April 28, 2015 at 5:28 pm EDT | by Steve Charing
Baltimore at a ‘crossroads’ after riots
Baltimore riots, gay news, Washington Blade

A scene from last week’s peaceful protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray. (Photo by Veggies; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The riots and looting that rocked Baltimore this week impacted the entire city and LGBT leaders were quick to weigh in on the issues of poverty and police violence that triggered protests that began last week.

The death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died on April 19 from a severe injury to his spinal cord sustained while in police custody, raised questions about police procedures that resulted in protests in the city. By Monday, the protests turned violent, with widespread rioting and arson; at least 20 officers were injured, 144 cars were burned along with 19 buildings.

That day, Baltimore high school students learned of a “purge”— referring to a film in which crime is legal — on social media and groups descended upon Mondawmin Mall in Northwest Baltimore.

They proceeded to nearby streets where they lit vehicles on fire, looted local businesses and burned down a CVS store among other structures. Gov. Larry Hogan issued a State of Emergency for Baltimore, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called for a week-long curfew effective Tuesday night.

Scenes of the fires, looting and destruction that began on the day Freddie Gray was laid to rest were shown all over the world. Many businesses including those that are LGBT-owned have been affected by the disturbances and the curfew and curtailed their hours.

Baltimore’s LGBT community is diverse and not shy about expressing its opinions. Clearly, there is anger and frustration. Some prefer peaceful solutions; others are more militant.

Joel Tinsley-Hall, the first African-American executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB), explained that the death of Freddie Gray goes beyond police brutality.

“As far as the events since Mr. Gray’s death, I fully support the peaceful protests. Through peaceful means we can begin good conversations that will bring forth real solutions to address a broken system. A system that for too long has held in place lines of separation between various groups based on race, ethnicity, age, sexual identity and orientation and the list goes on.

“I, of course, condemn those who brought violence to the streets of our city. That is not the path to healing our city and certainly does not do justice to the memory of Freddie Gray. The ‘thugs’ as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called them are bringing even greater harm. The result of their actions is a further marginalization of the very people and neighborhoods we need to be building up.”

Carlton Smith, executive director of the Center for Black Equity Baltimore and community leader at Moving Maryland Forward Network, noted that peaceful demonstrations are a significant part of black history.

“I’m very devastated by the activities of this week and the media also reporting on riots,” Smith wrote in an email to the Blade. “Especially, when there were peaceful protesters and marchers who participate in their civil rights movement. Baltimore is not Ferguson! All LIVES matter especially black LGBTQ lives.

“Constantly, our lives go unnoticed because of who we love. Mia Henderson and so many other black trans individuals’ lives were taken by ruthless criminals and yet the black community didn’t even budge on her murder.

“The LGBTQ community still protests peacefully without tearing down the city. We are still waiting to hear about her murder. We must have communications with our civic leaders and community stakeholders to set the change we believe that needs to happen without riots. We are civil servants here to serve all of humanity.”

Community activist Rev. Merrick Moises said this week’s developments were inevitable.  “Many of us, living and working, in these communities are saddened but not shocked by what happened,” Moises said. “Years of neglect, poor education, mass incarceration, drugs and police brutality have led to this moment.

“We are at a crossroads. The question is how do we meet this profound challenge, to develop our city with equity and compassion? How do we collectively meet the needs of all of Baltimore, leaving no one behind, moving forward collectively and in rhythm with the infinite potential and purpose of humanity?”

Jabari Lyles, co-chair and education manager for GLSEN Baltimore, and a resident of Reservoir Hill near the epicenter of the riots, expressed anger at the situation.

“I am sad, and I am also fed up. The problems that caused the civil unrest in Baltimore on Monday and last week are problems that have been facing our nation for centuries. I stand with anyone who is ready to address our deeply entrenched tradition of structural and systemic violence against black people in America.

“It is time for us as social justice advocates and activists, the ones who accurately interpret systemic oppression, to merge our movements, and realize that we are ALL up against the same, wielding power and privilege that continues to limit the idea that we, minorities and allies alike, are secondary citizens fighting for benign causes.”

Cecil County resident Samantha Master, a youth and campus engagement manager at HRC, has family in Baltimore. She directed her anger toward the local government as well as at black people who defend the police.

“I am livid—not equally livid to the amount of disgust and anger I feel at the state, but livid nonetheless—at black people who themselves have been harassed, accosted and assaulted by police, have bore witness to the deplorable and inhumane conditions that black people in Baltimore City have been forced to live under, and whose self, sons and/or daughters frequent the space where Freddie Gray was killed trip all over themselves to defend the police and to deride and mock people’s anger and frustration.

“You are being criminalized. Your babies are being killed and criminalized. Your schools are tools of criminalization, and yet you lambast your children for putting their bodies on the line and screaming ‘enough!’”

Master added in an email, “If you can honor Stonewall via prides—which is the commemoration of a riot—then surely you can elevate your analysis to think through why black people might be livid to be CONSISTENTLY unjustly murdered in the street with no explanation and no accountability. Surely we can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.”

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland who has lived in Baltimore with her wife for 10 years, also said existing problems in the city sparked the reactions.

“What is happening in Baltimore, both the peaceful protests and the lawless behavior of some people, is a response to deep-seated systemic problems that many don’t want to hear about, let alone deal with.

“A history of distrust and mistreatment between the Baltimore Police Department and the black community, a city with history of deep divides between racial groups that still exists and is manifested in disturbing levels of residential segregation and a public education system that has been abandoned by many of the city’s non-black residents and a city with alarming rates of poverty and lack of opportunities for many of its residents.

“What we are seeing is our city and the people who call it home, screaming out in pain to all of these realities. These realties will not change in a week, but all of us who live here will continue the fight to dismantle these realities. Our city and its leaders and residents are tenacious and while this is a very trying time for all of us, we will not be deterred from our commitment to our city and doing all that we can to change its realities.”

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