/ Réflexions / Rencontres : Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement

Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement

Fabien D /20 mars 2016   

Solidarité - Amériques - Social


Since 2013, Black Lives matter movement is one of the most significative contemporary social movements in the United States. Many protests happened in different towns against police brutality and racial inequality. In 2015 the protests in Baltimore and the violences and arrests linked to them notably attracted media attention in the US and the world. State of emergency was declared in the city. In New York City, many protesters marched in solidarity, blocking off the traffic and one hundred was arrested. The death of Freddie Gray, caused by police officers and source of the events, was then ruled to be an homicide.

We were in Baltimore during the beginning of the movement and met different activists. These interviews with Sara Benjamin, Fourfiff Ali and Isaac Dalto show the social situation in the city, the origins of the movement and its interest. This article is also part of a more general inquiry into social issues and social movements in the United States during these last years. An interview with Noam Chomsky on this theme has already been published and others articles will come soon.

Can you present the black lives matter movement in Baltimore ? What were the steps of the movement’s development in this city ?

Sara Benjamin : Freddie Gray was killed by the police on 19th April 2015 and that was really the start of Black lives mater in Baltimore. They broke his neck. Since then, there’s been protests everyday with maybe hundreds or a thousand, a lot of people from the community. And there were a lot of children. I have organized about police brutality in Baltimore before but this is the first protest that I see where majority of the protesters are community members, with a lot of youth, preteens. Hundreds of people were protesting daily. And some people can’t protest, people can’t because they work, they go to school, they have children, so... There’s been also a lot of college students, youth has definitely noticed this issue and do concrete things about it. Different groups, different persons felt they could do something. There were more meetings, gatherings about issues, police brutality. They tried to organize movements, talked about police bill of rights, about community control, how community should take the responsibility to see and control what happens in our own neighborhood. Because a lot of cops are not even from Baltimore city, and they are in this position where have the right to kill. We have seen that a lot. The movement Black lives matter has been definitely strong here but it’s not just like one person or one group, it’s just kind of like everybody who feel like « ok, I’m black, my life matters ».

Fourfiff Ali : Black Matters Movement began in Baltimore because we had to form some type of unity with the community, you know, because now, we’re killing each other. But we have people in a position of power that destroy our community, killing our people, hurting our people, use excessive force, unnecessary force. So we brought the Black Lives matter movement along to show them that we’re not going let that happen, we won’t continue like that. The police department is not helping us, it’s not a protective service. We pay them by tax and they’re not a protective service, we, the people, we don’t need them. We can govern by ourselves. If we pay you as a protective service, don’t brutally beat us and lie to us, kill us, you know, treat us like animals. Harassment, police brutality, murders, insults, we don’t want that. When I was at the protest with the people, a lot of officers were, you know, laughing at us, like making fun of us. If we all come together, stay together, the community will get back, the crime will go down, the community will realize we are all together. I’m looking for a change and we are looking for a change.

I’m pretty sure the same things goes and goes in any other town. It’s not just here for Baltimore city, this movement is for everywhere world wide. You know, Black Lives Matter is not just for black people, it’s for everybody of all races. This movement, it’s not just thousands and hundreds of black people, it’s hundreds and thousands of white people. Black lives matter means everybody : we’re all human beings and we want to be treated like human beings.

SB : In America, there’s still a big race issue, you know what I mean. We, young black people, feel like we can’t trust the police. We see that in Ferguson, we see that in New York, we see that in California and we see that here in Baltimore, specially with our police department. Racism is not anymore plantations and chains, slaves but it’s racist because you have a lot of black poor people in the street being mistreated and killed.

Can you more generally present the social situation in Baltimore ?

SB : Here in Baltimore, there’s a lot of issues, it’s not just race and it’s not just police brutality. It’s about capitalism and a lot of people are not aware of how things are structured ... You know, housing is hard to find, we find a lot of youth that turn to the street, to maybe selling drugs or robbing or stealing, or committing crimes but we don’t look at the environment that can assist this up. In the school system now, it’s zero tolerance, like any kid whose maybe behavior is wrong, they’re gonna to kick them out from school, so our kids are pushed out from school... There are a lot of parents like my age (I’m 22). Our parents are from the 70’s and 80’s when crack, drugs really exploded, specially in the East Coast and you see a lot of youth here, they don’t even have parents. They really look up to their fathers and they find themselves in the streets, in the jail system, it’s kind of like you’re banned, like cast aside, you know what I mean. One of my favorite authors, Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, talks about the connection between capitalism, prison and the school, and racism is a strong factor. In Baltimore, there’s also the city curfew law that requires all children under 14 years old to be indoors by 9 p.m. on school nights, and requires minors older than 14 to be inside by 10 p.m. on school nights, and 11 p.m. on weekends and during the summer. They can be detained, they can get fined, get criminal charges. That’s really harsh. In each police district, they opened up detention centers. At the deepest level, I think it’s just war on poor and black people.

