It was one of the most consequential trips to a drugstore in Baltimore history.
Last spring, rioting and protests over the death of Freddie Gray put Baltimore in headlines around the world and at the epicenter of a national struggle against police violence.
Anger on the streets was followed by a heated rhetorical battle over what to call what was happening and whom to blame. For Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the violence was the work of “thugs,” a description she later retracted. But it was a common characterization that, in the age of social media, local residents countered with remarkable success.
Baltimoreans made news by criticizing the news, perhaps none more so than 21-year-old Kwame Rose, who dressed down Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera on camera. “You wanna report that we’re thugs and we’re breaking shit down,” Rose said. “We're the ones that need protection. Report for us.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.” If only it were just the last few years.
When anger and grievances stretch back centuries—recalling forced labor, murder, rape, theft, disenfranchisement, segregation, dehumanization, and more—is there another way to get a voice and relief? And what would such a process look like? In many other societies, the answer has been a truth commission.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995 after the collapse of that nation’s apartheid system, may be the most famous. But there are other, earlier models for pursuing what is known as restorative justice in the wake of mass human rights violations by governments. From 1983 to 1984, Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappeared sought answers for thousands of families who had loved ones taken during seven years of armed conflict. At least thirty-three other countries have employed variations on the model. That list includes some of the most chronically war-torn places on the globe, places like East Timor, El Salvador, and Rwanda. But not exclusively: A panel formed to study human rights abuses in East Germany helped facilitate reunification after the Soviet withdrawal. And just months ago, Canada concluded its own truth and reconciliation process that focused on crimes against indigenous people. The mechanisms vary, but in general these commissions employ public testimony supported by an officially sanctioned body, often followed by remuneration.
There are local and national precedents in the United States. In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act provided compensation for people of Japanese descent held in internment camps during World War II: More than 82,000 internment survivors and family members received checks of about $20,000 each. In 2006, the Episcopal Church of the United States formally acknowledged and apologized for its role in slavery and segregation, and urged each diocese to document this history. And in May, Chicago became the first city in the country to create a reparations fund for victims of police torture. They used the R word, the one that Baltimore native and Atlantic magazine writer Ta-Nehisi Coates injected into mainstream American conversation with his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.”
It’s against this backdrop that I spoke with activists and advocates for racial justice here and abroad about Baltimore’s unrest, its antecedents, and the prospects of some formal effort to repair the damage. They represent two countries, four generations, and a diversity of vantage points, including black nationalism, U.S. jurisprudence, and a memory that stretches back to the Jim Crow South.
These witnesses agree that confronting Baltimore’s history of racial violence with such a process could be beneficial. But they also warn that doing so won’t be as easy as many of us might hope.
The interviews have been condensed and edited for space.
Making their Case
Adam Jackson and Dayvon Love
Adam Jackson and Dayvon Love are members of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a black, Baltimore-based think tank and advocacy organization. [Full disclosure: I made a financial contribution to Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle in support of their first debate camp, and they’ve sought my advice on media relations.]
Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She is a member of OSI Institute-Baltimore Advisory Board and has lived in the Baltimore area since 1993.
Helena Hicks helped desegregate public accommodations in the city during one of the first lunch-counter sit-ins in the country, at Read’s Drug Store in 1955, as a student at Morgan State University. She has been an outspoken advocate for Baltimore’s underserved communities for decades.
Marie Wilson is a member of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Up until the 1990s, the Canadian government took 150,000 aboriginal children from their families and placed them in Indian residential schools. The forced assimilation these children underwent was part of a larger pattern of abuses that the commission describes as cultural genocide.
The First Days
Love: I got a text from a cousin of Tyrone West, who was killed by Baltimore City Police in July of 2013. [Editorial note: West died in police custody during a traffic stop; no charges were filed.] He sent me a picture of Freddie Gray in the hospital. I remember when I saw that picture, I said, “Wow. This is probably about to be my life for the next several months.”
