#BaltimoreUprising

Editor’s Note: #F contributor Aisha Springer lives and works in Baltimore; below she writes about her experience of life in Baltimore during and since the Uprising. Also see the curation here of the evolution of hashtags used to organize the movement in Baltimore.

Since the cameras have left Baltimore, the national media has instead focused on other parts of the country dealing with racial tension and tragedy – unfortunately, there have been too many just in the past two months from McKinney, Texas to the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. While we mourn and process the death of the Charleston 9, we continue to see the interconnections of racism, police brutality, and aggression against black lives in different forms throughout the country.

Since the Baltimore uprising, the mood in the city has been tense, apprehensive, expectant, and hopeful all at once. The grassroots are trying to capitalize on the surge of passion and increased attention around the social problems they have long been fighting against. And there was a surge of passion. Big Brothers Big Sisters reported a 3,000% increase in mentorship inquiries within 36 hours. There has been a slew of town halls, panel discussions, and planning meetings to determine next steps for reform. Though the passion has died down to a degree, those who may have previously been (or still are) apathetic residents living in gentrified bubbles have been forced to confront the reality of the city they’ve adopted as their own. In order to sustain increased passion and awareness, it’s important to make sure the issues raised aren’t erased from public discourse. We must all remember what can happen when police brutality, poverty, inadequate public education, lack of fair housing, insufficient job opportunity, and the underlying structural racism is allowed to continue.

On Saturday, April 25 I met friends and co-workers at a rally to support justice for Freddie Gray and police reform. Peaceful protests had been taking place for days, but only after the events of the following Monday night would the country take notice. We met in front of the Western District police station, not far from Gilmor Homes where bystanders had taken cell phone video of 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s arrest on April 12. That encounter led to his spine being 80 percent severed, his larynx crushed, and the public demanding answers and accountability from the Baltimore Police Department.

Around 3:00 pm, we began marching from the police station in Sandtown-Winchester towards City Hall in downtown Baltimore. Men, women, and children marched together carrying posters and shouting chants that protesters now know by heart: “No justice, no peace;” “All night, all day, we will march for Freddie Gray;” “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” When we passed through intersections, blocking traffic, drivers honked and held up their fists in support.

Protesters shared the experience with the hashtags #FreddieGray, #JusticeforFreddieGray,#Baltimore, and #BlackLivesMatter.

However, these were not the images that dominated the media. Saturday evening, a relatively small group of people smashed police and civilian cars and destroyed property, and peaceful protestersclashed with baseball fans outside Camden Yards.

On Monday April 27, rumors circulated of a 3:00 p.m. “purge” at Mondawmin Mall led by high school students. BPD also released a “credible threat” that members of the Bloods, Crips, and BGF gangs would unite to kill police officers- stories that the majority of media outlets ran with without bothering to investigate further. (Watch video of gang members’ response to the rumor.) As a result, many schools, businesses, and government agencies closed early.

Before students were released from school, police shut down buses and the subway system near Mondawmin Mall, a public transportation hub that many students use to get home. Children left school only to be met by officers in riot gear and armored tanks. Those who had never planned to be part of any “purge” were left with no way to escape the situation. According to eyewitnesses, police in riot gear marched towards groups of kids to disperse them, though many had no way to leave the area. Then a few kids threw rocks at the approaching officers. This is the point in the story where the mainstream media would have you think the problem began. The situation escalated from there and spread to other parts of the city, setting off a night of riots resulting in 15 structure fires, 144 vehicle fires, and 200 arrests.

That night, I was at home after a day of peaceful protest. It was surreal to watch the very same streets I had marched through become battle zones in front of the nation’s eyes, knowing many people watching would never know or care to understand the full story of what was happening and why. Visceral reactions to destruction of property outweighed any sadness or anger over the taking of multiple lives by police, which was the reason for the destruction in the first place. While it’s valid to be upset over the destruction of businesses, the prioritization of property over lives speaks to the dehumanization of poor black and brown people that is at the root of this country’s worst social problems.

It was extremely frustrating to witness the way the media portrayed events when I had just seen a very different picture. The narrative on mainstream media was predictably different from what was being reported by on-the-ground activists, journalists and witnesses. It says a lot about the state of media and journalism today that I received a fuller perspective of what was occurring from a select group of Twitter users than from CNN or even some local news stations.

In light of this one-sided account, activists sought to shift the media narrative and reclaim Baltimore’s story. The hashtag #BaltimoreRiots was replaced by #BaltimoreUprising. “Uprising” acknowledges the decades-long history of state violence and inequality of which residents of Baltimore neighborhoods like Gray’s have grown weary, while riots focus on the brief, yet destructive actions of a few, with no context or thoughtful examination. As President Obama said, this is a “slow-rolling crisis…this is not new.” Freddie Gray’s death followed by provocation, rather than answers, from authorities were just the catalysts that tipped Baltimore over the edge.

