When the cameras leave and the idea of black people "mattering" falls back to the bottom of everyone's priority list, the real work starts.
This article first appeared in Salon.
Smoky, hollowed-out buildings, busted windows and random single shoes, hair pieces and articles of clothing lying in the gutters of streets covered in empty water bottles, candy wrappers, bent and broken picket signs — that's the morning after a protest. It's the same kind of morning I imagine many of the cities across America and across the world have been experiencing lately. Store owners boarding up busted windows, community members sweeping up trash while chatting about the night before, people nursing wounds and tender skin hit with rubber bullets or being released from holding cells.
On Memorial Day in Minneapolis, a white police officer and 19-year veteran of the force named Derek Chauvin took a knee on the back of the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, for more than eight minutes. The whole incident was captured on video, clear enough for us to see and hear Floyd say "I can't breathe!" while groaning in pain. We can also see Chauvin's partner Tou Thao watching Floyd lose his life as if nothing is wrong. A total of four cops were involved in George Floyd's death — J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane are the names of the other two officers. And finally, after global protest, divided countries and millions in damages, all have now been charged — Chauvin with second degree murder, and the other three with aiding and abetting. What was Floyd's crime? He allegedly tried to buy cigarettes from Cup Foods with a fake $20 bill.
Floyd's killing arrived on the heels of video surfacing of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was hunted and gunned down by bloodthirsty white men in Georgia; the release of the frantic audio of a 911 call from Kenneth Walker right after Louisville, KY, police shot and killed his girlfriend, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, while invading her home on a no-knock warrant looking for evidence in a drug investigation in which she was not a main suspect, in which no illegal substances were found; the release of the viral Amy Copper video showing her, a white woman, weaponizing the police against Christian Cooper, a birdwatching black man who simply asked her to follow the law and put her dog on a leash; and Great Depression-level unemployment, all while most of the nation has been pinned up in the house for more than two months because of the deadly novel coronavirus. I imagine that all of these conditions, layered upon the uncertainty in the air for so many since reality TV character Donald Trump was elected on a white supremacy platform in 2016, compounded, leading to the explosion of protests and uprisings calling for justice for Floyd across the world.
The aftermath of Floyd's death can be heard and seen on every news channel and radio station, all over social media, and probably somewhere in your own city as the story develops around the clock. Floyd's name is being chanted in New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, London, Paris, Louisville, Auckland, Berlin. Millions of people are waking up to that day-after protest — or uprising, or riot — feeling for the first time. And I'd bet my last dollar that connecting with other frustrated people, whether in peaceful or destructive modes, feels so good right now. The adrenaline, the energy, the unity, the feeling you get when you inject fear into the oppressive system that crushes you every day, the same way it crushed your mom and crushed your grandma and great-grandma too — I enjoyed that feeling for the first time in 2015. And let me tell you, it's like a drug.
In 2015 Freddie Gray, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, was stopped by a few rogue Baltimore city police officers. They had no legal reason for apprehending him, but they did anyway, arresting him for having a legal knife in his possession. He eventually died as a result of their incompetence, which sparked unrest and protest across the city.
On the first night I attended a "Justice for Freddie Gray" peace rally at Baltimore City Hall. Some community leaders and family members spoke and then we marched downtown. While passing Camden Yards, the stadium where the Orioles play, we were confronted by a mob of drunken Boston Red Sox fans. Red Sox games at Camden Yards are always packed, so when we shouted "Justice for Freddie Gray," their drunken chants of "We don't care!" in response almost drowned us out. Then the beer-drenched Red Sox fans mixed in with our crowd, and some people got punched and slapped and tossed around (mostly them). I wasn't at the event as a protester, even though I'm a Baltimore native, resident and victim of police brutality. I was there as a reporter. But the rush from the fighting, yelling, chaos and expressed anger made me feel like we accomplished something. Things cooled off that night, but the collection of peaceful protests, a few fires, some light looting, and dozens of harmless marches and gatherings that followed in the days after have become known collectively as the Baltimore Uprising.
Already, reactions to Floyd's death drastically outweigh Baltimore's response to Freddie Gray's killing. But other cities experiencing unrest right now can learn from what we experienced in 2015, and what comes after.
For starters, the cops involved with Freddie Gray's death — Caesar R. Goodson Jr., Garrett E. Miller, Edward M. Nero, William G. Porter, Brian W. Rice and Alicia D. White — are all still employed by the Baltimore City Police Department. They were charged, which felt like a win at the time; in fact, that played a role in quelling the unrest. But none were convicted. Not only did they refuse to accept any responsibility for Gray's death, they had the nerve to sue the city for false arrest, defamation and civil rights violations, even though a perfectly healthy man died on their watch.
The Minneapolis officers have been charged in Floyd's death, and now the justice system — which law enforcement is, of course, a part of — takes over. It can be slow and, as we saw in Baltimore, ultimately ineffective. In Louisville, the police officers responsible for Breonna Taylor's death are still employed and no charges have been filed yet. Louisville's police chief, Steve Conrad, was pressured into announcing his retirement in the aftermath, which Mayor Greg Fischer then accelerated by a month by relieving him of his command this week after police enforcing the emergency curfew shot and killed David McAtee, a black business owner — miles from any protests, at his home and business, with their body cameras off. An investigation is pending; all officers involved are still employed. Conrad keeps his pension.
