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The Baltimore Uprising: my fire next time P2

April 20, 2016

*In a unique offering this month, Part 1 of this blog post about my experience watching my two sons protest during the Baltimore Uprising, will be offered on the Maryland Humanities Council website.

Becoming RaceBrave

I started writing my new book, RaceBrave, on July 7, 2014, on the day when Eric Garner was murdered when my sons challenged me to write something everyday about what was happening around the country in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.

Cover by Calvin Coleman

Cover of “RaceBrave: new and selected works”

Purchase RaceBrave here

And so I began to write poetry, every single day, and along the way, Tamir Rice was killed, Freddie Gray was killed, the Baltimore Uprising happened, and I watched the birth of a spirit of activism in my sons. The poem, “the birth of your activism” was written in pieces every evening when we arrived back to our car after marching from his neighborhood to City Hall. It has taken me almost 25 years but I have finally returned to the poet that I used to be…

“the birth of your activism” 04.20.15 – 04.28.15


The March to Justice

Day #1: We were unprepared. We saw the video, we knew who he was, and we knew that he had died. So, we went over to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, got out of the car, and when they started to march, we joined them. We did not know where we were going. We just knew that it had to be a place that was better than here and anyway, I figured, freedom is something that you have to go and get. I told you that Coretta Scott King said that each generation has to fight for and win their freedom and that we had to be prepared to fight until the end. (You wanted to Google the exact phrase but we had no time.) An older black gentleman in a “BlackLivesMatter” t-shirt and long flowing dreads said that Malcolm X said that if you were not willing to die for freedom, you should take it out of your vocabulary. He then asked, “Are you two willing to die for your freedom?” You looked at me but I could not speak. Day #1, we were not ready.

Day #2: We did not know if we should go back to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. You told me that you spent the day trying to get your classmates interested but nobody wanted to talk about him, at least not yet. So we talked about it and decided to go anyway, even if it was just to bear witness. We found a few more people, standing in solidarity, talking about freedom, and wondering what else we needed to do to demand that the city sees us and hears us. We decided that tomorrow we needed to bring our own signs and we needed to pack snacks.

Day #3: We packed our bags this morning because yesterday it took us a long time to march down to City Hall and then to walk back to our car. You complained that you were tired and that justice was taking a long time to get here. We talked about Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker who in 1853 said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. “Yes,” you said, “but justice is taking a long time to get here.” We tried to but could not quite agree on what type of justice we were waiting for: Justice for Freddie Gray or for Eric Garner or for Tamir Rice or Tanisha Anderson or for those who have been wrongfully convicted or for those who have been failed by the public school system. As we marched, you wondered again, if justice would ever come.

Day #4: Tired and exhausted, we decided to go straight to City Hall instead of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. You had homework and wanted to sit in the car and finish it while we waited for everyone else to come down. You said your friends laughed at you in school when you tried to talk about Freddie Gray. They said it was not a big deal and wanted to know if I was making you go. You said that it is sometimes really hard being the only black boy in your class. “They don’t care about Freddie Gray,” you said, and then you wondered if they cared about you.

Day #5: It’s Friday and you wanted to do something else. You wanted to go somewhere else and then you said you just wanted to be someone else. You said you did not want to have to care about Freddie Gray or fight for justice. “Why can’t I be like the kids in my school? They are not thinking about justice for Freddie Gray or marching or praying to stay alive.” I realized then that that this is what racism has done to our kids, it has robbed them of their childhood. Black boys and girls are not allowed to be children, to not have a care in the world, to only think of themselves. They are born into a society where they have to fight to stay alive, fight to stay present, fight to get a good education, fight for the right to grow up and when they become parents, the fight starts all over again.

Day #6 8a: We woke up early this morning. We wanted to be in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood as early as possible. Today was going to be long and we were expecting to see thousands of people. I signed up to document what happened, video taping, taking pictures, and posting them in real time. You and your brother started writing your information on a white t-shirt because someone had told you earlier in the week that if they needed to identify your body, you should have name and address written on your t-shirt. I wrote the number to the legal aid office on your arms just in case we got separated and you got arrested. We packed snacks and then we started to talk about the what-if scenarios. We knew what happened in Ferguson, we knew that Baltimore was on the edge, and we knew that today it was going to be crowded, tense, and emotional. We packed milk in case they used tear gas. During the Ferguson Uprising, Palestinians students had tweeted out that milk was the best thing to use when you have been exposed to tear gas. We packed bandanas and snacks, extra chargers for our phones and cash. You said, “Take a picture of me so if something happens you know what I’m wearing.” You laughed and said that this week, more than ever before in your life, you had gained such a deep level of respect and admiration for the foot soldiers from the Civil Rights Movement. “Just think mommy,” you said, “they did this every day.”

