In the days after civil unrest in Baltimore overtook the news coverage on the mysterious death of Freddie Gray, Baltimoreans redoubled their effort to show what Charm City is really about.
Community members came out in droves towing brooms, trash bags, and trash cans — maneuvering around the flurry of protestors, fully armored police officers, and a bevy of news cameras — to clean up and restore order to their community after Monday night’s melee. Church and community groups served food to kids who wouldn’t get free lunch with schools closed.
But it turns out these efforts may be more than a stopgap to address the immediate needs of residents adversely affected by around-the-clock police presence. Slowly but surely, a movement has been coalescing in Baltimore through the collaborative efforts of clergy people, educators, youth advocates, and members of street gangs — key players who have the clout to unite their groups around the pressing needs of the community and start the long-term planning to address the city’s long-ignored plight.
“This is ongoing because we in Baltimore are in this for the long haul. People under their own initiative and creativity have brought supplies that have transformed Baltimore beyond what the city has seen,” Reverend Eric King of Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Baltimore told ThinkProgress.
This week, United Methodist’s fellowship hall morphed into a cafeteria and gathering space for children who King said most likely wouldn’t have been able to eat in lieu of school closures on Tuesday. That day, more than 100 youngsters converged on the grounds of the church where they feasted on pizza, sandwiches, granola bars, and fruit snacks while gulping down cold water and juice. An interdenominational group of volunteers that included teachers and parents watched as children frolicked around the space.
In the days since outside police forces entered Baltimore and city officials imposed a curfew, local volunteers and allies from surrounding cities have funneled in pounds of food, clothing, toiletries, and medical supplies to United Methodist Church. During his interview with ThinkProgress, King discussed plans to distribute meals and create care packages for community members who have been without medication since the nearby pharmacy went up in flames.
It doesn’t stop there. With the help of local activist groups and Pastor Willie Johnson, a Ferguson protester, King and other church leaders said they want to spark conversation with the disillusioned youth about their frustration and help them channel their energy to create substantial, long-term solutions to combat decades of harsh policing, high unemployment, neighborhood decay, and other social ills that affected residents long before the cameras showed up.
“Ministers across the country have walked through a community that has been looted and talked to the people. We met with gang members from different sets and learned that there were many who tried to get looters to stop robbing the store. This has opened up conversation about what we could do to better our community,” King said.
For Baltimore teacher Chelseay Parks, that conversation with her second graders has to take place amid the chaos, especially since many of them have most likely heard accounts of the protests from their older siblings. Parks, a native of Atlanta, spent much of the morning assisting other volunteers with food distribution and conversing with parents about how she should best address the events that have unfolded in the last couple of weeks.
“Part of our job is giving them a little more info without sacrificing their childhood. Kids in this environment always have teaching moments about the injustices they face,” Parks told ThinkProgress. Parks recounted an instance when she taught a group of fourth graders about implicit bias with what she described as the “blue eyes, brown eyes exercise,” a teaching tool that has been used since the 1960s to explain racial discrimination in a tangible manner by dividing students by eye color and giving the blue-eyed students special privileges.
“It’s difficult to communicate with the younger students because they won’t understand structural racism and how things are stacked against them,” Parks said. “It’s difficult to navigate but we want to have a conversation about it. In education, it’s important to understand what you’re going through and how external influences put you in your current position.”
Niya Rucker, a 21-year-old Park Heights resident, was counted among the volunteers Tuesday morning. Despite reaching the height of her frustration with the outsiders who came into Baltimore after the riots broke out, Rucker remained determined to beautify her neighborhood and talk to her contemporaries who have neglected the words of cautious adults.
“If you’re not from Baltimore, you wouldn’t understand,” Rucker told ThinkProgress. While she condemned the actions of those who looted stores, Rucker, who recounted a dismal childhood, said their anger resonated with her. That’s why she has recently taken more of an interest in advising younger residents. “The children here don’t have proper guidance. This stuff kicked off because a post was made for them. They don’t know what they’re fighting for.”
However, Baltimore-area youth advocate Craig Jernigan said the young looters are the exception rather than the majority. After watching the high point of the conflict around the corner from his house on Monday, Jernigan met with other youth advocates. He said that plans are in motion to pass out supplies to families affected by the fires and give fire fighters moral support. This project, set to jump off with the help of allies from Harrisburg, PA, will be led by at least 20 young people currently under state supervision.
“These young people weren’t out there looting and rioting and I’m really impressed with that,” Jernigan, program director at the Baltimore Youth Advocate Project told ThinkProgress. “Many of the advocates told me that their youth were safe at home and accounted for. The ones I’m talking to are frustrated. They are all saying the same message about being treated wrongly by police and getting racially profiled. They see it all of the time. It’s not just about Freddie Gray. It’s bigger than that. It’s about all of their peers. They’ve calmed down and their focus has increased.”