One Year Later: What The Freddie Gray Protests Taught Me About Race And Privilege In Baltimore
Why we’re covering this: Racial issues dominate the socio-political landscape, and they show no signs of letting up. Five months after Gray died, the City of Baltimore offered Gray’s family a $6.4 million dollar settlement, adding that it did not “represent any judgment” on the six police officers directly involved in his death — the local police union later called the settlement “obscene.” This piece looks back at the unexpected ways the Freddie Gray protests and riots helped shape the community, and the disappointments that linger a year afterwards.
I remember where I was, one year ago from yesterday, when I heard that Freddie Gray had died. I was at the weekly Farmer’s Market under Route 83, accompanied by two new friends from Montreal who had stopped in Baltimore as part of a U.S. road trip. I heard someone yell out “FREDDIE IS DEAD”, and all of the excitement in the springtime air vanished. His arrest was obviously questionable at best, but I remember explaining that his death would rock Baltimore.
Much of the following weeks are now part of the collective archives — many days of peaceful protesting followed by an evening of rioting. I remember sitting on my sofa with my roommates, watching the local news, not entirely sure what was unfolding around town. I got a text from Craig, a coworker who also lives in Baltimore, asking if I lived “anywhere near that burning building”. So I went up to the perch of my rooftop deck and watched the smoke rise into the night sky. For days, helicopters hovered over the city, news anchors crowded the streets.
The morning after the riots, my friend Derek and I took the day off of work to help with cleanup. He gathered shovels and brooms, I bought trash bags and bottles of water for all the volunteers. Much to our surprise, by the time we got there, everything was already cleaned up.
Of course it was. We drove around and took some photos, documenting our city in repair. We later made our way downtown to the Inner Harbor, sipping milkshakes as we strolled back home. On our way, we passed National Guard members lining Pratt Street as if ISIS itself was touring the Aquarium.
Later that week, there was another rally in front of City Hall — it seemed more like a huge block party and definitely not the nervous mess that CNN would have you believe. A couple had their wedding photos taken in the crowd, for goodness sakes. In fact, much of the protests were like this, fueled by anger, sure, but often celebrations of life, of each other, of solidarity, of community.
After spending several hours in the hot Saturday sun, and (after getting annoyed by one of the rally speakers who was clearly there for his own political gain) my friend Bryan and I left to get Chipotle before I performed an improv show in Annapolis. The venue had to write a note for me in case I got pulled over by the cops for breaking curfew. I never needed to use that note until I framed it a few months ago.
When I was talking about all of this with my friend Liz, we discussed how the protests and the riots would likely become this great Marker Of Time for me. In other words, I would place all of my memories from my time in Baltimore in one of two categories: things that happened before the unrest, and things that happened after. This is what it’s like to be White in Baltimore, even for someone as progressive as I like to think that I am: it never turned out to be that great Marker Of Time that I anticipated.
I was a little shaken up for a few weeks. We all were. But as the community gatherings became less frequent, as the block parties stopped dancing, I was able to forget about it and move on, which is, I think, the very definition of the luxury of white privilege. I went back to my normal life in my mostly-white neighborhood, going to mostly-white bars, going to local shows from mostly-white artists playing to mostly-white crowds. For a few weeks last April and May, the death of Freddie Gray temporarily blurred those dividing lines.
I am very grateful for the people in Baltimore who are working tirelessly to create inclusive and integrated spaces, but Baltimore remains a city that is enormously segregated. I suspect that those of us who were the most terrified of the unrest were the people who had to actually acknowledge that we didn’t live in Baltimore alone, that there are entire pockets and neighborhoods and communities that we ignore on both societal and institutional levels.
Many people have known, in a very direct and real way, that Baltimore has been a city in need of repair for a very long time, and when the rest of us were forced to acknowledge that last spring, we were too late. Many people have been forced into the swirl of poverty, neglect and corruption for generations. The rest of us can escape when we need to and grab milkshakes.
Jeff Waters works in graduate student affairs at the University of Maryland. Outside of work, he performs as a singer/songwriter, photographing other people’s dogs or making plans to travel elsewhere. He happily lives in Baltimore.