Makayla Gilliam-Price is a 17-year-old high school senior applying to colleges. She’s also an activist bent on dismantling racism, on making Baltimore a place where black kids have an equal shot at safety, at an education, at the future.
And already, Gilliam-Price has found her voice.
She found it at debate camp a couple of years before Freddie Gray suffered a fatal neck injury in police custody in April 2015, before national media trained klieg lights on her city.
“She was just a 15-year-old girl trying to figure things out,” said Adam Jackson, who coached her at that debate camp and who continues to mentor her through his work at the Baltimore group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. “Now she’s on a steady rise to be a world-class leader.”
Gilliam-Price believed the Black Lives Matter movement that grew out of protests in Ferguson, Mo., had to be about more than fighting police brutality. It had to be about fighting racism on other fronts, including segregated schools, academic tracking that kept black kids and poor kids from taking advanced classes, and immigration raids that made Latino students afraid to go to school.
“Saying black lives matter isn’t just about a black man being shot by a white police officer,” Gilliam-Price said.
She co-founded a grass-roots student organization, City Bloc; led a high school walkout to protest a proposal to arm school police; and helped organize rallies for police reform in Annapolis.
Six months after Gray’s death, she was among a group arrested during an October sit-in at Baltimore’s City Hall, a protest against police officers’ use of force and lack of community voice in the hiring of a new police commissioner. Her activism has been covered in the pages of the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore City Paper and the Nation.
And last week, a high-ranking Baltimore police officer and police union vice president was removed from his post and transferred to overnight security after Gilliam-Price wrote a blog post calling attention to tweets of his that she said showed “deeply entrenched racism” within the police department.
She wasn’t interested in taking the individual officer down, she wrote, but in highlighting the fact that he was allowed to be employed, in a position of great power, despite his public statements.
“Exposing the problematic actions of people in power can often shed light on not who, but what should be our true target: the systems that create and uphold the individual instances of oppression that we struggle against daily,” she wrote.
And: “What % of the kids are committing crime,” he asked. “In Baltimore probably 90%.”
His tweets weren’t racist, Gearhart said in a recent interview, and he is not racist, either. He was speaking for himself, he added, and not for the department.
“She wrote that screed accusing me of every rotten thing in the book, and, you know, what was I supposed to do? I’m supposed to be libeled by this woman and then sit back?” he said. “This country was founded with a Constitution, and just because you put on a badge doesn’t mean you give up your right to free speech.”
Gearhart did not stop tweeting after Gilliam-Price called attention to his account. “Don’t think you can bully me or silence me,” he tweeted. He wrote (inaccurately) that Gilliam-Price was the daughter of a convicted murderer with “Daddy issues.”
The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police quickly moved to distance itself from its own vice president, tweeting that Gearhart’s statements “do not represent or reflect the opinion or beliefs of our organization.” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis also condemned Gearhart’s statements on Twitter.
“That was cool,” Gilliam-Price said of Davis’s willingness to speak out, given how frequently and publicly she has criticized his leadership. “I was low-key speechless.”
She said the fact that Gearhart has been transferred from Southern District shift commander to overnight security is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. She wants to see systemic reforms, starting with changes to state law governing how police misconduct is investigated.
“She has this fiery spirit about her, as much as I try to quell it — ‘Makayla, you can’t save the world, you have to go ride your bike,’ ” said her mother, Zelda Gilliam.
But Gilliam-Price said she’s living up to her mother’s legacy: When Gilliam was nine months pregnant, she was marching against the death penalty, marching to save the life of her brother, who was convicted of murder and who was executed by the state of Maryland when her daughter was 7 months old.
“I was literally born into a movement to save and affirm black lives,” Gilliam-Price said.
Now a senior at Baltimore City College — a competitive public magnet school — she hopes to go on to Occidental College in Los Angeles or the New School in New York. When she graduates from college, she wants to be a photojournalist. She wants to create an organization for people of color to cover their own communities.
She saw how the national media covered Baltimore’s unrest after Gray’s death, and she hardly recognized her city. There had been no such attention for so many issues that mattered to her community and for so many efforts to create positive change. “They only wanted to consume the spectacle of black people struggling,” she said.
She recently co-founded Assata’s Syllabus, a website dedicated to reporting on Baltimore and “controlling our narrative.” Her first piece for the site was the blog post about Gearhart’s tweets.