Protestor poet Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum on the streets of the Baltimore Uprising
When I announced last Wednesday via social media that I was heading to Baltimore after several days of rioting and protest, I told no one about my conversation that afternoon with Brother Ali, an amateur documentary filmmaker who I met last November on the NAACP’s Journey for Justice: From Ferguson to Jefferson City. Brother Ali had been in Baltimore since Sunday and had witnessed the heaviest of the rioting on Monday and Tuesday night.
“Listen, Andrew,” he said, chants of protest nearly drowning out his voice, “Don’t come to Baltimore, man. If they don’t indict these officers Friday, they’re sayin’ this place is gonna burn. And we all know they ain’t gonna do that.”
I immediately googled flights from Denver to Baltimore, debating whether or not I should go. I’m not a thrill seeker or a journalist. I’m a poet who was shocked by the death of Mike Brown and the militaristic response to protests in Ferguson who decided to get involved—one of the best decisions I ever made.
After debating the pros and cons of going to Baltimore with my wife (If Brother Ali is right and riots break out, will I be in danger? What if I get arrested? What difference can I really make?), I announced my plans to join the uprising.
I immediately received a flood of support. Friends, followers, and strangers alike posted encouraging responses on my Facebook and Twitter, and I successfully crowd sourced enough funding to pay for my travel.
This was puzzling. I didn’t receive nearly as positive a response when I made a similar announcement last November detailing my intentions to march with the NAACP 134-miles from Ferguson through the heart of Missouri to the state capital in Jefferson City.
- “You shouldn’t go,” one of my best friends barked at me on the phone. “All that stuff about hands up, don’t shoot is total bullshit.”
- “I love you dearly, Andy,” another texted after I contacted friends in the area. “Unfortunately, I do not support your march.”
- “Why are you guys marching?” a stranger asked on Facebook. “Oh that’s depressing,” she responded after I sent her a link to the NAACP website, “I thought it was for an actual cause.”
Less than six months later, he marched with me in Baltimore.
This time something was different. But what? And why?
The narratives in Ferguson and Baltimore are eerily similar.
In both cases, young, unarmed black men were killed in their own neighborhoods by police officers, peaceful protests turned to isolated rioting, the national guard was called in, and the armchair experts of mainstream and social media pontificated on the detriments of non-peaceful protest by “thugs.”
This time, however, the majority of those critical of my participation in the Journey For Justice were in full support of my participation in Baltimore.
I encountered this dichotomy on the ground as well.
On the march to Jefferson City, we were met by countless counter protestors holding signs that read things like, “All this for one dead ni**er” and “CANT (sic) FIX STUPID.” In Rosebud, MO, hundreds attempted to block our way through town. Outside Linn, a gutted deer hung from a tree along our route. I easily heard the N-word 500 times a day.
In Baltimore, however, I didn’t encounter a single counter protestor. Not a single sign lambasting protestors hung from a single lamppost. No gutted deer hung from trees. I didn’t hear the N-word one time. Not once.
On Monday and Tuesday, the conversation in mainstream and social media focused on the woes of rioting, and there were reports of counter protest in Baltimore over the weekend. But by the time I announced my intention to go to Baltimore Wednesday night, the conversation had turned from “thugs” destroying their own neighborhoods to the destruction of those neighborhoods by external forces, particularly a shocking history of police misconduct. When a similar report came out about Ferguson in September, it was virtually ignored until the Department of Justice released similar findings in its March 4 report, much of which was overshadowed by their vindication of Officer Wilson.
This difference in the conversation and the coverage of that conversation, no doubt, contributed to State Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision to indict, which led to an even greater shift in public opinion.
The question still remains: What caused this shift, and how did it happen so quickly?
Many of the protestors in Baltimore believe its simple: they won the hearts and minds of everyday Americans by winning the media battle. Unlike the protestors in Ferguson, they said, protestors in Baltimore repeatedly and publicly pressured the mainstream media to tell the full story, not just follow the riots they so adamantly condemned.
- “No one wants to riot, but we been peaceful for years, and you ain’t never seen this,” one rioter in long dreads told me after the State Attorney’s decision, indicating the news cameras capturing the celebration at Penn North. “Fuck the CVS. What do they do for us? Cops have been beating us practically on schedule for years. Now people know it.”
