BALTIMORE – As Freddie Gray lay dying in Maryland Shock Trauma Center in late April, before news of his eventual death was made known to the media, a group of activists was planning their next steps to curb police brutality in Baltimore.
Earlier in the spring, the young activists had suffered defeat at the hands of the Maryland State Legislature where seventeen bills concerning police accountability and voting rights for ex-felons had been introduced in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., killing of Michael Brown. Only one of the 17 bills passed. It has yet to be signed into law by the Republican governor.
Naming themselves Baltimore United for Change (BUC), the new group was composed of labor and grass roots organizations such as SEIU 32BJ and 1199 SEIU, the Algebra Project, CASA, AFSC Peace by Piece Project, Jews United for Justice, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and others.
When news of Gray’s death hit the streets, the new coalition went into action, building their social media network, organizing and participating in street marches, providing a place for youth to go when the schools shut down, calling a mass planning meeting the first night of Baltimore’s curfew, mobilizing resources to provide food for thousands in areas affected by the unrest, and raising bail money for arrested protesters.
On May 1, the day State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against the six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest and death, BUC organized a boisterous, celebratory march of several hundreds, winding through downtown Baltimore from Mosby’s office to a rally at City Hall where the State’s Attorney’s decision was applauded. The speakers and artists from Baltimore’s African American, Latino, white and faith-based communities called for unity and for further peaceful actions.
Then this past Monday, May 11, BUC organized a mass meeting at historic Metropolitan United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, not far from where Gray was arrested and fatally injured. The more than 800 people who jammed into this “house of resistance” as it was described by the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in East Baltimore, spent several hours being encouraged to keep up the pressure for change.
“We are an immense tent as broad as the City of Baltimore, with the purpose of making a better city, state, country and world,” Pastor Brown said. “Ella Baker’s spirit is alive tonight and strong in Baltimore. When Ella met with someone she would ask, ‘Who are your people? What’s your granny’s name? What line did you come from?'” Brown then told the crowd to turn to someone in the next pew and to find out something about them.
Brown explained that the BUC coalition partners have a strong track record, rooted in struggle: They were instrumental in stopping construction of a $104 million youth jail in Baltimore city several years ago; they have been involved in the fight for low-wage workers; during the current protest they found food and shelter for thousands of people in mosques, churches and barber shops when local stores closed down, and they raised over $100,000 to help get hundreds of protesters out of jail on bond. Contributions for bail are still needed.
Delegate Jill Carter, “one of the lone voices” fighting for police accountability bills in the 2015 session of the Maryland General Assembly, was introduced by Dayvon Love, researcher and public policy director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a moving force behind BUC.
Carter explained that amending the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) which, among other things, allows police 10 days after an incident to make their statement, must become a priority of the movement. Ninety-nine percent of the time there are no charges brought against the police, she said, even though in recent years 2,600 people here, injured in a confrontation with police, have had to be taken to the hospital before being taken to Central Booking. “We need to put people before police,” she said.
Speaking on behalf of the Tyrone West family, Tyrone’s sister told the crowd that his family has been working for 662 days to get justice for her brother, who was beaten to death by police on a Baltimore sidewalk July 18, 2013. “People don’t see what the families go through,” she said. “This system we’re fighting is real ugly.”
Then the featured speaker of the evening, philosophy professor and activist, Dr. Cornel West, was introduced. “Any time people are catching hell and give me a call, I am willing to be there,” West said. “When my brothers in Palestine give me a call, I am willing to be there. When I got a call from Bmoreunited, I came. Rev. Heber Brown, he’s my kind of Baptist revolutionary pastor.”
“In America rich kids get taught, poor kids get tested,” West said. “As the country privatizes education, as we militarize police departments and as massive amounts of money get shifted to the wealthy.”
Weaving musical references into his speech in an evening that included song and spoken word, West admonished the crowd, “Don’t allow the corporate media to distort what’s going on in the city that produced Billie Holiday. As the Isley Brothers sang, we’re a ‘Caravan of Love.’ That’s what the Black freedom movement has always been.” And, speaking of the hard coalition work to come, he stated, “This is not a military band. This is a jazz orchestra. We have to learn how to sustain this movement by disagreeing amiably and then coming together in unity of purpose.”
People left the Metropolitan United Methodist Church with an invitation to come back for the church’s next session of nonviolent civil disobedience training. It was a busy day in Baltimore. In another part of the city people were rallying to urge Governor Hogan to sign that one bill of 17 that passed the state legislature-the bill allowing 40,000 former felons in Maryland to vote upon completion of their incarceration.