Feminism and the #BaltimoreUprising

 

Untitled designHow is Baltimore? I’ve heard that it can get really violent!” This, or some variation of the phrase, is the first thing many people ask me when I tell them I’m a student at Johns Hopkins. I’m sure that many people base this assumption more off of the movie/television show The Wire than actual statistics. But, according to Forbes, Baltimore is the 7th most dangerous city in the U.S. (x) Despite all this, I had never truly felt unsafe throughout the nine months that I had lived in Baltimore, until I went to my first protest after the murder of Eric Garner. (x)

That night, as I walked through the streets with people as outraged (if not more) as I was, I felt both a sense of security and a sense of fear. The security came not from the presence of hundreds of policemen and women, but from the knowledge that I was surrounded by activists who were trying to break down a system of constant injustice. My sense of fear originated from the fact that we were surrounded at all times by dozens of police on horses and motorcycles, who were refusing to identify themselves (an illegal act) and were constantly behaving overly aggressive towards protesters.

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A picture from a protest in January.

One man, an elementary school teacher, had his bicycle stepped on by a police horse, overwhelmed by the chanting and marching of protesters. The teacher, outraged by his ruined bicycle, began yelling at the officer, asking for his badge number. The officer refused to identify himself, nor did he apologize for ruining the man’s bike. At a different protest a few months later, I experienced the aggression of an officer firsthand. I was walking with dozens of other protesters down a street that we had shut down, when a police van full of riot gear almost ran me over. Shocked by the van’s proximity, I asked the officer what he thought he was doing. Instead of apologizing, the officer yelled back “Well, get out of the street!” While I understand that many cops take protests against police brutality very personally, I was surprised to interact with one who (recklessly) almost ran me over and then blamed me for it. Although I won’t argue that protesters always behave “politely” at rallies, in my experience the presence of hundreds police at rallies has only served to exacerbate tensions between both groups.

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A picture of my sign for the protests, “White Silence Is Violence”

Fast forward to the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died in police custody with injuries to his spinal cord. (x) Although this was not the first death of a Black person in Baltimore caused by the police, Freddie Gray’s death seemed to be the last straw for communities within Baltimore. Activists from around the city and the country rallied in honor of Freddie Gray. During this incredibly tense time, both riots and looting did occur in Baltimore. (x)

I watched two live streams of the riot at the Mondawmin Mall, one from the side of the police and the other from the side of civilians. I heard rubber bullets being fired and saw rocks and bricks being thrown from both sides. Yet nowhere in reports by the mainstream media did I see any counts of civilians hurt in this interaction. I could not find a concrete reason for why all routes of transportation from the mall (which students used to get home) were shut down. I could not find an explanation for why dozens of police officers had been sent to that area before anything had even happened. That night, riots moved throughout the city. Johns Hopkins sent out alerts urging students to stay inside, inciting (unnecessary) hysteria among students.

As I scrolled through Facebook that night, I saw dozens of posts by my Hopkins peers referencing the ongoing events in Baltimore. One post read “the threat is closer than I’d like…” while others asked friends to “#prayforBaltimore.” Unsurprisingly, these people had never been concerned with racial tensions in Baltimore before this point. Among these posts, however, there were a few very insightful posts written by Black students at Hopkins. Some students  stressed the importance of being understanding about the situation, while others shared personal experiences of racism at Hopkins. One friend even argued that “Hopkins should be in a state of emergency” rather than Baltimore, for the racism that Black students face on campus.

That week, I was able to participate in two protests that moved throughout different areas of the city. The first protest was primarily made up of students from around the city, from universities to elementary schools. Students of Johns Hopkins are typically (and rightly) known for being indifferent towards problems in the larger Baltimore community, so I was surprised but glad to see over a hundred students show up to the march.  It felt almost magical to see the streets filled with so many young people fighting for the same cause.

Towards the end of the protest, someone to my left caught my attention. While my friends continued walking forward, I slowed down and began staring at the person to my left, attempting to figure out if she actually was who I thought she was. After a few seconds, I caught her eye and asked (with a substantial amount of awe in my voice I’m sure) “Do you have a Twitter?” She slowly nodded her head, a knowing look crossing her features. It turns out, I was walking next to Netta, the very first activist I followed on Twitter after the events in Ferguson, Missouri. (x) We had a short conversation in which I frantically tried to convey my gratitude for all of her work in bringing attention to the racial inequality in the United States. It was Netta’s Twitter (along with many others) that urged me to educate myself more about race relations and white privilege, and I was so honored to be able to meet her. Walking alongside the activist that had inspired me to march made me feel as though things had come full circle in a way–like the universe was telling me that I was on the right path, somehow.