- “If it wouldn’t have been for the thugs,” a protestor in a Yankees ball cap yelled as he celebrated with a group across the street from the burned-out CVS, “this shit wouldn’t even be happening. If it wouldn’t’ve been for the thugs, none of this…none of this shit would be going on!”
- “You saw how these people been getting on the media live on the news, right?” Brother Ali asked. “That’s why people are finally listening. They see through the bullshit.”
In the days leading up to Mosby’s announcement, many ardent supporters of law enforcement began to admit that, at the very least, the police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death should see their day in court. Many of those who criticized my decisions to march with the NAACP were suddenly willing to listen to the protestors. Within days of calling rioters “thugs,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was apologizing for it.
Somehow, seemingly overnight, the script had been flipped: the cause and context of the rioting became the media’s focus, not just the rioting itself, and, aided by Mosby’s announcement, Baltimore’s protestors were transformed from villains into heroes.
The transformation seems to have begun Tuesday afternoon when activist Deray McKesson undressed Wolf Blitzer who seemed to be baiting McKesson to condone rioting live on CNN. When Blitzer cited numerous reports of property damage, he asked,
“There’s no excuse for that kind of violence, right?”
“Yeah,” McKesson shot back, “and there’s no excuse for the seven people the Baltimore city police department has killed in the last year either, right?”
“You are suggesting,” McKesson added moments later, “this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines,”
a phrase still reverberating across the nation, and went on to criticize mainstream media’s focus on property damage over loss of life. Video of the interview went viral, sparking debate across the country about the media’s coverage of protests and opening coverage to the vast majority of peaceful protests.
That night, when Joseph Kent was arrested live on CNN for peacefully protesting past curfew, people took to social media to question the constitutionality of the curfew, calling his arrest a kidnapping. To many, it seemed un-American that a young man peacefully protesting should be arrested for breaking a state-imposed curfew. Many wondered if the curfew wasn’t intended to silence protestors rather than to quell unrest. Kent returned to the protests over the weekend, leading the march from City Hall to Penn North Saturday afternoon, and now has his own hashtag.
That same night, perhaps the most well known confrontation occurred when Kwame Rose confronted Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera. As Rivera attempted to interview Maryland state Senator Catherine Pugh on live TV, Rose accused Fox News of biased coverage of the uprising (that’s putting it lightly) and agitating protestors.
“…I want you and Fox News to get out of Baltimore city,” he said. “Because you’re not here reporting about the bordered up homes and the homeless people under MLK. You’re not reporting about the poverty levels up and down North Avenue. Two years ago, when the 300 man march, we marched from…Hilton and North to Milton and North. You weren’t here. But you’re here for the black riots that happen.”
When Rivera finally evaded Rose and attempted to conduct the interview despite the crowd of “vandals” (his words), another protestor, a young black woman, cried,
“You are making money by exploiting black people.”
“It seems like they want trouble,” Rivera said to Pugh.
“No,” Pugh quickly responded, “they don’t want trouble.”
“We want you to stop exploiting black people, Geraldo,” the protestor added. “Stop exploiting black pain!”
These confrontations coupled with reports of rival gangs uniting to combat looting and the community’s clean up efforts helped to repair the uprising’s image tarnished by rioting and the mainstream media’s obsessive coverage of it. On Friday, when the State Attorney announced the indictments, the story came full circle: the protestors in Baltimore were not in the wrong; the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray and Baltimore city officials were in the wrong.
The protestors had turned from, in the words of Baltimore’s mayor, a bunch of
The riot was no longer a riot. It was an uprising.
Now the vast majority of coverage has turned to the context of the uprising, race problems in America, the charges against the six police officers, the Baltimore Police Department’s response, and their history of misconduct.
- The protestors battled with the media, and they won.
- The protestors battled with local police and the national guard, and they won.
- The protestors battled America itself, and they won.
America loves it underdogs. America loves its winners. And America got both in the Baltimore Uprising.
The question is whether or not this good will will continue. Those patting themselves on the back for cheering rather than jeering protestors need to ask themselves how much the media had to do with that. Those proud of themselves for supporting the State Attorney’s decision need to ask themselves how they would have responded if her decision had gone the other way.
This, after all, is the reason people still question my actions in Ferguson. The people of Ferguson fought the same battle and lost. It’s no fun cheering for the losing team.
Photo Credit: Getty Images