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How Have Baltimore Protests Stayed Peaceful? Activists Take Lessons From 2015

Kwame Rose, holding a megaphone, helps lead a group of several hundred people in Baltimore during a march protesting police on May 2, 2015.
Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun
Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Kwame Rose, holding a megaphone, helps lead a group of several hundred people in Baltimore during a march protesting police on May 2, 2015.

Thousands of people in Baltimore have joined multiple marches over the past week, mourning the violent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and calling for less funding for the Baltimore Police Department and more money for education, health and local groups in predominantly African American neighborhoods in the city.

The Baltimore Police Department is one of a handful of major city police departments that is currently operating under a federal consent decree after the Department of Justice found that the department has used violent and discriminatory tactics in poor and predominantly black neighborhoods for years.

"Police don't keep black communities safe," says Tre Murphy, the director of strategy and programs at the Baltimore-based group OrganizingBlack, which supports local activists.

Baltimore's protests have unfolded peacefully this week, unlike demonstrations that rocked the city in 2015 after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody of a spinal cord injury. That year, some protesters destroyed property, and Baltimore police reacted with tear gas, rubber bullets and widespread arrests.

Now, local activists who took part in the protests five years ago are supporting the young people who are organizing this year's demonstrations, and helping them avoid unplanned violence.

"You have thousands of people that came out and protested peacefully in a city like Baltimore, where we have so many grievances against the federal government, against the local government, against our policy makers and, most importantly, our police department," says Aaron Maybin, a Baltimore artist and educator who is supporting the young activists leading this year's demonstrations. "It's a testament to the strength of our community that decided that we weren't going to have a repeat of 2015."

Kwame Rose, one of the many activists who were arrested in the wake of the 2015 protests, says he is trying to help this year's protest leaders be strategic about how they express their rage.

"My role at these protests that have been happening in Baltimore is to say, 'Yo, express your rage,' " he explains, but at the same time he says he is trying to prevent people from acting violently at protests that are meant to be non-violent.

"As somebody who sees myself as a community leader, and I know people follow me, I'm going to make sure that they don't do anything to put themselves or the people at the protest in jeopardy or in harm's way," Rose says.

That means putting his body on the front lines again. On Monday night, armed with a face mask and a megaphone, Rose, Maybin and a handful of other local leaders and activists joined a large, peaceful demonstration organized by local black teenagers.

The march closed part of a major highway in the city and proceeded to Baltimore City Hall, where it ended around 6:30 p.m. But as the evening continued, a group of demonstrators lingered. At least one person set off fireworks near police.

"We were kicking people out," who were acting violently, Rose says. At one point, a group of demonstrators walked someone who they thought had set off a firework over to a line of police, effectively turning him in to the authorities.

In the wee hours of the morning, the police warned protesters to disperse, and Rose got on the megaphone and asked demonstrators to leave. "Go home," he yelled. "We proved our points. We did what we came here to do tonight. Do not turn this into something it does not have to be."

"I've been where you're at, five years ago," he says, referring to the 2015 protests. "I'm telling you, tomorrow we come back. We show again."

Murphy says Baltimore's past experience with protesting police brutality offers strategic lessons for those in other cities. People acting as peacekeepers, such as Rose, can help protect those who organize protests from being blamed for violence or property damage that occurs after the protest is officially over.

Murphy also says Baltimore's experience offers lessons for the news media and for those watching protests unfold from afar.

"The narrative cannot be and should not be about 'How do we keep it peaceful?' Versus, you know, violence or property damage," he says. "The narrative in this moment has to be, 'How do we fix these issues so that people aren't angry?' "

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.