Article by Matt Tennyson | Additional Reporting by Laura Milcarzyk | Photography by Neil Harman | Owl Staff

Protest signs, drums, megaphones, and people marching in solidarity — the people of Baltimore have united over a common goal.

When Freddie Gray was pronounced dead on April 19, 2015 after police used excessive force to detain him, Baltimore erupted into violence; however, Baltimore also saw one of its largest demonstrations of solidarity in recent history shortly after, having support from cities around the country.

As an outsider of the city, it can be easy to look at the situation that transpired on May 1, 2015 as a series of unnecessary acts of violence. Several people on my personal Facebook news feed who live north of the city lashed out at those committing these acts, saying things like: “These people are savages. They are burning their own city down” or “Violence is not the way to get people to listen to you.”

Others shared parts of this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.”

Shortly after the assassination of King in 1968, Baltimore was one of more than 100 cities across the U.S. to have been affected by riots of civil rights protesters. Today, almost 50 years later, we’re facing very similar problems despite the political and social gains of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jake Hutton, a Harford County resident with a master’s degree in History, focused his master’s thesis on the 1968 riots that occurred in Baltimore. In an interview with Owl Magazine, he explains, “What I think a lot of people outside of the city fail to understand is that people usually don’t just riot because of police brutality. There’s a series of conditions that lead up to that explosion.”

These conditions include a disparity in arrest rates and treatment by police. For instance, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that Caucasians abuse more drugs than African Americans, yet African Americans are arrested three times as often for drug possession, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Incidents of police brutality have made national headlines, such as a November 2014 case where the NYPD officer wasn’t charged after choking Eric Garner to death for selling cigarettes. Despite video evidence and a medical examiner’s report citing that his death was caused by the illegal chokehold, the officer was not indicted.

Shortly after the officer was dismissed of any charges, Eric Garner’s wife, Esaw Garner, says at a press conference, “He’s still working, he’s still getting a paycheck, he’s still feeding his kids, and my husband is six feet under.” She adds, “He should be here celebrating Christmas and Thanksgiving and everything else with his children and grandchildren. And he can’t. Why? Because a cop did [something] wrong.”

These cases have led some citizens to lose faith in the justice system. Baltimore resident Kevin Eaton explains, “When police kill innocent people, they often don’t get charged.”

Hutton adds, “[Often] we don’t want to face the very real socio-economic problems and urban blight that lead to violent reactions. Another thing to keep in mind is that when people are really frustrated, they don’t think rationally. They react emotionally.”

To hear some of these concerns first-hand, I traveled to Annapolis for a police brutality rally and policy hearing on February 26. During the hearing, I spoke with a police chief and a sheriff about the topic of police brutality.

“As Dr. King once said, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.'”

Chief of Police for Annapolis, Michael Pristoop shares, “The videos and reports circulating from Ferguson and the Department of Justice findings are just atrocious.” He adds, “But sometimes we only see part of a story and it can be very sensationalized.”

Sheriff Darren Popkin of the Montgomery Police Department says, “I think all of the police chiefs of Maryland have periodic cases of misconduct. We have exceptionally good investigators that handle those [cases].” He adds, “We make sure that the appropriate disciplinary actions are taken and that everyone is given a fair due process.

In May of 2015, I went to Baltimore City for a first-hand look inside the protests that came about following the death of Freddie Gray.

When I arrived at City Hall, I first spoke with local resident Ericka Campbell who had organized with local businesses to help feed the community. In between handing out bag lunches to protesters, police, and the National Guard, she shared her views on the protests. “I think the community doesn’t really trust the police, and the police don’t really trust the community. Somewhere along the line there’s been a breakdown.”

Campbell adds, “There’s so many opportunities that we have to help people and we usually don’t think about it. Just jump in and do it and you can help to change things.”

Local schoolteacher Josh Ober joined the ranks of the thousands of protesters that hit the streets to march for justice for those affected by police brutality. He says, “I hope we all realize that there is much more justice to be done than just getting the officers convicted.”

A young woman and local resident named Angela spoke briefly on why she was marching with the protesters. She says, “I hope to see the police and everyone in a position of authority treating those with darker skin the same way they treat me.”

She adds, “When you have oppression, you have people that want to fight back against that. It’s like a pressure cooker: eventually, it’s going to pop.”

The protest found its way from the city into local universities and even to the Bel Air Courthouse in Harford County. Leading many of the efforts at Towson University’s protest, John Gillespie says, “I never in my wildest imaginings thought the protest would grow to be so big. It was not something I planned on happening.”

Hundreds of diverse students came out to show support for those affected by police brutality. Observer Katie Simmon-Barth says, “This is the first significant multi-racial protest I can ever remember hearing about on our campus. I have never seen one to this extent.”

Other protest movements throughout the nation were also widely represented with a diversity of people of different ethnicity, religion, age, and sex.

Our culture is in need of social change. While I don’t condone the violence of the riots, I think we need to push the conversation forward on what’s wrong with our justice system instead of solely focusing on the reactions of those who feel the weight of oppression on their shoulders.

As Dr. King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

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