It’s been over four months since the Baltimore Uprising began. The most memorable day of that was, of course, the riots, fires, and property destruction of April 27th. Although the media did not show nearly as much of the weeks of peaceful protest both before and after that day.
It’s been four months of continued evidence that black lives do not matter in American society today, with Sandra Bland and Sam DuBose just the most recent examples.
It’s been four months of elevated violence in the streets, with May and July each breaking records in the number of homicides in a month. The records cited for homicides in a month go back four decades (we had 45 this July, the most in any month since August 1972), or if you look at murders per capita, since Baltimore has had a population decline of around 300,000 since then, we are breaking all records in the city’s recorded history. On August 19th, we surpassed the number of homicides for all of last year (211), and also edged ahead of New York City (a city over twelve times our size) for the current year. Whether this is due to a police slowdown, an increase in pharmaceutical drugs on the street due to the looting of 27 April (warning: autoplay video at link target), or something else, Baltimore is a city that is in crisis.
For that matter, America is a nation in crisis.
I have always thought of my job, teaching math and engineering, as a social justice issue. For one, where I choose to teach (along with programs I’ve helped put in place) helps to correct the underrepresentation of blacks, Latinos, and women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. For another, my job helps increase access for those in poverty to high-paying STEM careers, helping fight against the low level of income mobility in our society (by the way, growing up a poor child in Baltimore City leads to $4510 lower annual income than growing up in an average American county).
But until this April, I never did much to discuss social justice issues in class.
I’ve been meaning to post a journal entry here on the murder of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Uprising, and my next day of teaching, so here’s my summary of the events (a mix of facts, disputed facts, opinions, and my own personal interaction with the events):
- A bit of historical background:
- the government’s role in residential segregation in Baltimore (a national leader on this front), going back a little more than a century
- policing in Baltimore: how the drug war, zero-tolerance, and data-driven policing impact current events, going back about twenty-five years (interview with David Simon)
- Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12th for running away from police in a neighborhood with a high volume of illegal drug traffic. Apparently it may be legal for police to have done this, not sure if it’s constitutional.
- Still on the 12th Gray was given a “rough ride” back to the jail, during which his spine was severed.
- Gray was taken to the hospital, where he died a week later later on April 19th.
- From the 19th to the 24th there were several completely peaceful protests.
- On Saturday April 25th there was some minor violence, and a few windows broken, after protesters were provoked by drunk baseball fans.
- On Monday April 27th was Freddie Gray’s funeral. His family and city leadership asked for peace on that day, but that was not to be.
- Monday morning also had the police spreading rumors of a gang truce to take out police and a schoolkid ‘purge’ of society. Both of which seem/ed not serious and overblown, at least to me.
- Based on these rumors, and before any violence had occurred, police in riot gear took over Mondawmin Mall and closed down all buses and metro traffic through there. This left school kids who use Mondawmin for their daily transportation with nowhere to go. According to the Baltimore Sun, “When 3 p.m. came, 75 to 100 students heading to Mondawmin Mall were greeted by dozens of police officers in riot gear. The mall is a transportation hub for students from several nearby schools.”
- Tensions between police, students, protesters, and others escalated into riots, beginning at Mondawmin. Rioters threw rocks at police, police threw rocks back. People broke windows, and set cars on fire. Looters went into stores.
- The city shut down almost entirely that Tuesday – school was cancelled, many businesses were closed. To give credit to a fine institution, one of the few places that stayed open was the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which declared that all branches would be open on Tuesday. A curfew was declared for everyone.
- That Tuesday, April 28th, people were out in mass. Many were out to clean up the destruction from the night before. Others came out to protest the lack of justice in the Freddie Gray case. Still others helped organize lunch donations for the tens of thousands of schoolchildren who rely on a free lunch at school but would not be getting that since schools were shut down.
- Protesters gathered at the intersection of North and Penn, where CVS burned and a few blocks from where Gray was arrested. I attended this protest, to lend my support for the cause.
- Police and National Guard were sent from dozens of nearby counties and states, along with tanks, helicopters, and other military apparati.
- Media coverage from all the national networks was pretty bad. At curfew time, 10pm, for each of the next several days, there were more media out at North and Penn than protesters. A short article/photos by Natalie Keyssar, What We’re Getting Wrong About Baltimore.
- The next day, Wednesday, April 29th, we were back to school. Our principal called a school-wide assembly in the auditorium in the morning. One of the things he did is to have students write their feelings on index cards, and he then read aloud a bunch of student responses. I felt I had to address the issues of race, social justice, police violence, and the riots in my class, even though these were not usually discussions I hold in math and engineering classes. I had students reflect on two questions in writing, then invited them to share with the class.
