Demonstrations and protests ensued in Baltimore as a result of the death of Freddie Gray due to alleged police brutality. Gray, a 25-year-old African American man, suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody on April 12, and died as a result of the injury seven days later. Although much is still unknown about the incidents that caused the injury, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts revealed that the “police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner.” He also commented “We know he was not buckled in the transportation wagon as he should have been. No excuses for that. Period.”
On Tuesday April 28, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake enacted a city-wide curfew, and Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, deploying the National Guard. Johns Hopkins University went through several precautions due to safety concerns and encouraged its students to stay in their dorms by closing some of the school.
Curious as to how members of Hopkins were affected by these incidents, I interviewed Kidist Ketema, an African American senior at Johns Hopkins University studying public health and economics, and Sharif Braxton, an African American Johns Hopkins alumni and an employee at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
In the midst of peaceful demonstration, some individuals in Baltimore began rioting, burning cars and, as headlined in the media, looting a CVS drugstore. News sources circulated the words “Baltimore Burning” and “Baltimore Erupts,” disregarding the many peaceful protesters and the reasoning behind their frustrations. This created a skewed idea of the real issues the majority of the protesters were coming together for—a stand against police brutality across America.
Both Ketema and Braxton stressed that the demonstrations that they attended were mostly peaceful, contrary to the media portrayal.
Braxton attended some of the protests and commenting on the demonstration on Tuesday, he stated, “There was a very peaceful protesting and in terms of trying to preach the importance of community and the importance of togetherness and everything in between that were there. It was about being concerned for black rights, but human rights as well, which you haven’t seen that as much in the media. Especially since the people who were doing the looting and the rioting weren’t really concerned with the initiative as a whole.”
Social media created a direct source to highlight some of these inconsistencies and gradually, the public began criticizing the media for not paying attention to the protests before the riots began and their general coverage of the events. Ketema said she found social media “helpful (in kind of) breaking down the situation and understanding what’s actually going on.” Social media has been a way to bring awareness and support of other movements, such as the protesting in Ferguson allowing for a national conversation. Both the protestors and the police department attempted to rally support on Twitter, in realization of the importance of social media in swaying public opinion.
Ketema explained how when she opened her Yik Yak on Monday, what she found were racist comments from those at Hopkins and at universities in the surrounding area: “Things like ‘black students wouldn’t have gotten in if it weren’t for affirmative action’ attacking the black students who were involved in protests earlier in the year.” She mentioned how this made her feel isolated at her own institution.
Ronald J. Daniels, president of John Hopkins University, issued a statement concerning Freddie Gray’s death and the Baltimore protests: “It is essential that all of our city’s citizens have trust and confidence in professional and fair treatment by our police…We also recognize, and must acknowledge, the frustration felt in communities across this country, born of continuing racial disparities in education, employment, and criminal justice.”
Ketema still felt Hopkins could have been more active in response to the events in relation to its students.
“I didn’t feel like the University did much to communicate to the students,” she said. “There were some last minute attempts to create a safe space like meeting yesterday, but other than that we haven’t gotten much from the University itself.”
Braxton spoke on the lack of political and social awareness of the general Hopkins campus, but also saw some positives.
“There are a lot of students that are not African American that went to the protests and gathered around realizing the importance of the solidarity,” he said.
When responding to the situation, President Barack Obama stated it’s important that we “don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns,” but the economic inequality, school climate and police brutality in Baltimore have been continuously overlooked.
This may be the first time Baltimore is being highlighted on a national level for the areas with residents that are disadvantaged due to systematic problems, but that doesn’t mean that it ends here. The issues of police brutality, poverty and institutionalized racism are linked in many places across America, including Detroit, and these are problems that are persistent throughout the year. We cannot ignore these problems until another Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner or Freddie Gray is killed.
We must say to ourselves: Never again.