Why New Yorkers Protest a Death in Baltimore

Protesters march uptown on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard during a rally in Harlem on Saturday, May 2, 2015. (Azure Gilman / NY City Lens)

Protesters march on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard during a rally in Harlem on Saturday, May 2. (Azure Gilman / NY City Lens)

Thomas Chapman Wing stood on the corner of West 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in downtown Harlem holding a large sign that read: “It’s unethical to tell my students to trust the police.” The other side of it read: “Stop telling people of color that their experience is an illusion.”

Wing stood facing the busy sidewalk so the sign was visible to passersby—mostly young African-Americans and families out on a sunny and warm Saturday afternoon amid the bustle of street vendors hawking New York City souvenirs. He was one of about 150 people who gathered in the square in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building to protest the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray.

“I’m here to show solidarity for the movement that I believe in,” said Wing, who is an assistant professor of French at CUNY’s College of Staten Island. He said he started talking to his students about police brutality after the death of Eric Garner in July, “and I could tell that they were really hesitant to talk about it with me.” But when they did start the conversations, Wing realized that his students are “afraid of the police even though they don’t do anything. They live in fear that they might be mistaken for criminals no matter what they do.

“I recognized that I’m a white teacher standing in front of a classroom with majority black students,” he said, “and what I say somehow counts for more than what they say. I felt a great sense of responsibility to do something.”

This same sense of responsibility is what prompted Synead Nichols, the 23-year-old founder of Millions March NYC, to organize Saturday’s protest. Though it drew a far smaller crowd than the hundreds that gathered at Union Square on Wednesday, the demonstrators were just as impassioned, especially in light of the criminal charges.

About 150 people gathered in Harlem to protest the death of Freddie Gray on Saturday, May 2, 2015. (Azure Gilman / NY City Lens)

About 150 people gathered in Harlem to protest the death of Freddie Gray on Saturday. (Azure Gilman / NY City Lens)

The protest, which started in the square a little after 1 p.m., grew to about a hundred people an hour later when the protesters took to the streets. Holding a black banner with the words “Black Lives Matter” that spanned nearly the width of the Boulevard, they peacefully marched north—to chant for a few minutes in front of the 32nd precinct before heading back to the square. They were trailed by half a dozen police vans and at least 10 police motorcycles.

About 60 police officers in blue uniform and a dozen community affairs officers in polo shirts also stood near the protest. But no violence broke out and no arrests were made, in marked contrast to Wednesday’s protest in New York, in which 143 people were arrested and scuffles broke out when demonstrators were prevented from marching in the street.

Why were they there? Like Nichols, the demonstrators we spoke to all had an answer to that question, but each expressed it slightly differently. Feminista Jones, a writer and mental health social worker who has organized protests against police brutality in New York City and is a vocal leader on social media, brought her 8-year-old son to Saturday’s rally. She told the crowd that raising him is “one of the most rewarding and terrifying things that I can do.” After mentioning Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was shot by police while out playing with a toy gun, she said: “I’ve been bringing my son to these rallies because I am trying to teach him the value of protest and defending your right to exist.”

Jones, who said she wasn’t surprised by the charges filed against police officers in the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore, said later that the protests nationwide were responsible for the swift action. Gray died April 19, a week after he suffered a severe spinal injury. According to Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Gray was injured while handcuffed and shackled in a Baltimore police transport van as it drove to the station. Six officers were formally charged on Friday in his death, with Mosby concluding that Gray was never secured by a seatbelt in the van, against police policy, and that officers ignored Gray’s repeated requests for medical help.

“I knew that they were not going to let them get away because the tensions have been too high, people have been protesting too much,” Jones said. “I think the protests do matter. I think the marching does put pressure on them to act in that way and that’s why I tell people to keep it going. It’s when we’re quiet that they can slide through and get away with doing whatever they want.”

Cherrell Brown, a community organizer with Equal Justice USA, a grassroots organization focused on reforming the criminal justice system, echoed Jones’s sentiments.

“It’s important to show the system that we aren’t done. We’re not going to go quietly away,” she said. “Every time you devalue black lives, every 28 hours you extra-judiciously kill a black person, we’re going to come out strong.”

Brown said that the charges in Baltimore were a “victory” for the people there but that it is also “bittersweet” because “this kind of, quote-unquote, justice from the system is what should be expected, not celebrated.”

“It’s not just about those six individuals,” Brown said. “It’s about systems and institutions. So as much as we need to hold these individuals accountable, we have to hold the systems accountable.”

Arielle Newton, a New York-based blogger for The Huffington Post, Black Millenials, and others, agreed. “As a society, we have a really bad tendency to be happy with the crumbs that are left on the table,” she said. “When I see people applauding, rightfully so, but applauding that charges were actually brought, that tells me that we have such a low bar for what we consider to be justice.

“Justice,” Newton added, “is no more cops killing black kids.”


Azure Gilman and Malena Carollo contributed to this report.