A protester outside of Penn Station holding a sign that says, "Nothing To Lose But Our Chains."

A protester outside of Penn Station holding a sign that says, “Nothing To Lose But Our Chains.”

 

At the first protest, people were handing out flowers to marchers.

At the first protest, people were handing out flowers to marchers.

The second protest I attended was much longer and a far more emotional experience. We stepped off from the Inner Harbor area (the main tourist attraction of the city) and walked to the prisons before making our way to West Baltimore, one of the more violent and impoverished areas in the city.

I knew that some areas of the city were not necessarily in the best shape. But, before actually seeing West Baltimore, I had no idea of the severity of the situation. Until you are actually looking at buildings that are hollowed out and abandoned, it is very hard to understand how much investment these neighborhoods actually need. Throughout my time in Baltimore I had primarily spent my time in neighborhoods such as Hampden and Towson i.e. neighborhoods that were mainly white and affluent. In my mind, I was getting out of the “Hopkins Bubble” by traveling to these neighborhoods (among others). After some reflection, I realize that the closest I had truly gotten to leaving the bubble (before my trip to West Baltimore) was tutoring a struggling Baltimore public high school student. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to live in a city without seeing any of its struggling parts, but to ignore that struggle is to erase the experiences of the people who live in those areas.

The people of West Baltimore did not seem to feel hopeless as they cheered us on from their houses. Cars that were stopped in the streets did not honk and drivers did not yell. Instead they blasted music, joined in on chants, and high-fived protesters. Despite the obvious lack of governmental investment in the community, the people in this neighborhood had so much spirit. Their energy was contagious–the march throughout West Baltimore was not one of desolation and hopelessness, but rather one of excitement for the possibilities. Although I know the road to justice will be long, the solidarity among Baltimoreans gives me so much hope for the future.

A young child giving high-fives to protesters in West Baltimore.

A young child giving high-fives to protesters in West Baltimore.

A woman and her children marching at the second protest.

A woman and her children marching at the second protest.

When I speak to people about social justice and feminism, I always emphasize how important it is that we continue to educate ourselves so that we can continue to be assets to the movement. Michael Brown’s murder and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri opened my eyes, and for the first time, racism became real to me. Although I am Mexican, I am constantly read as white, and with that comes privilege that many of my fellow Latinas do not have. I had grown up in a predominantly Mexican city, and although I am sure that racism did occur, I never really took notice.

After Ferguson, I could no longer go back to believing that racism was not very relevant to the feminist discussion. I began following many wonderful Black activists on Twitter, and through their tweets, I slowly became more and more educated about the issues of racial injustice.

Some hollowed out buildings in West Baltimore.

Some hollowed out buildings in West Baltimore.

For decades, the feminist movement has excluded women of color, especially those of lower socioeconomic statuses. With the growing movement for social justice, it is important to take into account the fact that different races and ethnicities face different problems. For example, the pay gap does not affect all women equally. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic/Latina women are paid 53% percent of what white men are paid, and African American women are  paid 60% of what white men are paid, while white (non-Hispanic) women are paid 87% of what white men are paid (x). Recognizing that different women face different issues is vital to the movement for gender equity. Instead of promoting the idea that all women face the same problems, it is vital that feminist be aware of the different experiences that women face in terms of race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexuality, gender identification, and other defining factors. In order to live in a truly equal society, we cannot just lump all women together and assume that they all have the same issues.

A mother and her child showing solidarity with protesters in West Baltimore.

A mother and her child showing solidarity with protesters in West Baltimore.

Through reading posts on the internet written by Black women and listening to their stories and experiences in person, I have begun educating myself. I know this is just the first step to take in my life and my feminism to combat racism in any way that I can. From bringing up the conversation with my white peers and family, to marching alongside activists from around the country, I have slowly begun breaking down my own internalized prejudices and challenging my white privilege. However, this doesn’t mean that I have it all figured out. When I went to my first protest I was alone and clueless, but as we began marching and chanting I felt as though I had been doing it for years. I always have to remind myself and others that no one has it all figured out–we are all still learning and we all still have opportunities for personal growth. I feel so lucky to have been part of the #BaltimoreUprising, and I know that the movement (in both Baltimore and around the country) is going to continue to grow and move forward. Although I’m not an expert on any of this, I try my hardest to keep myself educated about it so that I can continue to grow with the movement. When people ask me why I care so much, or why I feel it is so important that I participate actively in protests and rallies, I simply answer that I want to be on the right side of history.

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Regular Contributor Gabriela R. is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Writing Seminars and English with minors in Marketing and Communications and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Keep up with Gaby here.

This article was edited & prepared for publication by Callie Garp. Photographs courtesy of Gabriela R.


 

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