Day #6 11a: We stood for over an hour waiting for the March to start. We walked through the crowd, greeting other protestors like they were our family members and in some ways they were. We had been out here all week and though we did not know their names, we knew that we were on the same side. Two older brothers from the Bloods walked over and told me that if something happened, they would watch out for you and your brother. He then told you that if you were afraid and you thought something was going down, then you should come and stand behind them because they had your back. He said, “Mom, don’t worry, we got them.” We decided to fall in line behind them because there were so many people and it was not clear who was in charge. We were told that we were heading downtown and we were going to shut the City down on our way to City Hall. A young sister standing next to me grabbed my hand and told me to be brave and to pass it on. We must have looked confused. She smiled and said, “Yes, be brave. Pass it on.” So we did and then we started to march and chant, completely convinced that justice was going to meet us on the other side.

Day #6 5p: You have asked me twice if we should leave. We were told that a beer bottle was thrown at us and the cops are up ahead, dressed in riot gear and standing in formation. It was not clear whether we were going to make it to City Hall. We were near the Harbor and I felt like we were being herded. You wondered out loud about what was going to happen next. You said that you could feel that something had changed. Your father kept calling strongly suggesting that we should leave because it is obvious that people on both sides have decided that the Harbor was where they were going to make their stand. Another beer bottle was thrown and someone yelled, “They calling us niggers.” The brother from the Bloods looked at me and said, “Uhm yea, I’m not going to be too many more niggers. Not today.” We were standing still and I was trying to figure out how to get us out of here. You were scared and even though we talked about what we do if we got separated, if they used tear gas, if things got out of hand, you did not think any of those things would actually happen. For the first time, in a very long time, you grabbed my hand and your brother’s hand. “We have to stay together.” I lost my sense of direction and needed a moment to figure out exactly where we were so we could move to a location where your father could pick us up. “The cops are not responding,” someone yelled, “they just standing there.” Someone laughed and said, maybe they’re planning to drop a bomb on us. You said, “like Move?” “Move” someone said, “Move and go where?” I caught your eye and shook my head and said no, not like Move. I kept telling myself that surely they wouldn’t drop a bomb here, not down here.” We started walking and someone yelled, “They up there jumping on cars.” And then, “They are not going to stop us.” And then, “Justice for Freddie Gray.” And then, “Niggers, go home.” And then, we heard the sounds of glass breaking and sirens and people yelling and people running. I thought I heard a baby crying. We ran and we got out. We made it home and when we did, you said justice is never going to get here, is it?

Day #7: Freddie Gray’s Wake. There was a sign that said no pictures and no videos. I walked in by myself; you and your brother did not want to go. It was very quiet in the funeral home, people were sitting and crying and praying. I think that that is his mother and I smiled at her but I don’t go over. I stepped up and looked down at him. “You could have been my son,” I say very quietly, “in death your life has now found meaning.” And then I left. I did not sign the book or shake anyone’s hand. This should be a time for his family and his friends. I am a stranger and I do not belong here. I did not know Freddie Gray, wouldn’t recognize him on the street. I am only here because I want the days of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray—those type of days—to end.

Day #8: Freddie Gray’s funeral. Too many celebrities, too many talking heads, too many people talking to us and not with us. I left because it sounded like they were telling us to calm down and wait for them to work out justice for us. I left and did not look back because mega funerals do not work for me and mouthpieces who talk about justice but are not willing to fight for it make me tired.

Day #9: You climbed into the car talking about a purge. You heard that the students at Douglass High School were planning to walk out and that they wanted all students to join them. They were planning, according to you, to take over the city and like in the movie, they were going to exercise their right to purge. “Mommy,” you said, “we should go. We should make our stand.” Traffic is blocked off and backed up so we decided to go home instead. I thought that we could come back out once traffic settled down, we realized much later that we could not. The city had finally reached a tipping point and from what we could gather the cops were no longer standing in formation. We sat up all night, reading social media, and listening to the news. You wanted to be out there. You said that you had been marching all week and now that real change was coming, you were at home. You thought that we should just drive around until we saw something and then get out and join them. Join them doing what, I wanted to know. Everything, maybe we need to burn this city down for Freddie Gray. So I turned off everything so we could talk about justice, about Freddie Gray, about the 1968 Riots, about what happens when the tipping point has been reached, and about what is going to happen once the smoke clears.

Day #10: Overnight, the city changed. I told you not to worry because Dr. King once said that the universe is on the side of justice. As we rode through Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, past the CVS, cops in riot gear, preachers on bull horns, the Bloods and the Crips holding signs for #BlackLivesMatter, you quietly wonder if we are all on the same side of the universe.


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