This past weekend I went up to Baltimore with friends. We went on Saturday, May 2 which on social media was being called #BlackSpring, for a big gathering and protest at Baltimore City Hall. When we arrived, we went down to the Inner Harbor to relax a bit before the afternoon. But standing around the touristy part of the city were dozens of National Guard members and police in military gear, holding assault rifles, hopping in and out of armored cars, and generally acting like they were in a war zone. TWH
We went because our friend Ryan Herring, who I worked with for a year at Sojourners, was coming home to Baltimore for the weekend and he invited us to join the protest and march. Ryan grew up in Baltimore, and since his year at Sojourners ended he’s been (from my perspective) all over the country, in the thick of the #BlackLivesMatter movement – in Ferguson, in Louisville, and on occasion, he graces us with his presence in DC. The last time he was in the District a dozen of us met at a friend’s house to get updates from the road and ask him about the movement.
Ryan has taught me two basic takeaways from what’s going on these days (well, other things too but I’ll start off simple): one, there is a movement, and it’s being led by young black Americans like Ryan. Two, Twitter is, in Ryan’s words, integral.
Those of us who came up to Baltimore from DC met Ryan in the crowd in front of City Hall, where I felt a part of a rally more sincere and urgent than any I’ve been to in DC. People talked of justice for Freddie Gray, of backing up State Attorney Marilyn Mosby (who delivered an indictment for the six officers implicated in Gray’s death), of not necessarily condoning destruction of property but declaring that without the “riots” on April 27th,the indictment would not have happened and national attention wouldn’t have been paid. Young people kept jostling onto stage to take the mic – many of them more profound than the adults who’d held the mic – and told us they were people, not thugs, and they love their city. A woman grabbed the mic and emotionally declared we didn’t have time for the patriarchy, and named some of the women who have also been killed by police, like Rekia Boyd. People also called for the release of the kids who were arrested (with egregiously higher bail than the police officers who killed a man) for smashing police car windows one night. And for real solutions, and for the community to not be satisfied with an indictment, because a conviction and punishment still need to happen, and the community needs investment.
After about three hours of speakers and chants, we marched. Cars beeped at us, people on the sidewalks waved and cheered, and after many, many protests in DC, this was the “realest” any march has ever felt to me.
We hugged Ryan goodbye around 6pm so we could catch the MARC train back to DC. I caught up with Ryan this week, to ask him about the city where he grew up, the rest of the day’s protest, and more.
Liz: Tell me about growing up in Baltimore. What neighborhood were you in? Whats it like?
Ryan: I grew up on the Northeast side of Baltimore in a middle class neighborhood. The Northeast district is now the most violent part of Baltimore. Growing up it wasnt as violent but I still had friends that were victims of gun violence, went to sleep to gunshots and sirens, and witnessed plenty of drug activity. Gentrification has transformed the city today but when I was growing up there really wasnt a nice part of Baltimore city. As someone who has lived in cities where the racial makeup is majority white, Im thankful that I had the opportunity to grow up surrounded by my people and my culture. I absolutely love my city. Like the public benches say it is, “The Greatest City in America.”
Liz: Has any of this surprised you? Freddie Grays death and the reaction to it?
Ryan: Neither Freddie Grays death nor the reaction to it surprises me. I’ve been aware of police brutality in Baltimore practically my entire life. In 1997 James Quarles was shot and killed by police officer Charles Smothers in front of Lexington Market, a popular shopping center downtown. The incident was caught on videotape. In 2002 a neighborhood friend of mine Samuel Fitzgerald (14 years old) was shot and killed by Officer Marlon Lynch. Anyone that lives in the inner city feels the constant tension between the community and law enforcement. It was only a matter of time before the people of Baltimore said enough is enough, especially considering the current social climate.
Liz: What do you think of the medias coverage of Baltimore these past weeks?
Ryan: Honestly, when it comes to coverage of police involved shootings and community responses to them I dont pay much mind to mainstream media. They have proven to not be interested in reporting with integrity and telling the truth.
Liz: Whats a better way to explain things? What do you wish they had covered, who do you wish they had interviewed, what words should they fix in their vocabulary?
Ryan: The discussion itself needs to be reframed. As DeRay said on CNN some people, media included, have placed broken windows above broken spines, meaning property is more valuable than people. The destruction of a CVS is more important than the destruction of black life. If we are going to have a discussion about violence it should never start with the reaction of a grieving community. It must start with the violence that created the circumstances that made protest and riot necessary.
Liz: What happened after we parted ways in the march on Saturday?
Ryan: After you left we continued to march to North and Penn where it pretty much turned into a block party. It was one of the best experiences of the weekend for me. It showed the resilience of black people. You can break our bodies but you cant break our spirits. It was something the community needed. Something that black folk have always done in traumatic times. There’s a lot of healing in song and dance. It’s therapeutic.
Liz: So if people want to know whats really going on, where should we look for information?
Ryan: Social media has sparked this movement and it has sustained this movement. Malcolm X once said that truth is on the side of the oppressed. Twitter in particular is where you will find that truth. You have raw and unfiltered on-the-ground eyewitness accounts, live streamers, independent journalists. Mainstream media is focused on controlling a narrative that supports dominant culture. It will expose some injustice but it never tells the full story. Thats what you find on twitter. The whole truth.
Speaking of Twitter, Ryan tweets with the handle @infiniteideal. And the New York Times Magazine recently did a great profile on two of the biggest tweeters/activists in this movement, Deray McKesson (@deray) and Johnetta Elzie (@nettaaaaaaaa).
Ryan also blogs at The Ghetto Monk, and his most recent post talks about his upcoming book, The Revolutionary’s Little Book of Hope.
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