A Staff Member Reflects From Baltimore
by Perry Wheeler
April 30, 2015
I love Baltimore with all my heart. On Saturday, I marched in the city with at least 5,000 other people committed to justice for Freddie Gray. The city is speaking, and its critical that we finally listen.
During the march, I had conversations with at least 30 people that were happy to see unity in tackling police brutality in the city. We marched over 3 miles from Gilmor Homes to City Hall. Peacefully. Freddie Grays family members and the surrounding community stood arm in arm at the front of the march. The entire crowd patiently waited 5-10 minutes, because we didnt want to leave until his family members arrived and could lead.
Along the way, No justice, no peace! and All night, all day, we will march for Freddie Gray! chants rang out from the crowd. People stood on their porches or called out from their windows in solidarity. There were women with strollers next to elderly men. People in wheelchairs next to teens with signs. White people next to black next to brown.
When we reached Camden Yards, Freddies family members addressed the crowd, commenting on how happy they were to see all races standing together for Freddie. It was the most moving protest Ive ever been to – a day Ill never forget.
My Connection to Baltimore.
I have incredible pride in Baltimore and its people, though I have never and will never experience the reality of many people in the city. Im a white male from a middle class family. I was born into privilege the second I entered the world. I grew up just outside the city in Catonsville and still spend most of my weekends downtown, despite living 30 minutes away in Laurel, MD.
Baltimore is one of the toughest cities in the country. We have streets and streets of boarded up homes at the same time that people are living homeless. Nearly a quarter of the citys residents live in poverty, which is well above the national average. The truth is that many in Baltimore dont have access to a good education and affordable housing due to deeply ingrained institutional racism. Instead, people are forced to the brink and struggle for survival. Too often, black lives are ignored or locked up, or killed, as was the case with 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
Throughout my life, Ive worked to listen and understand how systemic racism affects people in Baltimore. Residents have been speaking out for a long time about a city that undervalues an entire class of people. Its not until these issues are pushed to the forefront and confront people in positions of power that would rather ignore them that theyre finally addressed. Thats why I chose to march on Saturday, because silence is consent.
My hope is that Baltimore and its residents find peace and justice for Freddie Gray and the hundreds of individuals like him that were taken too soon or beaten by police. This must stop now. Its time that we work to address the root causes of these injustices, rather than continuing to treat the symptoms with band-aids.
Are We Listening Yet?
Many have responded to the Baltimore Uprising by focusing on the small number of individuals involved in acts of property damage and using that as a reason to condemn the entire movement. In doing so, they ignore their own white privilege, institutional racism, and the larger context of police brutality in the region.
Low income communities of color in Baltimore and across the country have a right to respond with anger, pain and disappointment at unjust and racist systems. Theres a reason people are turning to Martin Luther King Jr.s words in this moment: It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
The question is — what are the issues in Baltimore that most of America has been deaf to for years? And how are we now going to address them?
Moving Forward for Baltimore.
Six months ago, I joined Greenpeace because of the organizations commitment to say what is needed even when its difficult to do so. Greenpeace was founded on a commitment to nonviolent direct action in order to achieve a more green and peaceful future. We believe in bearing witness to injustice and are committed to challenging the systems of power and privilege that destroy the environment and place disproportionate burdens on vulnerable communities, and we are constantly working to live up to those beliefs. Thats why, as the #blacklivesmatter movement continues to build, were paying attention.
After protests erupted in Ferguson, MO last August, Greenpeace held staff conversations to learn more about the systemic connections between the environmental issues we campaign on and the fight for racial justice. Through the fall and winter, we asked ourselves how demands for racial justice being voiced by oppressed communities might shape our work– demands that focus on long-term solutions that address the root causes of injustices like Freddie Grays killing. These demands are about basic human rights and dignity:
- We must take a hard line against police brutality and the over-militarization of police on our streets. Impunity should no longer exist.
- We must end the cradle to prison pipeline.
- We must end the racist drug war that disproportionately locks up communities of color.
- We must work toward an economic system that lifts everyone up rather than beating our poorest communities down.
- We must guarantee access to quality education for everyone regardless of economic status.
- We must end voter discrimination laws that prevent low income communities from casting their votes.
- We must expand job opportunities for low income communities, and guarantee a living wage for full time work.
- And white communities must take a hard look at ourselves and speak out against internalized racism that dehumanizes ourselves and others, because when it comes to systems of injustice, white silence means consent.
Were still learning and listening, and we dont have all the answers, but at the core we recognize that we cannot make real progress if we operate in a system that perpetuates unjust power and leaves entire populations behind.
It will take even more than this to eradicate the root problem, but its time we get started.
My heart is currently with Baltimore, but my mind is already focused on how we make changes for a better future for everyone.