Also, the mayor, the city officials, use the word « safety » about police officers inside the school system. But safety is a mind-body-spirit thing, not just physical safety. I was raised in Baltimore city. There were parents with drugs, parents mentally ill. I’ve seen first-hand a lot of kids here who have been through a lot of traumas. In this situation, even in school, everybody is against each other : black are against the cops and even the black amongst themselves in the community because nowhere nobody feels safe. So if it’s a safety thing, don’t put cops with guns into school because that’s gonna enforce the culture of « it’s ok to have guns in a school ». That’s gonna bring more crime. If it’s really about safety, it should be about counseling, it should be about more resources for the community and not just these bullshit laws. That’s not going to help anybody.

Isaac Dalto : Our city is 65% black, 30% white, there’s about 622 000 people who live here.

The (illegal) drug industry is one of the biggest sector of the economy here. It’s completely untaxed, unregulated industry, of course ! The heroine trade in particular is like a rational economic choice for a lot of people. Because if you don’t have a college education in Baltimore city, the jobs open to you are service industry jobs or nursing home perhaps, with, in any case, minimum wages, which is like nothing. The largest employer in our city is Johns Hopkins University. It’s one of the largest sector in economy with healthcare. Baltimore was a maritime shipping city. In the last 30 or 40 years, there’s been a period of deindustrialization, like in the rest of the « Rust Belt ». These days, the faster growing industries in the city are food service and healthcare. I believe the fastest growing occupations in Baltimore are cashiers and security guards.

There’s a lot of food deserts in Baltimore, in the far west side. That means areas where there’s no food, no grocery stores available. People have to travel to find a supermarket or a grocery store. There’s like a wall, with racial lines, separating east side and west side. In west side, there are food deserts, working in the drug economy is a rational choice and so on... The general dynamic is that wealthy people are encouraged to come towards the middle of the city and other people, as property values rise, are sent out elsewhere, as you see everywhere.

SB : There are also a lot of (utility) shut offs, people are worried about excessive bills, unpaid bills.There are a lot of different aspects but that’s also capitalism, that’s why people are getting killed, specially black and brown youth, that’s why we don’t have any jobs, we’re homeless, it’s crazy. Honestly, a good thing about this case of Freddy Gray is that before, with the other cases in Baltimore, people knew about it, but this one was really getting people out, people telling their stories and people taking the streets. I feel that before, there were a sense of hopelessness like « black kill blacks all the time, we don’t understand how it started », etc.

It’s like we’re not even humans, we don’t have human rights here, if you’re black and you’re from Baltimore City, especially. You don’t see this in white communities where you have money, or even where, beyond race, there’s money. You don’t see that there. They try to keep this certain group of people where they are, lost in the system. You know what I mean. Getting government assistance doesn’t really getting any work. Dying young by the police, or in jail, living a life that is mediocre instead of other people that are living good lives. So that’s been a big problem here.

Sara, you’re very active in this movement and at a personal level, I know you have an experience as an unionist too. Can you tell us about that ?

SB : Actually, I started, I was working in BWI Airport. Before I worked there, I wasn’t involved in anything. I knew about the problems in my community but I just wasn’t motivated to do anything about it before I joined the union (Unite Here Local 7). My job was to unionize through them. I knew the union was a good thing but I didn’t really understand or really care until I had problems with my job and that became personal. I joined the union and fight at the time for fair contract and others demands. We went on strike and it was really successful, we had so much support... That was a struggle with self organization in the workplace. We had a lot of women workers from different countries. There’s a fear culture so it wasn’t easy but we were successful !

Then, Macdonalds and Starbucks became motivated to unionize. This influence was really great. But I stopped working there. I think the union stuff prepared me for others kind of activism, because we did a lot of stuff, picket lines, we talked to people, etc and we had solidarity from others unions and civil rights movement. Before that, I knew the issues but I didn’t really know where to start.

ID : Baltimore is still very much a « union town », this is a working class city. But « union town » is a pretty relative statement because union membership is low now. Our world today resembles to 1880’s much more to 1970’s, for example. We have precarious underclass and state that violently control this population in the present. People go from job to job much like Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) did in the coalfield and timber yards except that we’re doing it now in Macdonalds and Starbucks. A hundred years ago, the IWW had a strong hold in the textile industry. There’s certainly a memory of working class resistance here, we have the nickname « Mobtown » for a long time and more recently you have in the 1960’s the civil rights movements and black freedom movement.

But union membership in this country is 11% now, in the private sector it’s even lower (6 % I think). Our class is under attack now much more as it has never been. Baltimore is a neoliberal city. Generally in industry there’s no union, people are expecting in the work no protections. Unlike France or other countries in West of Europe, we don’t have mandatory paid sick days, we don’t have paid vacations leave generally.

Interview by Fabien Delmotte