get touched and take it the wrong way. The police took one step back and the people took one step back and I was in the middle.”

Kent said that, at that moment, it felt like “the whole city was on my back and I was just carrying the whole city,” but he is quick to add that it is not about him. “This is not about me or the individual but the purpose we are out here.”

 Still the purpose or cause—the reason why they are out there, the racial injustice that seems to permeate American society—has awakened a generation of individuals such as Kent.  

A woman chants Directly in front of the stage at the monument lighting ( J.M. Giordano )

“It is a spontaneous moment that has captured the imagination and the rage of a lot of people,” said Cullen Enn, a Red Emma’s collective member and one of the central figures in the Occupy movement. “But it also exists as part of a continuum of ongoing structural organizing and protesting. There is West Wednesdays, which has been going on for a long time. There is a lot of organizing from the Baltimore Algebra Project, which is an institution which is primarily led and operated by black youth although those black youth are in some ways black elders and they are helping guide the younger generation coming up—a combination of youth and newness along with people who have been doing work for a long time—people like Rev. Heber Brown.” 

A week later, on Dec. 2, older activists converged for a teach-in at Red Emma’s organized by Rev. Brown and Loyola professor Karsonya Whitehead to help focus the energy of the new generation that was energized by Ferguson. The event, which was initially intended to be a discussion of Whitehead’s book “Rethinking Emilie Frances Davis: Lesson Plans for Teaching her Civil War Pocket Diaries,” filled the Station North bookstore to capacity, with people standing outside in the rain with their faces pressed against windows onto which the words “#BlackLivesMatter” and “RIP Mike Brown” had been written. After introductory remarks, the event broke off into small groups, where more experienced organizers discussed specific issues: Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) spoke about police civilian review boards, The Balmore Bloc spoke on body cameras, and Kent led a group for student organizers. 

“I think it’s great that these newly excited college students are working with the people who have been on the ground for a long time, so they don’t have to reinvent things,” Adam Jackson, one of the leaders of LBS, said. 

But on these smaller points, around which the teach-in was organized, there is not always wide agreement. Enn, who was working for Red Emma’s at the teach-in, for instance, is skeptical of body cameras for police.

“I think it’s comforting to think that we can find a technocratic solution to white supremacy,” he said. “This comes along in a way and it seems like a gift to us—monitoring police. Having police self-monitor in order to make them more accountable. History has shown us—and current reality—that more tools, more things in the arsenal, more technology, has not made policing more humane and ultimately it has not led to the incarceration of fewer people. I can’t fathom how the idea of giving surveillance technology to police is somehow a gift to the movement. It seems like a gift to the police.” 

Though Commissioner Batts strongly supports body cameras for city officers and the City Council passed a measure that would require them, Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who also supports body cams, vetoed the bill over its details and implementation.

And things on the ground change quickly. Though the Baltimore Bloc led the break-out group on body cameras, after a New York grand jury failed to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the New York officer who was filmed choking Eric Garner to death as he repeatedly said “I can’t breathe,” the group tweeted, “Just to be clear FUCK body cams.”

Whatever uncertainty some may have seen in the Mike Brown case that caused the Nov. 25 protests, the inability of a New York grand jury to indict Officer Pantaleo on Dec. 3 increased the outrage and the accompanying moral imperative. People who had been indifferent could no longer look the other way. Something had to happen. 

Joseph Kent has been described as “Martin Luther King with tattoos and gold fronts.” ( J.M. Giordano )

“Anyone who is on the fence, that doesn’t work anymore,” Murphy said after the announcment that there would be no indictment. “If you’re not with us you’re against us. Neutrality doesn’t work at this time because you send the message that things are OK.” 

Still, the injustices were coming so quick and fast that the various activist groups scrambled to respond. On the night of the Garner grand-jury announcement, there was a small protest of a couple dozen in front of the Northeastern District Police Station by Morgan State University, the 71st consecutive week that West Wednesday had brought people out to protest the death of Tyrone West. But it was small and lacked the momentum of the Bloc march the previous Tuesday. 

Micah McClain, a member of the Black Student Union at MICA, where racist graffiti in an elevator had prompted a wide-ranging discussion of race on campus the previous week, organized a group to march to the Monument Lighting. “As terrible as it may be we used this negative experience, as oppressed people and black people, and we took that moment of hate and built on it,” McClain said of the momentum that grew up after the graffiti—which read “Kill black people” and “Negroes”—was discovered on the predominantly white campus. “It was something that provoked us, that put us into action. We had to respond as black students, as a student body, as a faculty, as anyone who truly believes progressive change can happen.”