The next thing to know is that torn-apart cities prompt wealthy people to ask questions like, "Why would they tear their city apart?" as if it's really ours to begin with. They follow with questions like, "How can we use our money to fix the problems?" A lot of those rich people have halfway-good intentions. They are willing to put their money up in an effort to solve inequality's many related problems. But they rarely do enough research, and too often readily give money to up-and-coming oppressors who pair a great pitch with some nonprofit experience but no authentic connection to any oppressed community. These exploitative users receive the funding, and then everyone sits around and wonders why nothing changes. I'll tell you why — because nonprofit pimps are famous for using poor black stories to fatten their pockets and always disappear when the money runs out.
Most of us from places of struggle have seen them before. They come in all shades and colors, visit our blocks in their tweed jackets or dress shirts or relaxed-fit jeans, weird glasses and diet suggestions. They always have their cell phones out, cameras ready to snap a pic with the poor kids out in front of a boarded-up house with some stupid "I love Bmore" hashtag. And then they use those images to strengthen their pitch, suck up the resources — maybe even get some celebrity love — and then it's off to the next tragedy: "Let me tell you about the groundbreaking work I did in Baltimore!" Resources given to their fictitious after-school programs, themed clubs, or junior cop initiatives that could have helped people are instead squandered, turned into a pseudo-change-makers' Lexus or new in-ground pool. And the neighborhoods still suffer.
And then there's the scariest scenario: What's the next move for protesters and the rest of the on-the-ground organizers when the marches end? Here's a story from Baltimore.
"We from Baltimore! So when they killed Freddie, we tore the city apart!" I once heard a familiar voice yelling to an eager crowd. He ended with a line about revolution, burning your village down to keep yourself warm or something like that. I had to fold my lips tight to keep from laughing — and to keep the wine from spitting out of my mouth. This was in Boston, where I traveled for a speaking gig on the modern Civil Rights movement. I heard a guy from Baltimore I won't name telling the crowd that he destroyed property, fought cops, and kicked ass during the unrest. And yet I know he watched it all from the couch, because he told me that he stayed in the house glued to CNN until everything calmed down. "I ain't going out there with those crazy people!" he told me at the time. But just like the nonprofit pimps, he found a lane for himself where he can trade pain for profit. Meanwhile, the actual kids on the frontlines who orchestrated the uprising still suffer.
While revolutionary speech-giving guy was on his rant in Boston, Gregory Lee Butler Jr., a kid who poked a hole in a fire hose during the unrest in Baltimore, was sentenced to three years of supervised release, 250 hours of community service and ordered to pay $1 million in restitution. The government was fighting for a 33-month sentence. The most troubling part of the whole ordeal is that Butler spent five weeks in federal detention before his sentencing; he spent more time in jail over a damaged fire hose than the officers charged with killing Freddie Gray did. Raymon Carter, 24 at the time, was sentenced to four years in prison after taking a plea deal when charged with setting a CVS on fire, and was ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution, after he was caught on tape and handed over to the authorities for a $10,000 reward.
Donta Betts, a 20-year-old with documented "cognitive limitations," was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for setting fires during the unrest and for shooting a person in the leg over a drug dispute. Betts even told the judge, "I'm very sorry for my bad decision making," a larger display of empathy than any seen from the cops over Freddie Gray's death. And still he will spend a significant amount of his life in prison, while the officers went back to work, and later will retire with their pensions.
You can agree or disagree with the actions of these young men, but they were part of the heart and soul of the Baltimore Uprising — they are part of the reason why national resources were poured into the city, why nonprofits were funded, why Baltimore was placed under a consent decree, why outsiders started acknowledging the racism that exists within the police department, and why so many people are expressing their frustrations over the death of Floyd in a similar manner. And they were all jailed, heavily fined, sold out by people they may have mistakenly advocated for, and then forgotten about. That is another tragedy.
Over the last week, peaceful protest flyers for George Floyd rallies in Baltimore started popping up online. People I haven't seen doing any type of community anything since Freddie Gray died in 2015 began to resurface with their same agendas, tagging me in posts and looking for support.
"You think they gonna go crazy downtown again?" a friend asked me.
"No, because many of the kids who were on the ground, challenging the cops, and forcing the city to acknowledge our pain are sitting in prison." I replied. "Their friends and cousins are less likely to make the same sacrifices. And I don't blame them."
As for me, I didn't go to any of the protests this time. The hard work starts when the demonstrations end, the cameras leave, and the public stops paying attention. That's when you can connect with the mentors who make sure kids get to school with clean clothes; the community organizers who host the neighborhood clean-ups; the artists who share their gifts of creativity; the coaches who channel kids' energy into team sports; the dance teachers who offer free classes; and the rest of the people who invest in the social fabric of oppressed communities and help us fight to change the narrative for real.