They call it "organizing" for a reason.
Around 6 p.m., Rev. Westley West—the pastor at Faith Empowered Ministries, a church close to Gilmor Homes, and something of a rising leader out of the protests surrounding Freddie Gray's death in the hands of the Baltimore police—Abdul Salaam (who in 2013 was removed from his car and beaten by the same officers involved in the death of Tyrone West), and PFK Boom of Out For Justice quietly took a crowd of 60 or so down Riggs Avenue, away from the Western District police precinct and eventually onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
There, Salaam and PFK Boom began communicating to West and others to "tighten up." Throughout this improvised march, which would eventually go downtown to City Hall, then attempt to traverse I-83 and return to Gilmor Homes, this pattern remained: West's enthusiasm and energy leading the march, Salaam and PFK keeping the march from devolving into chaos.
West has become a controversial figure in the protests. Although his church is just blocks from Gilmor Homes, where Gray lived, there have been murmurs among some organizers since Tuesday, when West appeared to lead the march, that the reverend isn't to be trusted or that he doesn't know what he is doing. Wednesday night, Dr. Heber Brown III, a pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, tweeted an image of West and wrote, "This guy said some good stuff at MLK Boulevard part of march, but then tried to lead folks down 95 & up 83. Not good." (to be clear: West did not lead people down I-95, though I-83 was attempted—something which had been done successfully at previous protests).
When City Paper spoke to West on Tuesday, he explained the he knew Freddie Gray only as someone from around the way, though they'd "had words" and he said positive things about Gray as a "great man." West said he was not involved in Baltimore's Ferguson-related protests last fall but added, "People in the community are not happy with what's taken place, so, me being a pastor in the community, I heard the cries of the people that said, 'Hey, this is necessary.'"
He is also a bit of an entertainer. On Tuesday evening, he rushed through protesters along with the 12 O'Clock Boys like Sandy in "Grease." Some Googling reveals that late last year, he went quasi-viral when he told kids in his congregation to "nae nae the hell out" of their bodies—a reference to rap group We Are Toonz's playful 2013 hip-hop hit 'Drop That #NaeNae.' Video of kids in church doing the nae nae dance led website AllChristianNews to suggest West is a "buffoon," while The Root writer Yesha Callahan said, "I can't say I've seen kids that excited to be in church."
West knows how to work a crowd, but then again, he is a pastor and his passion is sincere. Maybe too sincere.
On Tuesday, West told City Paper that he wanted the march to walk the areas in which Gray lived. But he seemed to have become more ambitious by Wednesday, when he paused in front of the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue to allow everybody to catch up and then told the group that the police plan was "to have us in one area." But, he explained, they would move through the city. West began quoting Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, almost like a mantra, over and over, in the same hypnotic tone.
Where Pennsylvania Avenue meets Martin Luther King Boulevard, West stopped traffic and walked over to the street sign bearing the civil rights leader's name and pointed to it proudly. "Look what Freddie did to Baltimore," he yelled, and began quoting King again: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
People stuck in traffic began angrily honking. It was the first time that day the cars weren't honking in solidarity. Next, West directed the crowd to get in a circle and then he created a smaller circle inside. In the outer circle, a young kid, probably 12 or so, in a black hoodie and camouflage True Religion jeans, demanded "Fists up." As cars honked, he turned and glared at them, as other kids stared the stopped cars down.
"Our men are dying, our children are dying, I'm getting tired of it," West shouted.
Everyone sat down on MLK.
Then, West moved the crowd toward downtown, headed up MLK running between cars. Many of the kids moved ahead of West and it was the first of many times in which it seemed like he might lose control of the march, though he seemed unconcerned, a tight grin on his face as he ran. You could hear mothers telling their kids to go to the sidewalk if they got lost and telling them to find West or another leader if there was a problem.