The People’s Power Assembly organized another march beginning at McKeldin Square. Murphy said earlier in the day that some of the Baltimore Bloc activists would go to the McKeldin march, but that many would not be present, in order to take part in a larger national organizing conversation. 

Ultimately, all of these groups and their marches would converge at the Monument Lighting, an annual holiday event in which the city takes much pride. 

On Dec. 4, the night of the Monument Lighting,the protestors locked arms and blocked the road when they reached Mount Vernon Place Square on Cathedral Street. “All the way to the wall, all the way to the wall,” Kent was shouting as the crowd chanted “hands up don’t shoot.” Kent began to lead the crowd in a song he had first heard at the first Morgan State protest, but which had, by now, become familiar. It is both calming and inspiring.  “I got a feeling/ I got a feeling/ I got a feeling,” the voice of the group rose collectively.  “That somebody’s trying to hold us back/ and it ain’t gonna be no shit like that.” 

“We don’t want no cussing,” he yelled. “No cussing.” 

An officer approached Kent, who bent down to listen. “He tells me he is going to give us one minute before he starts arresting people,” Kent said. Officers on horses towered over the crowd. A saxophone played a Christmas song. 

“We’re not going nowhere,” someone said

“Fuck him!” another yelled. 

“Take us to jail.” 

It looked for a moment if there would be a confrontation, when Kent, on the megaphone directed the crowd to the side. 

“This way,” Salaam said. “Come on, we’re going this way.” He started to lead the marchers through the park, past the tinsel and lights and the lines of people waiting at food booths, toward the well-lit stage in front of the Washington Monument, now draped in lights rather than the scaffolding which has covered it the past several months.

“At a time people get a little emotional,” activist and mental-health worker Abdul Salaam said of the protests, “because it’s an emotional movement, but coming from my background [in mental health], I understand that I can’t let egos get in the way of the ultimate goal.” ( J.M. Giordano )

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” the protesters chanted as they walked east through the park crowded with revelers sipping hot beverages, and situated themselves on the front row, lined with police. The Roland Park Country School a capella ensemble had been singing, but their music became inaudible and eventually they stood silently on the stage.

“There’s a cuss word at the end of that song,” Kent said just before leading the group in song again. “We don’t want no cussing. There’s kids out here and people old enough to be your grandmother. So at that point in the song, say ‘stuff.’” 

The group started singing and clapping. “I got a feeling” echoed around the park. Kent waved a flag. Some of the hundreds of people packed into the park for the monument lighting looked on bemused. Others clapped along. “I got a feeling/ I got a feeling/ somebody’s trying to hold us back/ but there ain’t gonna be no stuff like that.”  

When the Morgan State University Choir came on the stage wearing long blue and orange robes, Kent spoke to them. “I’m a Morgan student too,” he said over the microphone. “If you don’t see my face up there, I’m with you. I’m definitely gonna let y’all sing. But until then . . .”

He faded off. Various chants sprinkled through the crowd but none caught on. 

A woman stepped forward on the stage and began to sing Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the World.’ Her voice rose up above the crowd and silenced it. “There’s a place in your heart and I know that it is love,” she sang. 

The members of the choir, bathed in light, raised up their hands, part “Hands up don’t shoot” and part “Praise Jesus” as they sang. The protesters and some of the revelers followed suit and held theirs up in the same way, swaying along. 

After that song, people started to chant again. “No justice, no holiday” and “I can’t breathe.” 

“Shush” one of the protesters yelled out as the group—or rather groups: MICA, PPA, and Baltimore Bloc all seemed to have different agendas—broke up in confusion as to how to proceed. 

“This is a protest,” Kent replied. “People want to protest.”

“Listen to the song they are singing,” another man yelled at him, in his face. “Listen to the song they are singing!” 

“No Justice, no peace. I can’t breathe!” people chanted. 

The collective voice of the choir tried to rise above the melee. 

“They’re singing about these things,” the first man said again.

“How do you know what they’re singing about?” Salaam, wrapped in an American flag in Pan-African colors, asked the man. “You understand it. European? That’s opera stuff, you don’t know nothing about what they saying.” 

But Kent seemed to have been swayed. “Listen!” he said, trying to quiet down the crowd. But it was, perhaps for the first time that night, out of his control. 

( J.M. Giordano )

“No justice, no peace! No justice, no holiday.”

These small differences—which also played out later in the night as the groups shut down Penn Station—show many of the difficulties of organizing when different groups and different individuals with different purposes and different backgrounds come together for common action. 

