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How Have Baltimore Protests Stayed Peaceful? Activists Take Lessons From 2015

Jun 4, 2020
Originally published on June 4, 2020 4:24 pm

Thousands of people in Baltimore have joined multiple marches over the past week, mourning the violent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and calling for less funding for the Baltimore Police Department and more money for education, health and local groups in predominantly African American neighborhoods in the city.

The Baltimore Police Department is one of a handful of major city police departments that is currently operating under a federal consent decree after the Department of Justice found that the department has used violent and discriminatory tactics in poor and predominantly black neighborhoods for years.

"Police don't keep black communities safe," says Tre Murphy, the director of strategy and programs at the Baltimore-based group OrganizingBlack, which supports local activists.

Baltimore's protests have unfolded peacefully this week, unlike demonstrations that rocked the city in 2015 after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody of a spinal cord injury. That year, some protesters destroyed property, and Baltimore police reacted with tear gas, rubber bullets and widespread arrests.

Now, local activists who took part in the protests five years ago are supporting the young people who are organizing this year's demonstrations, and helping them avoid unplanned violence.

"You have thousands of people that came out and protested peacefully in a city like Baltimore, where we have so many grievances against the federal government, against the local government, against our policy makers and, most importantly, our police department," says Aaron Maybin, a Baltimore artist and educator who is supporting the young activists leading this year's demonstrations. "It's a testament to the strength of our community that decided that we weren't going to have a repeat of 2015."

Kwame Rose, one of the many activists who were arrested in the wake of the 2015 protests, says he is trying to help this year's protest leaders be strategic about how they express their rage.

"My role at these protests that have been happening in Baltimore is to say, 'Yo, express your rage,' " he explains, but at the same time he says he is trying to prevent people from acting violently at protests that are meant to be non-violent.

"As somebody who sees myself as a community leader, and I know people follow me, I'm going to make sure that they don't do anything to put themselves or the people at the protest in jeopardy or in harm's way," Rose says.

That means putting his body on the front lines again. On Monday night, armed with a face mask and a megaphone, Rose, Maybin and a handful of other local leaders and activists joined a large, peaceful demonstration organized by local black teenagers.

The march closed part of a major highway in the city and proceeded to Baltimore City Hall, where it ended around 6:30 p.m. But as the evening continued, a group of demonstrators lingered. At least one person set off fireworks near police.

"We were kicking people out," who were acting violently, Rose says. At one point, a group of demonstrators walked someone who they thought had set off a firework over to a line of police, effectively turning him in to the authorities.

In the wee hours of the morning, the police warned protesters to disperse, and Rose got on the megaphone and asked demonstrators to leave. "Go home," he yelled. "We proved our points. We did what we came here to do tonight. Do not turn this into something it does not have to be."

"I've been where you're at, five years ago," he says, referring to the 2015 protests. "I'm telling you, tomorrow we come back. We show again."

Murphy says Baltimore's past experience with protesting police brutality offers strategic lessons for those in other cities. People acting as peacekeepers, such as Rose, can help protect those who organize protests from being blamed for violence or property damage that occurs after the protest is officially over.

Murphy also says Baltimore's experience offers lessons for the news media and for those watching protests unfold from afar.

"The narrative cannot be and should not be about 'How do we keep it peaceful?' Versus, you know, violence or property damage," he says. "The narrative in this moment has to be, 'How do we fix these issues so that people aren't angry?' "

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Like many cities across the country, Baltimore has been full of protests all week, and they've been peaceful. While thousands of people are marching in the city, mourning the death of George Floyd and protesting police, longtime activists are using the moment to pass on lessons they learned in 2015, when violent anti-police demonstrations rocked the city. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Baltimore residents have marched at least half a dozen times in the last week. The biggest demonstration was on Monday night.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter.

HERSHER: Thousands of people closed part of a major highway downtown, calling on the city to spend more money on education and health and less money on the police department. Artist and educator Aaron Maybin helped advise the teenagers who organized the peaceful protest.

AARON MAYBIN: That's not only a testament to the strength of our kids, but it's a testament to the strength of our community that decided that we weren't going to have a repeat of 2015.

HERSHER: A repeat of 2015. That year, a 25-year-old named Freddie Gray died in police custody. Years of police violence and intimidation in majority-African American neighborhoods boiled over, and people took to the streets. Some people damaged property. The police reacted with widespread arrests. Kwame Rose was one of the people who marched in 2015.

KWAME ROSE: I became kind of known as the face of protest in Baltimore.

HERSHER: Rose has spent this week not sleeping, trying to prevent the kind of unplanned violence and arrests that happened five years ago.

ROSE: I don't want young people going to jail. There's too many black people in jail as it is and especially during a pandemic.

HERSHER: To be clear, Rose supports the protests happening across the country, violent and otherwise. For one thing, he says, mass demonstrations work. After 2015, the federal government sued the Baltimore Police Department for using discriminatory and violent tactics. The department is slowly trying to change. This week, Baltimore Mayor Jack Young thanked the police department for controlling crowds and said anyone who breaks the law during a protest will be arrested.


HERSHER: On Monday night, long after the official march was over, some people lingered downtown. Police donned riot gear. At least one person set off fireworks. Police warned people to go home or be arrested. Rose got on a megaphone. A reporter from The Baltimore Sun reported what happened.


ROSE: Go home. We proved our points. We did what we came here to do tonight. Do not turn this into something it does have to be. I've been where you at five years ago. I'm telling you. Tomorrow, we come back, we show again.

HERSHER: Most people left after that. Tre Murphy, the director of the local group OrganizingBlack, says it's important for people watching from afar and for the national media to not focus too much on whether protests are peaceful or not.

TRE MURPHY: In this pivotal moment right now, the narrative cannot be and should not be, how do we keep it peaceful versus, you know, violent versus property damage? The narrative in this moment has to be, how do we fix these issues so that people aren't angry?

HERSHER: Baltimore activists say they're ready for this moment and for the long-term political organizing that will follow.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.