- What are your thoughts on the killing of Freddie Gray, the protests of the last two weeks, the “uprising” or “riots” of Monday, the cleanup and continued protests Tuesday, and the reaction of the Mayor, Police Commissioner, and Governor?
- As an engineer, how could you design something that would help build a better Baltimore?
- A few of the students’ responses to the second question were:
- “I would build some robots that would clean up and protect the city from the bad.”
- “I would design a fireproof camera that will be able to record anyone who started the fire. It will be able to survive in any environment.”
- “Make materials that are not so easily to break.”
- “I could design cameras and the back of police vans.”
- “I would try create more job’s.”
- “A drone that has interchangable peices based on the goal. (trash picker, pepper spray, annoying noise, camera)”
- “I would design a robot that can repair stuff in second’s so that we could have that instead of robot’s that shoot.”
- In my Precalculus class, we also looked at some statistics on police shootings by race, and compared presenting these by raw numbers versus by percentages.
- In addition to the lesson itself, I also printed out and made available several other readings:
- Nonviolence as Compliance, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- not an elegy for Mike Brown, by Danez Smith
- Black Riot, by Raven Rakia
- Why Some of Us Will Not, Cannot, and Do Not Post about Baltimore, by Kesiena Boom
- A few other teachers wrote up articles, or posted student work from the days after the riots. A teacher I know at Frederick Douglass High School posted “Baltimore’s Douglass High School Students Respond To Negative Media Attention”. A former Baltimore teacher wrote this article, “Baltimore Youth Are Not Thugs. They Are My Former Students — And They Are Loved”.
- For the rest of the week, school was back on but all field trips were cancelled. We had curfew every night (some people in whiter and more affluent neighborhoods decided to test if police were really enforcing curfew throughout the city or only in poor black neighborhoods, guess what the result was).
- There was no additional violence beyond that Monday night. There were, however, many days of major protests that week.
- Tension was high though, with police insinuating that Gray severed his own spine by throwing himself around the back of the van. Another false rumor was circulated that he already had a spinal injury that perhaps was just aggravated by the arrest / van ride.
- On Friday of that week, May 1st, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City (comparable to a district attorney other places) announced that charges were being filed against six police officers in Freddie Gray’s homicide. The video of her reading out the charges is powerful.
- That weekend the curfew was lifted. Luckily for us, the field trip ban was also lifted, since we had been planning for a whole year for our second annual Engineering Design and Development Symposium that next Monday May 4th, to have seniors present their capstone projects and new inventions!
- On May 21st, a grand jury brought indictments against the six officers.
- In July, the mayor fired the police commissioner and brought a new person in.
- In August, we passed the total number of homicides from last year. We also passed New York City, a much larger city, in numbers of homicides. We have about ten times the number as Boston, a city of similar size. In homicide rate (per capita), we’re at number two in the country, behind only St. Louis which has also had a big spike this year.
- Following the charges being filed on May 4th, some protests have continued but perhaps with less urgency with respect to Gray’s death since it seemed that justice was on the right track (unlike for Michael Brown or Eric Garner, for example). However there has continued community discussion–for example, the six police officers were out on bail the same day they were charged, without a single day in jail, while some protesters were kept for 48 hours in jail without any charge or bail, other protesters accused of riot offenses were in jail for months because they could not afford to pay the bail that was set. Some have pushed for the re-opening of other cases of deaths in police custody in Baltimore like the case of Tyrone West, which people in Baltimore have been protesting for two years. There have also been many rallies and marches to stop the violence in the community, including most recently a walk from Baltimore to Washington DC by members of the group 300 Men March.
- Rebuilding is still occurring in Baltimore. A future senior center, which was burned the night of April 27th, has construction going on and signs saying ‘BMore Strong’. The CVS at North and Penn that was burned that night (and shown in every news report), however, is still boarded up with no signs of recovery. I guess it may just join the other vacant stores and houses in the city. By the way, during the news coverage, some people from outside Baltimore saw rows of boarded up houses and assumed these were the results of the riots, but no, these 16,000 vacant homes are just daily life in Baltimore.
- I’ll close with one last link, an article by another teacher in Baltimore written at the end of July: “In Baltimore, hope can be a dangerous thing”
- With that, it’s on to a new school year in Baltimore City. I’m hoping for and expecting us to accomplish great things this year.