Soon, the group led by Kent and Salaam began marching again, heading first back to the Cathedral St. side of the park, where the police had a large line set up. Kent laid down as if dead, eyes closed and draped in an American flag. 

“Show me what democracy looks like,” Salaam chanted. 

“This is what democracy looks like,” the protesters responded and he pointed at Kent. 

As this part of the group marched down Cathedral Street, their signs bobbed in the air like corks on the harbor and the police rushed along the sidewalks beside them. Some of them kept going. Others turned on Centre down to St. Paul, while still others, largely the MICA contingent, it seems, remained at the Monument Lighting.

Shortly after the largest group of protesters left, the city set off the fireworks, around 7:25, about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Two of the scheduled groups did not perform. The Morgan State Choir left the stage with their hands raised. The mayor did not speak. 

As the protesters arrived at Penn Station, police locked the doors. In a bizarre sight, dozens of officers made a line in front of the Man/Woman statue. Again the police and the protesters were facing off when Kent stepped in to take charge and asked the protesters to take a step back. “In fact, take two steps back. We’re gonna relax,” he said.

“This is bullshit,” said a white kid with a keffiyeh scarf over his face. “That guy’s working with the cops and every time something starts to happen, he breaks it up.” 

At another moment, a white protester with a megaphone started chanting in police faces about fighting back. Salaam ran and grabbed him by the arm and walked him over to the side. Salaam himself was chanting in police faces a few moments earlier—but his chants were not violent. “At a time people get a little emotional, because it’s an emotional movement, but coming from my background [in mental health], I understand that I can’t let egos get in the way of the ultimate goal,” Salaam said later. 

At another point, in a moment of silence, people in the back began chanting and he started to run toward them. “They’re agitators, they got to go,” he said. Then, it became clear they were just excited. The chants died down.  

A police radio rang out. Kent walked up to the officer. “Excuse me, sir,” he whispered, gesturing at the radio. The officer looked embarassed and turned his radio down. 

Once again, Commissioner Batts stood off to the side. 

“We’re getting better at it,” Batts said when I approached him. “The Baltimore Police Department is not used to crowd control and what goes on with crowd control. So we’re learning as we go. We’re getting better at giving space.”

( J.M. Giordano )

One of the Baltimore Bloc organizers, with a mask on his face, approached. 

“Stop walking up on me all the time,” Batts said jokingly.

“Who me?” the organizer said.

Batts turned back to me. 

“I started off at Light and Pratt and got in the crowd and talked to some people to let the people know I understand what they’re doing and allowing it and trying to build relationships, not be adversarial,” he said as a Foxtrot chopper flew low overhead and a drum joined in with the cheers of the couple hundred protesters standing in front of the station. “What we’re we’re trying to do now is hand out behavior notifications about what we will and won’t allow, so they understand we won’t let them block traffic and shut down the city, we will facilitate them doing their First Amendment rights and giving them enough space to do it, and we will try to open up communications on the front end so if we need to stop traffic so they can accomplish what they need [we can], but we’re not allowing them to shut down freeways, that’s not going to happen. That’s where we draw the line.”

“What will you do to stop it?” I asked.

“I’ll say ‘pretty please, don’t do it,” Batts replied.

“Last night, y’all brought the batons out,” said the Bloc organizer, referring to the small protest in front of the Northeastern District headquarters.

“Can I have you a minute,” a detective said, grabbing Batts by the arm and steering him off. 

Commissioner Batts talks to a protester at Penn Station ( J.M. Giordano )

As the protesters marched away from Penn Station, it was clearthat both sides are learning as they go and that a new generation of leaders, on both sides of the blue line, is rising up. 

As the protests made their way down Calvert Street toward City Hall, they blocked the intersection at Calvert and Centre, in front of The Sun building, making a circle around two people covered by flags, lying on the ground. “Show me what democracy looks like,” Salaam chanted, waving his flag in the cold night air. Someone played a snare drum. Salaam, Kent, and the other Bloc organizers in the center of the circle were dancing a bit, feeding off the energy. “This is what democracy looks like,” the crowd chanted. 

“They need to see this,” Kent said pointing down at the bodies. “They need to see this.” Red and blue lights flashed. Helicopters flew over the street. “This isn’t for fun. This is serious. This is what democracy looks like.” 

The chanting began again. “Show me what democracy looks like!” 

This chant is so effective because it describes the contradiction of American democracy. On the one hand, young black men such as Mike Brown and Eric Garner can lie dead on the ground, while their killers do not face trial.But, on the other hand, hundreds of people can take over the streets in self-regulated protests which remain peaceful. 

“This is what democracy looks like.”  


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