Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of a Missouri grand jury's failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And a year ago today, Baltimore erupted in protests—along with cities around the nation—decrying the lack of police accountability.
On Nov. 25, 2014, here in Baltimore, hundreds took to the streets at various demonstrations around the city—a turnout that was surprising and sudden. Much of the City Paper staff was also out there reporting, of course. We were talking to activists, documenting the marchers, taking the pulse of residents. It was obviously news, but it was more than that; it was the right place to be with far-reaching personal and political implications. Brown's death that August and the police state that popped up in Ferguson in response to protests already had me questioning the point of doing arts criticism—but it is also when our paper began to understand these were not merely demonstrations: This was the rise of a movement we were witnessing. We had conversations the next day that were just loose "something is happening here" speculation. That night felt like more than just a sudden reaction to one more unarmed black man's death.
That night, as I wrote about in my column here, I went to the march because I felt like I should go but by the end of the evening, as a group gathered at the corner of MLK and Pennsylvania, and then looped through West Baltimore and back to Station North, it was clear this was something bigger. The next day, students at Poly staged a sit-in and about a week later, activists blocked Mount Vernon Place Square and interrupted the Monument Lighting. So City Paper's Baynard Woods knocked out a cover story on the burgeoning protest movement titled "This Is What Democracy Looks Like," which artfully explored the moment as it was happening. It's my belief that journalism, even when it takes a wide-screen view of current events, should do its best to diagnose simply what things look like right now, rather than speculate on it further and ask what the end game is. And indeed, Woods' piece, along with photos by J.M. Giordano, did this expertly. It was a snapshot of the movement as it was figuring itself out, when many weren't sure if it was even a movement yet.
But Woods and Giordano's work was prescient. Woods' piece anticipates what would come to be known as the Baltimore Uprising. In Woods' story, you'll meet Joseph Kent, described by Reverend Heber Brown III as "Martin Luther King Jr. with tattoos and gold fronts," who would later become a hashtag when he was scooped up by police live on CNN in April. Then there's Tre Murphy, part of the Baltimore Algebra Project and one of the 16 arrested at the City Hall sit-in this October. And the conversation among a close group of activists, who insistently drew attention to the 2013 death of Tyrone West while in police custody, became a discussion about police brutality that the whole city engaged in last spring. Prominent at those early Ferguson-related protests was Abdul Salaam—a man arrested and beaten by the same police who were handling West when he died in police custody—waving a Pan-African flag. City Paper saw him at protests in the days after Gray's death as well.
I witnessed Salaam and PFK Boom (also present at the protests last fall) safely assisting a group of protesters led by the often-unpredictable leader Westley West. On April 25, too, I watched Salaam and Boom talk down a rowdy white protester, and part of me, perhaps naively, still believes that maybe those two, if they had been in the right place at the right time, could have prevented the initial violence of Saturday, April 25 downtown (nothing, it seems, could have prevented what happened in Sandtown that evening when police seemingly went after anybody and everybody they could).
In December of last year, the protesters began their complicated relationship with the media. Baynard Woods and I were present at a Dec. 13 protest, which moved through the city and became a strategic battle between protesters and police both on the ground and on social media. Then, a few days later, Fox 45 would misquote Tawanda Jones, sister of Tyrone West, and claim she chanted "kill a cop" (which she most certainly did not) at a protest in Washington, D.C. In the days since, she has continued her weekly "West Wednesday" protests near the Morgan State campus—and occasionally at the courthouse and City Hall—reminding people of Tyrone West's death in police custody.
A year later and the death toll continues to rise. Last night, many watched (or chose not to watch and just consider) the shooting of Laquan MacDonald. Police released a video of Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting the 17-year-old from Chicago. The teen, armed with a knife, appeared to be walking away from police, but was shot by officer Jason Van Dyke 16 times. The video was finally released, but it took more than a year for the public to see it. Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder and protesters, after viewing the video, took to the streets in Chicago last night.
Here in Baltimore, protesters are also gearing up again—and residents across the city are wondering how police will handle the situation. Last year, when Baynard Woods spoke to Commissioner Anthony Batts during the Monument Lighting demonstration, he asked Batts what he would do if marchers attempted to traverse I-83 again. "I'll say 'pretty please, don't do it,'" Batts told Woods. A year later, we have a new commissioner, Kevin Davis, who has declared that he will "treat a riot like a riot and a protest like a protest," though as I said in our Protest Issue, I'm not sure if he and BPD really know the difference. Davis had said that protests will not be allowed in the street—though both the 300 Men March and the Trans Remembrance Day march were recently allowed in the streets, so maybe protests are allowed in the streets when the police decide say they are.
On Monday, Nov. 30, jury selection for the Freddie Gray trials begin. It will bring with it more protests and more conversation about police brutality. The Baltimore Uprising continues.