I Went to Baltimore to Help. Here’s What I Saw, Heard, and Learned

One activist’s notes from the unrest.
A march in Baltimore earlier this week. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Apr 29, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Dominique Hazzard is a Washington-based organizer for Black Youth Project 100, a social justice organization. Her work has appeared in The Root.

This is me trying to process, trying to share what I witnessed yesterday in Baltimore, trying to amplify voices. I’m an organizer with the Black Youth Project, a social justice advocacy group, and I live in Washington, D.C. I took the train about an hour north, into Baltimore, to prepare and distribute meals for students who missed lunch due to school closings. The schools were closed, of course, because of the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray.

I walked around a Baltimore neighborhood to listen to residents and see what they were experiencing. Mostly, I saw young black people overflowing with pain, exasperated at their core, keenly aware of the structural violence they have been subjected to for their entire lives, and willing to do whatever they need to do to end it, because everything else they have tried has failed.

I met a young father who, in one breath, grieved for Freddie Gray—who used to buy his son candy. In the next breath, the young man blasted rich people who buy homes in Baltimore as investments—only to abandon them. “Who owns these houses?” the young man asked. “People who don’t live here. They buy them for cheap to get a tax break, then let them sit here boarded up.” He talked about Baltimore police officers who commute to his neighborhood from faraway suburbs.

He stayed out at Monday night’s uprisings as long as he could, until he had to go pick up his son. He said he has marched, and that didn’t work. He has boycotted, and that didn’t work. He has voted, and that didn’t work. “So just what the hell am I supposed to do?” he asked. “But the police tryna tell us we can’t have human emotion.”

Young Baltimore residents dance to the beat of drums. (Photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters)

A couple steps away, part of the small crowd that had gathered in front of a police barricade on North Avenue and Carey Streets—where some of the protests have occurred—a black teenager in blue shorts talked about looting. “I want a job,” the man told me. “People want to take care of their families.”

On a nearby block, I saw a small-business owner and her daughter sitting in the busted doorstep of their store. They were Asian American. They said everything had been taken. It was sad. Even sadder to me—and I promise you this is not hyperbole—is that the state of that store looked indistinguishable from some of the homes of the students we were delivering lunches to. I could not tell the difference between blocks that had been hit by riots and blocks that had not. That is the level of economic violence people are living under.

The experience has made me even more flabbergasted by the question of “Why are people destroying their own community?” Folks told me, “We don’t own anything here.” It was clear that communities had already been destroyed by poverty, by exploitation, by structural racism long before any riots connected to the murder of Freddie Gray.

There are war tanks roaming the streets in groups in the middle of the day, passing kids playing tag like it’s normal. There are SWAT teams taking over residential streets—just because they can. Elderly women with grocery carts are stressing out, trying to determine how to get around the SWAT teams and, ultimately, get home. There are helicopters flying over neighborhoods constantly. The woman I spent the day with told me that it isn’t because of the uprising. It’s like that every day. Every day, there are helicopters hovering over citizens. It’s like a surveillance state.

There are Baltimore heroes. There were churches opening their doors. Teachers knocked on the doors of their students’ homes to make sure they had lunch.

Baltimore residents clean up a city street after days of protests. (Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

There was Baltimore determination. I met a young woman who was shot by rubber police bullets on Monday night while standing in the crowd. She caught one in the back and one in the foot and lost feeling in her toe. Still, she returned.

There was Baltimore bravado. I heard a young man proclaiming loudly: “They think we ain’t human ’cause I sell drugs? They think we ain’t human because we don’t speak the King’s English? We rejected that shit! And we are smart, smarter than ever. I know I’m smart.” He pointed to the broken-windowed apartments across the street. “I grew up in those apartments. My mama was a crackhead. I been out here since I was 11 years old,” he said, adding: “Surviving.” 

Next to him, his friend asked me to record him and post the video on Instagram for the world to see. In a raspy voice, he explained that he is willing to die for the movement, but that he wants the Baltimore police to know that he intends to grow up to be a “successful black man” and is “optimistic that all my black brothers and sisters gon make it.”

Baltimore Black Youth 1

This young man asked me to share his message. #BaltimoreUprising #FreddieGrayI didn't capture his first sentence, it was something like "These police gon learn one way or the other. Either they need to go to jail, or this is what we'll do."

Posted by Dominique Forward Hazzard on Tuesday, April 28, 2015

There was Baltimore resilience. Two blocks down from one of the tank barricades, someone had brought out a boom box. Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us” was blasting. A neighborhood man known as “Michael Jackson” was performing. At least 40 people had gathered and were dancing with him.