By Josephine Hill
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
BALTIMORE – An estimated 200 people from Towson University joined with college students from across the Baltimore region Wednesday to protest against police brutality.
The Towson students and faculty members gathered at Freedom Square at about 3 p.m. for a rally, then rode a shuttle into Baltimore City to join about 2,000 other protesters who were demanding answers about the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old unarmed African American man who died while in police custody April 19.
“College students have what we called human equity,” said John Gillespie, 19, a member of Towson’s Black Student Union who helped organize the event. “When there are people in Baltimore sitting inside boarded homes and have been completely forgotten and left virtually invisible by the government, we need college students – who are given this ability of privilege – to stand by their side and say, ‘We are no different.’”
Protesters from Towson assembled with college students from Goucher College, John Hopkins University, Loyola University, the University of Baltimore, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Howard University and others to stand in solidarity.
They marched from Penn Station to City Hall, where they asked to see Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and circulated a petition calling for reforms to the “police bill of rights,” a 40-year-old law that gives law enforcement officers added protection against charges of abuse. The mayor never appeared.
Other chanted, “All night! All day! We gon’ fight for Freddie Gray!”
“It is our duty to win,” said 19-year-old Korey Johnson, a Towson student who is majoring in political science and communications and is an active member of the Black Student Union. “We must love and support one another.”
Johnson added: “A black man should not be murdered, and there should be silence for 10 days.”
With the National Guard and Baltimore police officers standing on both sides of the protest at East Lexington Street, poet Lady Brion gave a speech, and Towson rapper and student Kassim Okusaga performed a rap about his friend Ricky, who was murdered.
At one point during the protest, the National Guard could be seen with arms and a tank moving towards the protestors, but there were no clashes.
Gillespie and others lambasted the police bill of rights. They said it allows police officers who are accused of abusive behavior to remain silent for 10 days before they are interrogated. In addition, they said when officers are interrogated, they are questioned by their friends in the department. Officers present turned on a cacophony of sirens to mute the readings of Gillespie.
“We believe that police brutality is actually happening because a lot of people outside of the city, they don’t believe that police brutality is happening because it’s not happening where they are,” said David Ward, a facilitator for the group Retreat for Social Justice. “Just because it’s not happening where you are, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen at all. Just like it snowed this winter, but the world is still getting hotter.”
“We are not going to do this intersectional racism,” Elemo said. “We are not going to do that. We are going to sympathize, we are going to empathize because at the wrong time at the wrong moment that could be you.”
Others complained about how the national news media have portrayed the city and the protests.
“As far as me personally, all my family lives in the city so I know what they are going through out there,” said Brandon Austin, a resident assistant at Towson. “It’s crazy how the media tries to portray them as thugs. That’s not it. The politicians don’t really care about them. I can see my family struggling out there.”
Gray, who was arrested on April 12, suffered three fractured neck vertebrae, a crushed voice box and spinal cord injuries while he was in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Gray died on April 19.
Police say Gray injured himself while he was in the police transport van. Baltimore police, some reports suggest, have a history of giving “rough rides” to some suspects.
The local ABC TV station in Baltimore reported today that Gray’s fatal injury occurred when he slammed into the back of the van and broke his neck. The TV station, which quoted law enforcement officials, reported that the head injury Gray suffered matches a bolt that was in the back of the van.
Gray was arrested in the Gilmore Homes family development in the Sandtown-Winchester community, which has one of the highest crime, poverty, lead-paint poisoning, and unemployment rates in the city, even though it is just 15 minutes away from many of Baltimore’s major tourist attractions.
During Wednesdays protest, Ward said the problems in Baltimore run deep, but he disputed reports that city residents were burning down their own city.
“It’s about the violence that was not brought by the riots, but the violence that exists in Baltimore City every single week,” Ward said. “[It’s about the violence] that has always been in Baltimore City and it will be the violence that continues to exist in Baltimore City unless we stand up and do something.”
“Yesterday I was in Sandtown,” Ward continued. “It’s not burned to the ground. A couple of stores got beat up and that’s too bad. All in all, the community has everything under complete control. So right now we need to be here to echo the voice of the community of Sandtown, because only the people in Sandtown know what really happened and what is really going on. We’re here to show support and we’re here to show that we care.”
Deb Moriarty, the vice president for student affairs at Towson, said the protests in Baltimore provide an opportunity for the nation to have a broader discussion about race and law enforcement in America.
“I really hope that we use this as an opportunity as an educational institution to have really rich and deep conversations about all sides of the issues,” Moriarty said. “About what’s happening with injustice to Freddie Gray but also about the systemic problems that lead to the anger and frustration that we’ve seen over the course of the last week. I applaud [those] who are stepping up, and I hope other students hear, stop and listen and educate themselves.”
Hilario Dominguez, 22, a graduate student at John Hopkins, said one purpose of the protests is the show the Gray family and the larger community that they are not alone.
“Today was a beautiful demonstration of people from all backgrounds coming together and realizing and identifying and unifying for Freddie Gray, and not only Freddie Gray, but all the brothers and sisters of colors who have been shot dead by police because of the inequalities and injustices of the system,” Dominguez said.
The protest was organized by Gillespie and Johnson with the help of friends Bilphena Yaewhon, 21, Jordan Johnson, 18, Nkechi Mezu, 21, and Gabe Flood, 21. Organizations such as Baltimore BLOC, The Real News Network, Leaders of the Beautiful Struggle, The 300 men march and Bmore United also helped.
Gillespie and Johnson said they faced obstacles in organizing the protest.
“The mayor’s office has been harassing us because they want to keep you ignorant to the things that are going on in my city,” Johnson said.
“It was the judicial process that made it most difficult, but logistically we were working with a lot of different people that helped make this work,” Gillespie said.
“Anytime something like this happens they are the first ones that stand up to make a difference and take a stand,” said Rachelle Johnson, the student outreach and recruitment director for the Black Student Union.
After the march, the student protesters returned to Penn Station. As the students approached the station, the Michael Jackson song “They don’t really care about us,” was playing in the background.