Now, the May 25 death of George Floyd has trained that spotlight again. But in welcome contrast to the 2015 riots and the current violence sweeping some American cities — including Washington — Baltimore’s four days of protests have so far been largely peaceful, even as it still struggles with many of the same problems.
The difference was not lost on some demonstrators as they gathered around 4 p.m. near the Inner Harbor, a destination for tourists, for the half-mile procession to City Hall.
“A lot has changed in the last five years,” Denzell Campbell, 26, of West Baltimore said as helicopters whirred in blue skies overhead. “This is actually pretty peaceful. I feel very hopeful. I feel like things are changing.”
Nearby, a young woman with a thick crown of black, woolly hair stood in the bed of a white pickup truck and yelled into a microphone.
“Power! Transformation! Miracles! I neeeed it!,” she called out.
“We neeeed it,” voices boomed in response.
Not everyone was optimistic that change is forthcoming. Angela, a woman in her 30s who declined to give her last name, said she came to protest systems that aren’t designed to protect black people like herself.
“I don’t think anything has changed. We’re still here,” she said. “I’m disgusted.”
As the throng of thousands strolled down Baltimore Street toward city hall, some on bikes or walking dogs, Albert Phillips said there was good reason for the more serene atmosphere: No lines of cops trying to pen protesters to an area.
“The one in 2015 was prompted by police intimidation,” said Phillips, 30, a fifth-grade teacher and Baltimore native. “Right now, there’s no police intimidation.”
The protest came on the eve of one of the most consequential mayoral elections in Baltimore’s recent history. Residents are exhausted by seemingly intractable poverty, violent crime, police corruption and shattered public trust after the city’s last elected mayor resigned amid scandal.
The years since the riots have been marked by more trouble. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby quickly announced criminal charges against the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest. A judge found three officers not guilty after separate trials, and charges were later dropped against the other three. Homicides have continued to climb, never dropping beneath 300 annually since the riots. Meanwhile, police corruption has continued with the arrest of more than a dozen officers after a federal probe determined members of the city’s Gun Trace Task Force were robbing citizens, conducting illegal searches and collecting fraudulent overtime pay.
Baltimore City Hall also became engulfed in scandal when Catherine Pugh, the former mayor, was forced from office last year and pleaded guilty to a fraud scheme involving her self-published children’s books. Her replacement, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, 65, who left his role as City Council president to assume the job, is running to remain mayor but faces ample competition Tuesday. Whoever wins will also have to contend with the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus, including rising unemployment and massive revenue shortfalls in a city that has lost about 30,000 residents since 2014.
Yet the mostly African American city has been spared the very worst of the pandemic, ranking third in the number of coronavirus cases after Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. City officials have voiced concerns that the new wave of protests could cause the virus to spread, sparking new cases.
Young decided against imposing a curfew after Sunday’s downtown gathering proceeded peacefully, without the destruction witnessed in other American cities.
“We were a national example of what it looks like to engage in passionate protesting without widespread breaking of the law,” Young told the Baltimore Sun.
The crowd on Monday was the largest yet, stretching from city hall and the War Memorial — where Mosby had announced that she was prosecuting the officers involved in Gray’s arrest five years ago — down a block to the police department.
But while the station had been a target for demonstrators in 2015, it was nothing but a short stop this time before the protesters dissipated down Gay Street.
Xavier Brooks noted the marked difference between then and now. Then, he was a college student at McDaniel College, engaged in tense confrontations with the police. Now 24 and living in Owings Mills, he said he believes people are united.
“It feels like people are trying a lot harder to be peaceful. It feels like people are all on the same page,” he said. “Back then things felt a little more angry.”
Baltimoreans are tired, he said, of being in the news because of violence.
“There’s a conscious effort by people not to do that,” he said.
As the night wore on the peace grew more fragile, but still held, as the protesters began to police the crowd themselves. When someone aimed a mystery projectile at officers shortly after 9 p.m., the offender was quickly admonished. Minutes later, a row of more than 10 cops came out of city hall in riot shields and helmets — the first time all day that the situation had escalated. Two more items sailed through the air, as a group of young men urged restraint.
“Don’t throw a [expletive] thing,” one of them said.
Baltimore activist Kwame Rose later grabbed a white man who he said had been behaving violently and dragged him down Holliday Street, delivering him to officers. For a brief instant, it appeared police had fired rubber bullets nearby and the crowd scattered. But soon protesters returned to the intersection and calm reigned again.