Protests have been peaceful before and since the unrest on April 27. Though it was difficult to watch Baltimore reach this point, it was inevitable given the reality for so many in Baltimore and in no way worse than the constant violence inflicted on poor black communities. National and international attention turned to the struggle of impoverished city residents and the police brutality epidemic that community members have been working to end. On May 1, Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death have received criminal charges, but activists are not placated. Charges do not ensure convictions and neither ensure systemic reform. This is just a first step. Fallout from these events and the same long-term challenges remain.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake finally ended the 10:00 p.m. city-wide curfew on May 3 after appeals from activists, community members, business owners, and civil/human rights organizations such as the ACLU and Amnesty International. Complaints of unequal enforcement, lack of necessity, adverse impact on businesses and vulnerable populations, and the denial of due process rights for those arrested were among the arguments for its end. Twitter campaigns run under the hashtags #EndTheCurfew and #BreaktheCurfew worked in tandem with continued protests and advocacy work.

Now that the dramatic footage of fires and looting has run out and the National Guard and police no longer line the streets, national media outlets have left the city to pursue other stories. Here in Baltimore, community members hope some good will come from this experience by creating a sustained focus on improving the lives of the city’s poor and marginalized people. Marches and rallies continue, as well as advocacy work, planning meetings, and town halls to determine next steps.

As a Baltimore resident involved in social justice work, I am aware of the challenges that stem from institutional racism and marginalization of the poor, leading to justified feelings of anger and powerlessness. But what stood out the most for me during the weeks after Freddie Gray’s death was the incredible strength of the Baltimore community. That includes the people who show up each day for marches, community leaders who provided lunches to students when schools were closed, residents who cleaned up the streets after Monday night’s destruction, and others who continue to contribute their time and skills in any way they can. #BMoreUnited encompasses this spirit; we are now even more united in this longstanding struggle and are committed to seeing it through together. This is not only a time to amplify our voices for justice, it is also a time to show love to our Baltimore neighbors. In an environment where poor black and brown lives are devalued, ignored, and taken with ease, the act of showing love and genuine concern is in itself a revolutionary and transformational act.

(Originally published on Hashtag Feminism)

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace [Book review]

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The recession may have caused people to question the notion of a college degree as the ticket to success, but another true barrier is often forgotten. In his book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs shows that the effects of growing up in a poor, violent neighborhood run much deeper than what can be solved by any degree.

Peace was raised in East Orange, New Jersey, by a mother who struggled financially. When Peace was a child, his father was sent to prison. Despite these challenges, Peace excelled in school and attended Yale University. But the drive to provide for those in his life followed him through college and well after graduation. He sold marijuana off and on throughout the years and at age 30, was shot dead.

Hobbs (who was Peace’s friend and college roommate) uses the events of Peace’s life to remind us how the education, housing, and criminal justice systems apply differently to low-income people and how poverty has insidious effects on mental and emotional well-being. As brilliant as Peace was, intellect was not enough to overcome the influences that ultimately contributed to his death.

(Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of STAND, the ACLU magazine)summer2015

#BlackGirlsMatter Too: Ending the Exclusion of Black Girls

Earlier this month, the African American Policy Forum released a report, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, written by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a Columbia University law professor. The report provides data from Boston and New York public schools on the ways girls are disciplined depending on race. Not surprisingly, girls of color and especially black girls are exposed to harsher punishment and at a higher frequency. Though more boys are suspended than girls overall, racial and gender disparities are significant. Black males were suspended three times as often as white males, while Black girls were suspended six times more than white female students.

As a result of zero-tolerance policies applied with gender and racial bias, students of color are removed from their learning environments and unnecessarily exposed to the criminal justice system, something referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Girls in particular face unique challenges when it comes to zero-tolerance policies that don’t allow for individual discretion by a teacher or counselor. Sexual trauma and harassment, high incidence of interpersonal violence, teen pregnancy, and family responsibilities contribute to emotional, behavioral, and practical challenges that affect a girls’ school life.

Excessive discipline cases have been making the news for years now, bringing the issue to light. Recently, video footage from a Baltimore middle school shows the beating and pepper-spraying of three girls by a school security officer. In 2014, a Detroit honor roll student was suspended during her senior year for accidentally bringing a pocketknife to a football game, and in 2007 a six-year-old Florida girl was arrested for having a tantrum. This report is the first of its kind to bring attention to the fact that girls of color are nowhere near exempt from harsh treatment and it does not make sense to focus policy on boys alone.

News coverage of stories like these helps to inform a wider audience of issues facing Black girls and the AAPF report includes a social media campaign to do the same. The hashtag #BlackGirlsMatter tracks the conversation on Twitter and has produced thoughtful responses regarding Black girls in the school-to-prison pipeline, the gender and race biases that cause this disparity, and the way Black women and girls have long been left out of conversations on addressing racially biased policies and practices.