At West Franklin Street and MLK, the crowd once again sat down. When the crowd moved on, a car driven by an older white man sped forward but was stopped by the crowd. Salaam yelled, "Hold the front line." The young boy in camo True Religions walked up to the front of the car and put his fist up. He demanded the white driver do the same. Other cars pumped their fist and were let through. This guy would not pump his fist. The police arrived and finally got the man through.
West took the crowd to Saratoga Street, then down Paca Street, and then across Pratt Street to the Inner Harbor. In front of the Gallery, West again stopped and instructed everybody lay down on the ground. West began running around, pumping his fists, dancing. He moved the chant to a rhythmic call-and-response, "We got what? Power!" Kids near and inside the Gallery moved towards the protest.
"These motherfuckers are serious," one kid joked with his friend. They joined in.
Next, West said they would move to City Hall, and he rushed up Calvert Street, a few boys on bikes ahead of him leading the way. At Calvert and Baltimore streets, a marcher lay down in the road, his arms behind his back as if they were handcuffed and West and others feigned kicking and stomping on him. At the end of Baltimore Street as the group approached the Baltimore Police headquarters there, a wall of officers stopped the protesters, who stopped cars on South Frederick Street.
West, inches from the police, told them that those that killed Freddie Gray should be "fired and thrown in jail," and added, "No more suspension with pay." He quoted Martin Luther King some more.
A man in a pick-up truck tried to burst through but was stopped by the crowd. The man rolled down his window and began pleading with the group. PFK Boom told him to "be patient."
"I have more respect for these protesters than they do for me," the driver, who told me his name was Tim, said. He continued on, "I don't come to their homes and do this."
When West finally moved the crowd up South Frederick toward City Hall, Tim once again tried to move forward. The police stopped him from driving behind the protesters.
At City Hall, West stood in front of the fountains and kneeled with a number of children. Photographers and news cameras ate it up. They also ate up a scowling contingent of teens mean-mugging and mimicking a cocking-a-gun-and-firing motion. Many looked on in disdain and others asked them to stop. As the crowd moved closer to City Hall towards the War Memorial, PFK Boom spoke to these kids for about 10 minutes, presumably telling them to chill out.
In front of the War Memorial, cops stood on the other side of a metal fence, a scene that recalled the Western District earlier: Police just a few feet away, the marchers yelling and pleading with the police who stood stone-faced. A wild-eyed white guy screamed, "Y'all a bunch of bitches." Teens nearby started laughing at him. A wiry teen smacked him on the shoulder, "you tell 'em, man." A white guy with a megaphone and a Che Guevara belt buckle stalked the periphery of the crowd and ranted, competing with West and others.
West, it seemed, intended to move the crowd back toward West Baltimore. The guy with the megaphone yelled "83!," and a few punks in hoodies concurred, so West paused for a moment and then shrugged and moved to I-83 via Gay Street. He appeared to be reacting to group rather than leading them. At some point around this time, Salaam and PFK Boom left the march.
"83 shut it down!" became the chant.
Police were ready at the I-83 ramp. West and a few associates ran to the front of the crowd to ease tension. A police car parked on I-83 turned into a bench for people who were just excited to touch or sit on a police car. One woman joked about pissing on the car. Finally, West moved the group off of the ramp, police at the end of the ramp moved out of the way and the group, which had lost its form, wandered towards Saratoga.
Others stayed behind. They wanted I-83. Kids began running through traffic on Gay.
"Pastor West! Pastor West!" a young woman screamed. "Someone get Pastor West!"
West at the front, near Holliday Street, turned and urgently dashed back. A group of people still wanted the highway.
"Don't turn back!" West yelled to those still under I-83. A few people were lying on the ground in protest, others were pounding on cars. These were almost entirely teens, some tweens. West got most people back onto Saratoga.
"Anybody left behind is part of the problem," a young woman yelled.
"Listen to your pastor," a woman declared, as West yelled for everyone to follow him.
Back on familiar ground, West moved the crowd up Saratoga to Pennsylvania and back to the Western District, a police helicopter spotlight following them for most of the walk back.