Baltimore teenager Darius Craig was horrified when he saw his peers on television Monday night, burning buildings and looting shops.
He understood why they were angry — Freddie Gray had died in police custody, and many young black men before him had been treated with excessive force. Baltimore’s youth were tired of it. Still, Craig was sick about the violence.
“It was just disgusting. These are my peers, and this is my city,” Craig said. “It just painted a very negative image of the city that the city doesn’t deserve.”
And so Craig, a senior at Baltimore’s Digital Harbor High, got to work. “I said you know what? We’re going to march. We’re going to walk, we’re going to denounce the violence and create a better image of ourselves,” he said.
He reached out to community groups and to his city councilman, and on Wednesday — two days after riots erupted in West Baltimore — Craig led a march from Digital Harbor to City Hall, urging young people in Baltimore to rise up nonviolently.
Local politicians showed up. The rapper Wale joined in. “We love Baltimore!” they chanted. “Discussion not destruction,” their signs read.
Become a police officer, a teacher, a judge, Craig told his peers. Make the world the place you want it to be.
“We the youth have so much power,” he said, speaking through a bullhorn before City Hall. “We don’t realize that the future of this city is in our hands.”
Craig is no stranger to leadership — he is the president of both the student government and the National Honor Society at his school. But this was a very public kind of leadership at a moment when the world was watching.
Administrators and teachers at Digital Harbor said they were inspired by his leadership, and by so many students’ rejection of the violent behavior that overtook the city on Monday night.
Molly Carr, a government and psychology teacher at Digital Harbor, said she had worried on Monday that her students might get swept along in the violent demonstrations. She said she understood how that could happen.
“I think there’s a lot of pent-up anger,” she said, and students don’t feel they have ways to express themselves. “This instance may have seemed like, this is the opportunity to be heard,” Carr said.
She said she was heartened to learn that her students overwhelmingly rejected the violence they saw in the streets. “My students understand that’s not as effective as planning a march,” she said.
Craig is headed to the University of Maryland-College Park next fall to study political science. Here is the speech he delivered on Wednesday while standing outside City Hall in Baltimore:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We stand here in the heart of a city fractured but NOT broken. We are here in the aftermath of a crisis. We watched in horror as our communities were destroyed. Yet through the fire through the destruction, we saw a light. We watched as people, Christians, Muslims, Jews, old and young, black and white came together as one and began the rebuilding and the healing of our communities.
Unfortunately many students and teens went on a rampages in west Baltimore neighborhoods. They looted stores and burned down buildings, and in the process they degraded the positive reputation that so many of our youth have worked hard to earn. We watched as our youth were labeled as thugs and delinquents. As a teen I am disappointed in the actions of some of my peers.
Today I say that our youth love our city.
Today we stand together with politicians, members of our community, and our teachers denouncing all of the violence and crime that’s fallen on our city.
However we’d be lying to ourselves if we say that we don’t understand. Many of those who faced off with the police needed to release the anger that’s been built up in their generation, and the generations before them.
We are seeing the outcry of people who don’t feel protected by a system designed to protect them.
There is anger because they don’t feel that people like Freddie Gray or Michael Brown or Tavon Rice are getting justice. They are angry that our elected officials seem to protect the police and not hold them accountable.
Of course the government feels disrespected by the community, when the truth is the community has been disrespected by a system. It is a vicious cycle of mistrust.
Why let a couple of bad apples overshadow the hard work of hundreds of men and women who protect us every day? We are told “don’t generalize,” but when a couple of teens vandalize property, we’re all labeled thugs. When a few police officers brutalize – all police are despised. Neither is fair.
The system has paid millions of dollars worth of police misconduct settlements that could’ve been used to renovate our schools, or open our recreation centers. How much will it cost to rebuild our communities? I am not justifying the violence or brutality. I am asking for peace and progress, respect and responsibility.
There is no reason to destroy our communities or businesses. You’re destroying people’s livelihoods and taking resources from the community. The destruction of your city doesn’t earn justice for Freddy Gray, it creates a negative perception of our city. All eyes were on Baltimore. The violence must stop.
We the youth of Baltimore hold the responsibility of taking lead of Baltimore’s future. The only way to fix a broken system is by working the system yourself. Become a police officer, a teacher, a nurse, a social worker, a politician, a judge. Do something to fix the problem. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!
We the youth, have so much power. We don’t realize that the future of this city is in our hands.
We are better than the rioting that our peers have displayed. Today we displayed what Baltimore is about. We’ve marched from Digital Harbor to City hall. We walked here as beacons of hope; as a rainbow after the rain.
We are going to rebuild the city, we are going to heal the scars on our communities. When we leave here today, I want you to think how we can help our city.
Let all the media allow people across this nation to see this peaceful demonstration. Let them see how we locked arms and walked here; we are of all different backgrounds and have come together to stand in the light of a new day.
In order for us to change, you must leave your bubble. Leave your comfort zone. We must find something to stand for so we don’t get stood on. We must speak up, we must stand up. We must defy the stereotypes. We are not thugs nor are we criminals. We are human beings, we are powerful, we are intelligent, we are the future.
There will be a better tomorrow for our city. Our neighbors will come together. Our churches will coordinate with the mosques. The rich will coordinate with the poor. We will love each other and work together.
What has happened will live in our city forever, we cannot change that, we cannot change the past. What we can do is build a brighter Baltimore. We will put the charm back in Charm city. We loved Baltimore yesterday, we love it today, and we’ll continue loving it tomorrow!