Photo By Anna Evans-Goldstein '10
Photo By Anna Evans-Goldstein '10

A Witness to Baltimore

By Anna Evans-Goldstein '10 | September 1, 2015

I’m surrounded by teenagers whose emotions are running high, attempting to hand out slips of paper with the local Jail Support number on them when a rock hits me squarely in the chest. Shit, that hurt, I think, scooting towards a nearby bush for shelter. A rubber pellet whizzes by my head and down the block I see a cloud of pepper spray billowing towards the sidewalk. A 30-strong convoy of police cars, shiny black SUVs, a van, and an armored tank race down the street while the screaming crowd hurls rocks at their windshields. I size up the situation and realize: it’s time to get the hell out of here.

I’m not in Fallujah, I’m not in Damascus, and I’m not in Cairo. I’m in Baltimore City, Maryland, my hometown, on Monday, April 27, 2015, the start of what the national media would dub “the Baltimore riots.” But the sensational media narrative of a city dissolving into violence was a lot more complicated on the ground. Baltimore may have burst into flames that day, but the city has been smoldering for a long time.

The spark was the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from an impoverished neighborhood on the Westside. On April 12, police stopped Gray on the street; he ran. They chased him, caught him, and arrested him for carrying a small lock-blade knife. The police cuffed him and loaded him into a van without buckling him in, and then made several stops, constituting what is referred to as a “rough ride,” before ending at the station. In between running from the police and the final destination, Gray’s spine was 80% severed. He died from complications a week later.

I grew up in Baltimore. Since graduating from Reed, I’ve worked in some of its most impoverished neighborhoods supporting residents’ efforts to transform vacant lots into community gardens, urban farms, and pocket parks. After Gray died, I decided to volunteer as a legal observer through the National Lawyers Guild. My job was to watch the protests objectively to ensure the legality and safety of all those involved.

Except for Riot Monday, the protests were peaceful. Protesters marched for eight hours on Saturday, April 25, with remarkably little presence from law enforcement. But after nightfall, police started using increasingly aggressive tactics involving riot gear and mounted horses. I saw at least six people pepper sprayed; two youths break through the windshield of a cop car; and a line of 50 police officers in riot gear charge at protesters, banging their batons against their shields and shouting, “Move back!”

It was with some apprehension that I responded to the call for a legal observer at Mondawmin Mall on what became Riot Monday. I had just left a meeting downtown and decided I could stop by on my way home. I parked my car half a block from the mall and walked towards the screams and the smoke. The crowd consisted largely of students from nearby Frederick Douglass High School—most of them from the same neighborhood as Gray. I was the only white person within view who was not wearing a police uniform. The mood was powerful, unfocused, and angry. Apparently the police had heard about a note that had allegedly been passed around at the school that mentioned the movie The Purge, where all criminal activity is legalized for a 12-hour period. The authorities’ reaction was to: 1) shut down public transportation to Mondawmin, which is right next to the high school; 2) let school out early; and 3) flood the area with police officers in riot gear. The students spilled out of school to find all buses gone, the subway stopped, and a line of riot police blocking their way home, prepared to confront them as if they were the enemy.

This is what ignited the violence. The youths spread out over a large area to get around the police lines and were joined by adults as they made their way towards Pennsylvania and North avenues—the focus of the Gray protests. As night fell, a number of storefronts were vandalized and some looted. The media pounced on the narrative of the “riots in Baltimore.” In succession, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced a curfew and Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard. The police borrowed officers from as far away as New Jersey. For the following week, Baltimore was an occupied city, locked down. Ignoring the peaceful protests from the weekend before, the week of nonviolent marching the week after, talking heads on both national and local news shows lamented, “What a shame, why did they destroy their neighborhood?”

If there’s one thing that I learned at Reed, it is to look at context, whether that’s hermeneutics, history, family structure, or political configuration. So what is the Baltimore context? One third of the city’s residents earn less than $25,000 a year; 20% of families live below the federal poverty line; unemployment stands at 15%. Baltimore has a longstanding and serious problem with drug addiction, as depicted by the HBO show The Wire. Racist housing practices such as redlining, blockbusting, and restrictive covenants translated into de facto segregation and some of the worst economic mobility in the country. Between the 1950s and today, Baltimore City lost more than one-third of its population during a period regularly referred to as “white flight.” It is often said, “People left the city and forgot to take their houses,” leaving whole blocks of abandoned houses and vacant lots.

Did the people of Baltimore destroy property on Riot Monday? Yes. But the national conversation we ought to have is about the destruction of black lives. While the media zeroed in on the storefront looting, it downplayed or ignored the discrepancies in income, housing, opportunity, and health— the frontal assault on black lives in Baltimore symbolized by the death of Freddie Gray.

I will never forget the week my hometown became a police state. My chest constricts and my throat clenches when I think what it felt like seeing armored vehicles and M16s on my walk to work. But the bitter truth is that many Baltimoreans live their lives under the steely glare of the police, knowing that a chance encounter could end in death.

It may sound strange, but I was proud of my city during the uprising. While the internet crackled with broken glass, I saw people from rival gangs standing side by side holding peace signs. While news anchors deplored the descent into lawlessness, I watched hundreds of volunteers pick up trash and deliver supplies. I saw medics protecting protestors, and legal observers waiting outside the jail to provide support for those arrested. I saw coalitions forming around essential fights. The issues facing Baltimore are enormous and complicated. But that doesn’t mean we give up—that means we get educated and get working.

Anna E. Evans-Goldstein ’10 was a religion major at Reed and runs the Community Greening Resource Network in Baltimore City.

Tags: Alumni, Service