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Many organizers at the forefront of protests are women, despite men taking center stage

City Paper

The struggle to control the narrative of Saturday’s protests is part of a much longer struggle for control over the narratives of marginalized individuals and communities in the United States. After hours of more than a thousand marching from Gilmor Homes to the Western District police station, to rally at City Hall, with no incident, a seemingly spontaneous march to Camden Yards during a baseball game triggered a series of events whose timeline journalists are still piecing together from video footage.

Many organizers at the forefront of the protests are women, and many members of the Gilmor Homes community with key involvement in the protests are very young people. On Saturday, women marshaled the march along, maintaining energy, leading chants from megaphones, and even ensuring that a female member of Freddie Gray’s family, who joined the march in her wheelchair, was able to stay on the front lines.

However, the visibility, or lack thereof, of black women in the protest narrative has also been problematic; early in the week, religious leaders explicitly called for men to march in front of women, for the purpose of protection, which the women in the crowd largely ignored in favor of a more egalitarian marching formation. Some male organizers made similar suggestions at Friday night’s small demonstration, stating that men should walk in front and on the sides of Saturday’s march to prevent women and children from being grabbed by law enforcement officials or hit by cars whose drivers became agitated during demonstrations that disrupt traffic.

A female member of Baltimore Bloc, one of the groups protesting the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, who wished to remain anonymous explained that this behavior likely occurred without people within organizations realizing their implications. A Baltimore organizer since 2007, and a marshal at Saturday’s protest, she said it is “kind of a natural habit to not realize the lack of acknowledgment of women,” but that those habits vary from group to group, and that media tend to focus on the presence and actions of men more than those of women.

For example, she marshaled protesters all day during Saturday’s protests, but noted the lack of images of her and fellow women marshals in media coverage of the events. Instead, many images of a dozen or so black men surfaced, decontextualized from the hours of peaceful marches prior to the return to Camden Yards after the rally at City Hall. This caused many groups and individuals, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to focus on the images of protesters clashing with the sports fans who antagonized them, placing the blame squarely on young black men. The organizer I spoke with simply stated that, regardless of how the rest of the day had gone and the vocalization of different people and groups, “Nothing mattered [in the news] after the riot.”

Tawanda Jones has long endured the repercussions of false narratives since she became an activist after the 2013 death of her brother, Tyrone West, 44, following a beating by Baltimore police officers. From attempting every available legal outlet to ensure a transparent investigation into her brother’s death, to being misquoted by Fox 45’s Melinda Roeder during a rally, Jones has firsthand experience that still affects her daily life. Doctored footage from a televised segment in which Fox 45 misquoted the chant “We can’t stop/ We won’t stop/ Till killer cops/ Are in cell blocks” as “We can’t stop/ We won’t stop/ So kill a cop” has caused Jones to receive multiple anonymous threats that continue to this day, along with repeated damage to her vehicle and inability to safely go about her day alone.

Qiara Butler, who works with members of Baltimore Bloc and other groups under the umbrella coalition of B’more United for Change, said that she became an activist after Tyrone West, her cousin, died: “My family . . . we’re mostly women, and we fight. We fight for what we feel is justice. We’ve gone through every avenue of government, and have had our requests and demands turned down. We’re hoping that, with Freddie Gray’s case, something develops and that justice trickles down to all those in the city affected by police brutality.”

“I feel like this has invoked something in people that they didn’t know they had in them,” Butler added. “When my cousin was murdered, it invoked me understanding who I am, and my purpose, and my spiritual purpose.” These protests have involved a large, diverse group of people united around a call for accountability, so messaging does occasionally vary between different organizations, but the overwhelming message issued from the greater collective remains the same. Saturday’s protest initially called for three separate marches originating from the Gilmor Homes community, but march leaders decided to consolidate the marches at the last minute and attempted to maintain order.

Jones said that she has seen the entrenched strength and presence of the women in the movement, including and especially on Saturday, and stresses the unity of those women in solidarity with victims of police brutality. “We’ve been consistent in what we’re doing. It’s not just Saturday, or last week. It’s been building up. Now that it’s out there, we have to keep going.” 

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