A group of young men from the Sandtown-Winchester area of West Baltimore lock arms as they approach the Western District police station, out in front of a large group of demonstrators – many of them also from West Baltimore – who were demanding answers, transparency and accountability in the death of Freddie Gray. (AFRO/photo by Roberto Alejandro)
“Y’all started this,” shouted one demonstrator as the crowd marched along Pennsylvania Avenue past Zion Towers, an assisted living facility housing a generation that knows a thing or two about marching for justice.
The crowd was making its way to the Western District station of the Baltimore Police Department, the same station where Freddie Gray was being taken the morning of April 12 when he suffered a broken neck while in police custody.
What had started as a rally beginning at the War Memorial Plaza, just outside City Hall, and headed by the Rev. Jamal Bryant was now well into its third hour. Bryant had long since disappeared, but a number of young residents from West Baltimore, mostly from the Sandtown-Winchester community where Gray had grown up, had taken over the leadership of the protest, marching from City Hall to the Edward A. Garmatz United States Courthouse on Lombard Street, then onto the offices of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby on E. Baltimore Street, followed by a trek through the Inner Harbor and past Federal Hill Park before turning westward on its way to the Western District.
Many commuters, stuck in their cars as the demonstrators slowed traffic, honked their horns in approval, appreciating that their delay was serving a greater purpose.
Earlier in the day, Bryant had called out Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts while speaking at the War Memorial Plaza.
“I want the mayor of the city of Baltimore and the police commissioner to know…we are frustrated at their negligence of doing an incredibly mediocre job at producing results for this community,” said Bryant to loud agreement from those in the crowd.
“So that everybody in City Hall and everybody in the police department can hear us, that no matter how many barricades they put up, they cannot stop the voice of people who are committed and determined to make a difference,” Bryant continued.
Bryant has been something of an inauthentic, if effective, voice in the demonstrations that have arisen in the aftermath of Gray’s death. He was nowhere to be seen as many community members and activists worked to reform Maryland law enforcement laws over the course of the recently-concluded 2015 legislative session, and it was not long ago that he presided over a forum at his Empowerment Temple, where he praised the mayor for her leadership on the issue of Black-on-Black violence, despite the forum failing to even touch on structural issues (like the role of police in poor Black neighborhoods) that contribute to the problem.
But Bryant has managed to do something in the past few days that city leaders have not: give voice to the frustrations of a community that has suffered for decades at the hands of a notoriously abusive police department.
Demonstrators also expressed frustration with city leadership, wondering why they have not managed to lead on this issue.
Asked what she would want to say to the mayor, demonstrator and West Baltimore resident India Bell replied, “She should be out here with us, supporting her people, the people that voted her in.”
“You need to step up and do your job or leave the position,” responded demonstrator Shai Crawley to the same question. “We are tired of doing this, and we are showing more concern than you are. You are the mayor of this city and we need you to step forward. We need you to be the head and not the tail, and I believe you are supposed to lead and shepherd this city and we have yet to see you do it.”
Nakia Washington, who lost her former boyfriend, George Booker Wells III, in a 2012 police-involved killing, said the mayor “has not been leading at all,” and that her message to the mayor was simple: “Jail killer cops now.”
As the demonstration was starting to wind down over at the Western District, a prayer vigil was being held close by at Sharon Baptist Church, situated more or less next door to the Gilmor Homes community where Gray was raised.
“We need some real leadership not only in Baltimore, but across this nation,” said Rev. Errol Gilliard from the lectern, before moving on to pray for the region’s elected officials.
“Forgive them for not getting a bill out this past session to protect your people from such hideous crimes. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Forgive them in the name of Jesus,” prayed Gilliard. He later added, “We don’t need the mayor, we don’t need the governor, we don’t need the legislature. We have what we need.”