You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

"It Took This to Bring the Light To Everything"

Baltimoreans say calls for peace are futile without an agenda for change

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Across the street from the burnt-out CVS destroyed in Monday’s rioting in Baltimore, Maryland, a church group in matching t-shirts broke out into song, joined by volunteers holding brooms and garbage bags: "Amazing Grace, how sweet your sound…" 

Derrick Graham, 45, erupted in anger. "That man who wrote that song!" he exclaimed, furious that the group would pick a hymn written by a former slave trader. 

"We go through Jim Crow, we go through the Civil Rights movement and now we’re here in the same place. Everybody want to keep on marching. But nobody’s making no demands, bro! Nobody’s making no demands!" Graham shouted, as a crowd gathered around him. When bystanders admonished him to calm down, as the crowd around him grew bigger, he grew even more frustrated. "I don't want to pray! I don't want to pray!" he shouted.

For Graham and other local residents of West Baltimore, the ubiquitous calls for "peace" and "non-violence" in the aftermath of Monday’s riots were futile without an actual agenda for change—starting with the police officers who detained Freddie Gray on April 12. Gray, 25, died one week after his spine was broken and voice box was crushed while in custody. The police have admitted mistakes in transporting Gray and failing to get him medical attention, and the officers involved are currently are on paid leave.

"All they’re saying is, 'Stop the violence.' The violence is because of the frustration. How are you going to curb the frustration?" Graham said. "What are we marching for? Are we marching to calm down? That's not going to happen. People are too mad."

Other local residents shared Graham’s anger and frustration: Of more than a dozen people I spoke to Tuesday morning, nearly all denounced the violence that destroyed local businesses and injured at least 15 police officers. But few thought that calls for peaceful demonstrations would be enough, and many pointed out that the riots had done something that the weekend's Freddie Gray protests had not: The world was now paying attention to West Baltimore.

"I don’t condone what happened—but something needed to happen," said Rovell Little, 45, standing across the street from a phalanx of police in riot gear and a crew from French television.

Little grew up in Gilmor Homes, the public housing project where Gray had lived, and calls Gray’s parents "wholesome people." Unlike most of the kids in Gilmor Homes, Gray grew up with both a mother and a father. "They raised a nice family in a hostile environment," Little said. He was pained to watch his neighborhood self-destruct on Monday; he would pick up medication for his aunt at the new CVS that rioters had looted and burned down. But he saw the outcome as inevitable. "I think it took this to bring the light to everything. I just do," Little said. "I'm not saying that it’s right. But I think it took something like this. I really do."

A group of young men—friends and neighbors of Freddie Gray's—stood on the opposite side of the street, watching as the crowds continued to grow. All said they’d regularly been roughed up by police: Thrown down on the ground, knees on their necks, carted off in paddywagons for a "rough ride" on the way to the station.

"I know some people feel some stuff shouldn't have been done, but something needed to be done," said a 25-year-old who identified himself as Richard. He was similarly saddened to see the buildings burned in his neighborhood, expecting it would be several years before they would be restored. The real trouble would come if the police officers who arrested and detained Gray didn’t come to justice, Richard added. "If they don’t get the people behind them bars that did what they did to Freddie, it’s going to be a lot worse than this," he said.

As the crowds outside the CVS began to swell, so did the solutions proffered up from bullhorns and megaphones: Stop the violence, pray to Jesus, register to vote!

Melvin Towns, 16, was one of the few in the crowd holding up a protest sign on Tuesday morning. He was immediately mobbed by photographers and camera crews desperate to capture his big, bold sign: “Freddie didn’t die in vain! Civil rights today!"

"I wanted to come down and let me voice be heard, keep my composure," said Towns, who came to the gathering with his high school creative writing teacher. He saw the police kneeing his friends in the head, "slamming them off their bikes and all that." He personally recognized some of the rioters on the streets on Monday night, watching as they lit fires all around the city. He didn’t think that was the solution—but marching wasn't, either.

"I'm not proud of it. But at the end of the day, we are mad. We're mad. We're tired. We're tired. We're tired of this," said Towns. "We can't get it by talking. We're going to get it by—by any means that’s necessary. Any means necessary."

"It don’t mean beating people up, innocent people up— it don’t mean that," Towns added quickly. So what would the real solution be? I asked. "All this marching around, it’s not solving nothing. Burning stuff down, what does that prove you? You’re proving them right," he replied. "It won’t stop until somebody—the right person speaks their mind."

But before I could ask him what kind of person he had in mind, a scuffle broke out in the crowd, and everyone around me started to run. The police were arresting someone.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Gilmor Homes.