An important fact raised in the report is that girls are largely excluded from current efforts to break down the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s generally thought that boys suffer worse consequences than their female counterparts, and unfortunately, this myopic thinking influences policy. While the overall number of Black men who are the direct victims of a racially biased criminal justice system is higher than the number of Black women, this often translates to a complete disregard for Black women and girls. Just as it is possible to address the difficulties officers face in policing while at the same time holding them accountable to the public, it is also possible to tackle the needs of Black men and women at the same time. Outside of the Black feminist community, not enough attention is paid to Black women and girls who suffer the same injustices, but are not acknowledged.

Black feminists have increasingly been pushing back on this type of thinking and their outspokenness has spurred real-world action. Women leaders of #BlackLivesMatter protests have made a conscious effort to include the names of Black female victims in protests to make sure their lives and deaths are not ignored in the process. In 2014, when President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper program, feminist scholars, organizations, and activists including Alice Walker and Rosario Dawson, signed onto an open letter. The letter made a clear point: leaving out Black girls perpetuates the myth that girls are doing just fine and ends up neglecting them to the detriment of the entire community. Also publicized by the AAPF, the letter and its topic were discussed on Twitter using the hashtag #WhyWeCantWait and has become a full campaign to realign MBK.

Stereotypes of Black women contribute to the erasure of Black girls from the conversation about excessive use of force and discipline. Historically, Black women have endured racial and sexual abuse and fought tirelessly for justice, but despite their many contributions have been relegated to the sidelines in public.

Now, in the age of social media activism, Black women activists have an expanded platform to resist these entrenched biases and insist that Black women and girls be considered and involved in policy decisions. Hopefully, this is a continuing trend and we see a greater understanding and concern for the future of Black girls in this country.

(Originally published on Hashtag Feminism)

#ReclaimMLK: Reclaiming Our History and Future

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was different than those in recent memory. The visibility of police and vigilante murders of black Americans changed the way we engaged in MLK Day this year, and possibly for years to come. Using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK, Ferguson Action planned and encouraged protests around the country from January 15-19 as a way to reclaim the true intention of Dr. King’s work. As Danielle Belton wrote in The Root, “Somewhere between his assassination and today began an MLK-neutering campaign meant to turn the famed agitator’s holiday into a national Day of Service, a generic mishmash of good feelings that contorts King’s social-justice legacy into a blissful Hallmark card of post-racial nothingness.”

Protesters around the country staged die-ins, marches, and blocked highways, shopping outlets, and even brunches. A long list of hashtags tracked these actions including #ReclaimMLK, #MLKalsoSaid,#BlackLivesMatter, #ShutItDown, and #ICantBreathe. 

This refocusing of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has been a long time coming. For years, Dr. King has been presented as an icon for the nebulous feel-good ideas of peace and unity or used as a commercial ploy, ignoring the radical nature of the Civil Rights Movement and what King’s beliefs and actions really meant. Even in his nonviolence, King was so threatening that the FBI zealously monitored him and other civil rights leaders.

Fast forward to today, when media figures and others who oppose many of the things Dr. King stood for- workers’ rights, reproductive justice, criticism of capitalism– praise him as a national hero while co-opting his true message. Each year, we can expect to hear pundits and politicians justify their beliefs by claiming that, if he were alive today, Dr. King would agree.

Rosa Parks is another of the most well-known civil rights leaders and rightly so, although not for the reasons most of us were taught in school. Like King, Parks’ image has been distorted to fit popular culture. As a black woman, Rosa Parks has been put through an additional layer of sanitizing to make her acceptable to racist and sexist power structures. As Danielle McGuire writes in her book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, Rosa Parks wasn’t just a quiet old woman who refused to get out of a whites-only seat on the bus because her feet were tired from a long day of work. She was “a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an anti-rape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott.”

Her decision to resist segregation wasn’t a result of tired feet, but of a lifelong defiance and ingrained belief in the right to fair treatment. Her story was co-opted not only by white power structures, but also by a patriarchy that requires a civil rights heroine to take on a saintly image to be effective.

As we see in the erasure of Dr. King’s radicalism, Rosa Parks’ fierce lifelong activism, Maya Angelou’s unapologetic past as a sex worker, and so many others, we cannot count on others to tell our stories. This generation is capitalizing on the ubiquity of social media to demand that our history is neither revised nor repeated.

(Originally published on Hashtag Feminism)

First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School [Book review]

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Those who know of Washington, D.C.’s Dunbar High School likely view it as one of the city’s failing public schools, hardly a piece of national history. Alison Stewart, a journalist and daughter of Dunbar graduates, proves otherwise in First Class. At its height Dunbar attracted an outstanding faculty and produced a long list of accomplished graduates despite intense racial discrimination: Charles R. Drew established the blood bank, faculty member Carter G. Woodson became a noted author, historian, and journalist, and civil rights activist and faculty member Mary Church Terrell was one of the first black women to earn a college degree. As society changed, however, so did Dunbar. Today, the newly remodeled building bears the socioeconomic weight of its neighborhood, but also holds a newfound hope for the future. Stewart’s personal and compelling examination shows how long-term under-funding, politics, and social factors shaped the Dunbar of today–a theme all too common among urban public schools.

(Originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of STAND, the ACLU magazine)summer2014