By Rus VanWestervelt
Late yesterday afternoon, I witnessed an unraveling of peace in my hometown, Baltimore. As I watched the events on television, with commentary by local news media that made the event sound more like a parade being covered than an act of uncivil disobedience, I could not tear myself away from the surreal de-evolution of events.
It all reminded me of an event that I was (peripherally) a part of last year, where I was at a large venue where police were called for an unknown disturbance with an open call to 911. In truth, two sets of parents were having a verbal disagreement stemming from a run-in between their children. When the police arrived, they did not know the full nature of the situation. They were a little tense and handled the situation rather aggressively, ending in multiple arrests. When I and a few others tried to broker some peace, we were told – forcefully – that if we didn’t cease with our efforts immediately, we would be arrested for interference.
We backed off without argument. Although we believed that our efforts were trying to relieve a tense situation, we did not want to make it worse. We listened to the officers in charge, and we avoided any escalation of what was already a very tense scene.
Unfortunately, this was not the case last night.
In the aftermath of a night of violent protests where storefront windows were smashed, cars were trampled on and demolished, police were pelted with bricks, rocks, bottles, batteries, bicycle racks, and even dirty diapers and burning trash cans, and Baltimore guests and innocent citizens were threatened and terrorized, we begin the discussion of why this happened, who is to blame, and how any of it might be justified.
I am profoundly disappointed…
Perhaps our greatest mistake today is to try and justify what happened. We can point fingers at the specific triggers for what transpired last night, but we are left with a circuitous and ironic argument that leads us nowhere.
A tragedy happened where an individual was taken into custody and died a week later. Six police officers are being questioned about the circumstances leading up to this individual’s ultimate death. A week after he died, 1,200 protesters took to the streets of Baltimore, threatening to “shut the city down.” We watched as they did just that. They marched peacefully in the afternoon, and city leaders shut down city streets as is often done for benefit 5Ks and marathons held for just causes.
But something happened when they reached City Hall, just after 5 p.m. There were speeches, but it never seemed like the culminating point to the protests. Instead, many protesters – with plenty of time remaining in the afternoon and evening – decided to continue their march to the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards, where there were no planned speeches.
Even before the protesters left City Hall, a small group took down the American flag and tried – repeatedly – to set it on fire. They failed, and somebody ultimately stepped in to pick up the flag and turn it over to City officials. In the media coverage I followed, I did not see or hear of any police officers at City Hall monitoring the demonstration.
Within 45 minutes of reaching City Hall, many protesters ran – sprinted – to the Inner Harbor and confronted police at Camden Yards who were not dressed in riot gear. They hurled rocks, bricks, and other heavy materials at police who were ordered to stand down and not fight back or make any arrests. As they put on their helmets, they just stood there, holding the barricades secure, and taking the hits.
The protesters then roamed the downtown streets, smashing windows, demolishing cars, terrorizing innocent drivers, and threatening citizens trying to get to the ballpark.
The order to stand down remained for another hour before police were finally granted permission to make arrests. Hours later, while Camden Yards – with 36,000 fans in attendance – was put on lockdown, the Mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, held a press conference and admonished the violent protesters. She opened with this statement: “After a week of peaceful demonstrations, I am profoundly disappointed to see the violence in our city this evening,”
She continued to cite statistics, such as 95% of the protesters were peaceful, and a “handful of outside agitators” were causing all of the trouble.
Therein lies the irony: let’s blame the violence on a few “outside agitators” when allowing a shut-down city riot for the purported actions of a few police officers.
I’m not sure if the 95% was a generic percentage to illustrate a point, but if you do the math, 5% of 1,200 protesters is 60. From the multiple perspectives of media coverage I followed last night, there was a much larger number than 60 causing the disruption.
If this were, indeed, true, then I think the bigger questions might be: Why couldn’t 1,300 police officers handle the 60 who were out of control? Why the sustained order to stand down? How in the world do you allow your officers to be pummeled with debris and not authorize them to make arrests?
