On Saturday night, Barack and Michelle Obama gathered with some of the country’s most well-respected journalists, comedians and celebrities in Washington, D.C., for the White House Press Correspondents Dinner, an annual event notorious for poking good-humored fun at the current administration. Praising the Secret Service, Saturday Night Live star Cecily Strong quipped that the presidents’ guards are “the only law enforcement agency in the country that will get in trouble if a black man gets shot.”
Strong’s words, met with applause, were eerily resonant as — less than 50 miles away — protests against police brutality and systemic racism threatened to shut down Baltimore, Maryland.
On April 12, Baltimore police chased down 25-year old Freddie Gray after he had “made eye contact” with officers. The exact cause for his arrest is unclear, though police report that he was (not illegally) carrying a knife in his pocket. Post-arrest cell phone video shot by an observer shows Gray limp, the result of a broken leg according to one observer, and screaming out in pain as officers dragged him into the back of a police van. He was held inside the vehicle for 30 minutes, emerging afterwards with severe injuries; Grey died in a hospital one week later, on April 19. At the time of his death, Gray’s spine was 80 percent severed at the neck and his voice box had been crushed.
Michael Corleone is an organizer with SEIU 32BJ. Before moving to Baltimore in January, he co-founded and was an organizer with Florida’s Dream Defenders — a group with which he still remains active. He described West Baltimore, a predominately black area of the city, as “an occupied zone,” where police cars sit on virtually every block and police harassment of residents is a daily occurrence. While the city’s police department is relatively diverse, those who patrol West Baltimore are overwhelmingly white.
“The folks out in Baltimore,” Corleone explained, “have been dealing with this for a long time and they’re finally fed up, which is a beautiful thing to see.”
In a press conference, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “I want to know what steps need to be taken for accountability.” So far, six officers involved with the arrest have been suspended with pay, as the Justice Department has announced it is reviewing the case for possible civil rights violations. Gray’s family has called for an independent investigation. Even the city’s police commissioner, Anthony Batts, admitted on behalf of his department that Gray should have received medical attention immediately following his arrest.
News of Gray’s death sparked massive protests in the city last week, the latest flare up in the ongoing movement for black life. The largest action happened on Saturday, when an estimated 400 people marched from the West Baltimore public housing development where Gray was arrested to the Inner Harbor, the city’s well-kept and tourist-friendly downtown shopping district. Marching through neighborhoods, the rally — called by Gray’s family and the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly — gained participants throughout the day, eventually swelling to upwards of 4,000 people.
“There’s not one organization that’s leading all of the actions,” Corleone said. “It’s mainly a community effort … It reminds me of when I went to Ferguson, because it’s not one organization getting people in the street.” He called Saturday’s march a “unifying atmosphere,” drawing out people who had never participated in protests before. Twenty percent of those, he estimated, were middle school or high school students. As in other Black Lives Matter demonstrations, protesters laid down in the street, shutting down traffic. According to Corleone, “It was a very organic type of thing in which people who have never taken up the struggle were out there on the streets leading chants, telling everybody to be out there.”
In the early evening, a few hundred protesters broke off from the larger group, damaging police cars and storefronts. Meanwhile, Baltimore Orioles fans were instructed to stay inside the stadium. Six officers suffered minor injuries and 34 demonstrators were arrested in total. Baltimore’s police union, ironically, likened protesters to a “lynch mob,” which is what many commentators have called the police who carried out Grey’s murder.
“When you have 4,000 angry people in the city,” Corleone explained, “who are already upset because they feel like the people in power aren’t hearing them, and you put all these police officers on the streets, it sets a bad energy — one that’s not going to mend the relationship.”
Battalions of police banged their batons on the ground, and reportedly laughed at protesters mourning Gray’s death. One image, strikingly similar to the climax of Selma (both the historical Alabama civil rights showdown and last year’s film), depicts a wall of police garbed in riot gear charging towards protesters attempting to run away. To Corleone, the police’s actions on Saturday demonstrated that the department has “no interest in having a good relationships with the people who live there, especially African Americans who live in Baltimore.”