Government officials, reporters, and social media posters kept saying the same thing: We are so proud of our officers for showing such restraint in the face of these protests.
What is that even supposed to mean? That we are supposed to applaud them for being “good” cops? Was this their collective punishment for the purported actions of a handful of police officers two weeks ago?
In the press conference last night, Mayor Rawlings-Blake gave a particular shout out to the individuals who stepped between the police and the protesters to broker peace. This sets up, fosters, and supports the classic “US vs. THEM” mentality. The power of the police was taken away from them, by order, and the protesters were allowed to spit in their faces, scream abusive slurs, and injure them. Yet, the focus is on the individuals who stepped between them?
I am profoundly disappointed…
Before it was all over, 83 Southbound was shut down, as were many of the main arteries in downtown Baltimore; Oriole Park at Camden Yards was in lockdown; and Shock Trauma, the Maryland SPCA, and other organizations canceled events and fundraisers.
All of this, because of 60 individuals?
There is much to digest here. We could focus on police brutality, ineffective city leadership, or peaceful protests that turned violent. We could also focus on cover ups, misleading statistics, the busing in of protesters, the alternative agendas of several groups, or pro-violence perspectives.
We could focus on how there was no end game after the march concluded at City Hall, or how organizers were allowed to shut down the city under their own terms and rules, putting the lives of countless individuals at risk for injury or even death.
There is no doubt that, as we sift through the debris of everything that happened last night, we could spend a great deal of energy blaming others and trying to justify stand-downs, sit-ins, fight-backs, and flash-riots.
The truth is, it should have never reached this stage. We need stronger leaders who are focused on establishing a new foundation of trust and community within Baltimore City government and among its citizens. We are only perpetuating the problem by spending more energy on supporting protesters than we are on fixing the problems that exist within our own government.
I am profoundly determined….
Here’s what I think.
I support civil disobedience. I support protests and demonstrations to keep a good check on our government. But if I were a leader in charge of a community of any size, I wouldn’t be focused on how we can support the acts of civil disobedience. Our leadership now needs to be focused on what we can do to avoid the need for such acts of civil – and then uncivil — disobedience to occur at all.
After the incident that I experienced last year, we had a great deal of discussion about what we could do to foster a stronger relationship with our local officials, and what proactive measures we could put in place to ensure a situation like this didn’t happen again. I feel pretty good about how we are moving forward, and our focus is on the needs of our community to foster wellness and fairness for all.
I realize that City leaders are working with a much larger group of agencies and citizens; I know, too, that you cannot please all the people all the time. This is not about trying to placate the masses, though. It’s about building trust among the government, its civil organizations, and the community so that the expectations are clear, the consequences are transparent and fair, and the effort and energy from everyone is funneled in a constructive direction to build a better city – for its people, its businesses (small to large), and its guests. I don’t care how small or large the community might be; building trust is just as possible within Baltimore City as it is within a small community organization.
The leaders of Baltimore have to make a choice. They can continue on the path of leading the city behind a thick curtain of secrecy and rhetoric, thus furthering the promotion of distrust, tension, and division. Or, they can make the conscious decision to end the politicization of the work they do (or don’t do), stop relying on outside forces to get “between” their own agencies and their citizens, and put their energies into rebuilding strong relationships between the police, local government, and the communities they all serve.
I know that I don’t stand alone in having tremendous pride in Baltimore and the entire state of Maryland. I refuse to sit by idly and do nothing. I encourage all of you to rally in a different way. Join me in rallying for peace, for change, for transparency, for hope, for strong leadership, for a healthy investment in not just Baltimore City, but for the other 23 counties comprising our great state. Every Day. Not in reaction to a certain event, or to protest last night’s violence, or to focus on racial divides, or to say that our police forces are brutal, or to argue that our Mayor needs to be more transparent. Rally Every Day For Peace Among And For All.
If we focus on wellness for the long term, we will foster and receive wellness for ourselves, as well as for our children, for many years to come. Let this be the message we preach. Let this be the rally. Let this be the way for today, and for tomorrow.