Predictably, descriptions of Sunday’s events in the media followed a familiar script: Peaceful protest descends into violence, with many — including the city’s police department — chalking property destruction up to “outside agitators.” The Washington Post’s headline read, “After a peaceful start, protest of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore turns violent.” CNN reported, “night scuffles,” while the Guardian presented a slightly more measured account: “protests turn violent as police and crowds clash.” Less reported on was the fact that one-third of the city’s police department reported for duty, joined by officers from surrounding towns. “If anything,” Corleone said, “it was the police who were outside agitators.”
Events continued into Monday afternoon, when teenagers gathered after school for a demonstration at Mondawmin Mall were met with a line of riot cops in full regalia. On police order, Baltimore’s public transit system was shut down, leaving hundreds of students trying to get home yesterday essentially trapped in front of cops “marching toward any small social clique of students who looked as if they were just milling about,” in the words of one area teacher. Skirmishes, almost predictably, broke out between cops and protesters, with government-issued tear gas entering the fold shortly thereafter. Nearby, scattered groups of demonstrators sacked area business and set vehicles aflame, with sporadic acts of vandalism continuing into the night. In response, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has declared a state of emergency, and Baltimore Public Schools have been closed for the day.
These demonstration, “violent” or otherwise, were not lynch mobs. Nor were they the product of some dastardly outside agitators determined to brew up criminal unrest in the so-called Charm City. In light of the estimated 4,000 people who gathered peacefully on Saturday, calling the day’s events a “riot” is an overstatement. Still, riots do happen. Regardless of where you stand on the question of nonviolence, though, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that planned and strategic direct action — as the old anarchist saying goes — gets the goods. Sniping at people acting out their all-too-justified rage is beside the point, especially in light of the well-documented, pervasive violence faced daily by black Americans. That said, holding up on a pedestal the handful of protesters who throw trash cans onto police cars doesn’t move anyone closer to challenging the racism deeply woven into the fabric of the United States, especially in light of the fact that Fox News is fond of playing the same clips on repeat. It also distracts from the massive and coordinated efforts of organizers who have executed highly disruptive acts of non-cooperation around the country over the last several months to assert that black lives do, in fact, matter.
Far more than providing basic welfare benefits, protecting workers’ rights or safeguarding the environment, the state is absurdly deft at using violence — the genesis of its so-called legitimate monopoly on the use of force. Short of assembling a guerrilla army with resources capable of, for starters, rivaling the $495.6 billion budget of the Pentagon, non-state forces don’t stand a chance in a street fight with the state. Where violent protest challenges the state on the terrain it knows best, truly disruptive and militant nonviolent direct action holds the potential to catch it off-guard.
Saturday night, the Baltimore Police Department posted a message on Facebook, saying, “We are continuing to facilitate everyone’s 1st amendment rights to be protest [sic] and be heard. Please remain peaceful.” Peaceful, though, is a misnomer in this context. It stirs up faulty images of roaming, patchouli-clad bands of hippies, flashing peace signs at the National Guard. Nonviolent direct action, on the other hand, is something else entirely, and hardly as amenable to the status quo. As writer and Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates aptly wrote, “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself.” Let’s not confuse the establishment’s calls for sanitized nonviolence with the tools engineered to confront them, honed into an art by civil rights movement leaders like Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, Diane Nash and countless others confronting the same systemic injustices that killed Freddie Gray.
As Kingian nonviolence trainer Kazu Hagu wrote on Facebook after Saturday’s protest, “When the violence you’re responding to is so extreme, the nonviolent response to that has to be equally as extreme.” He continued, stating that, “The path to a true, just, positive and sustainable peace is a loud, messy, uncomfortable road … Nonviolence can be as militant, disruptive and assertive as violence, and if folks who are calling for ‘peaceful’ responses don’t realize that then there’s a loud wake-up call coming.”
When asked what might be next for organizers in Baltimore, Corleone said he thinks the city’s demonstrations “can serve as a flashpoint for cities that are bigger to rebel and say no to police brutality and fight for a movement that’s going to keep going.” Nonviolence is not only a state of being, but a course of action meant to be waged rather than merely preached. Make no mistake: in the hands of the grassroots — not the police and city officials trying to quell them — it is a weapon.