Jackson: It was pretty crazy, those first few days. I got the same text message and photo that Dayvon got. I remember people saying, “Adam, are you going to the Freddie Gray protests?” And I'm like, “Nah, I’m not going. I’m good.”
As a person that’s been around people that’s been doing advocacy, I'm thinking that’s pretty normal: a black person being brutalized and killed by a police officer. I don't know how much people are going to get mad about that. What I didn’t see was all these people talking about it, and how suddenly it became national media. I had never seen anything like that. So I thought it was irresponsible not to be involved because that’s what everyone’s talking about, and what they’re doing is related to what I’m doing.
A Long Time Coming
Ifill: I gave a speech at HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] several weeks ago in which I talked about the questions that we grappled with after the unrest. They were not mostly about the individual officers who were involved with Freddie Gray, but they really were about the circumstances, the policies, the laws, and the practices that led to that encounter between Freddie Gray and those police officers in West Baltimore that day. Those circumstances and laws and policies have very deep historical roots in Baltimore.
Hicks: I went through the ’68 riots. They were horrible. They burned down much more of the city that time than they did this time.
There was always a fear that if enough blacks got in the street, they weren’t going to be able to control them. That goes all the way back to slavery. That’s just a mindset. When people find out that they can terrorize you and get away with it, they terrorize you and they do get away with it.
I’m not completely surprised that this happened. You beat a dog and beat a dog and chain him up. The minute he comes off that chain, you’ve had it. He’s going to go for you. He’s going to pay you back for all the things you did to him. And that’s exactly what they did. They took their rage out.
I think about one of the books that Toni Morrison wrote in which she has a guy who tells a tale, and everybody likes the story. So he tells it over and over again to lots of people, different groups of people. And at the end of the story, he has told the story so many times, he begins to believe it was true. I think that’s what’s happened with our telling of the civil rights movement. It’s presented as being much less violent, much more successful.
There were some successes, but if it had been totally successful, we wouldn’t have had the riots. They’re presenting it as a story like they wanted it to be, not what it was.
So they rebel. And, rightfully, they should.
“It’s not my job to make white people feel good about racism.”
Why Call It an Uprising
Love: I call what’s happened since Freddie Gray’s death an uprising, because historically, particularly in places that have been subject to colonial rule, the initial phase of sustained resistance is an uprising. People, to varying degrees and varying levels of organization, express in a very traumatic way their resistance to the current structure. “Uprising” politicizes it in a way that I think is very appropriate. I think using the term “riot” criminalizes and depoliticizes it to make it seem random and senseless.
The Power of Protest
Hicks: Protest reminds people that we don’t have it right yet and points out what still needs to be worked on: our inability to work together, go to school together, live together. We gotta keep working at it. If you don’t protest it, people will simply accept it.
Love: I would go as far as to say that the uprising is probably one of the reasons our current mayor decided not to run for re-election and why that race will be so interesting. It’s also opened up conversations among area foundations and philanthropic institutions about how they get their money and whom they fund.
I think it’s opened a window that we need to take advantage of. If we organize properly, it can yield some pretty important and substantive results.
“You can’t reconcile unless you have two groups on the same level. There has to be a common understanding that one side is just as good as the other.”
What Happens Next?
Ifill: We have always believed that one way to address the culture of policing is through the federal government’s grants to police departments. Over a billion dollars of taxpayer money goes to police departments all over the country to support them. Those grants should require training around issues of implicit bias, how to de-escalate encounters, how to engage in encounters with young people, and how to engage in encounters with the mentally ill.
Prosecutors have extraordinary discretionary authority. They are closest to the police. They very often know who the bad police officers are, and their own practices have to be examined and scrutinized, as they very often get these cases that come from police practices that involve racial profiling.
And in the courtroom, the reality of law-enforcement bias has been given too little weight. There’s too little room within the rules of litigation to account for this reality. Changing that will take time, but those of us who are civil rights lawyers have a laser-like focus on it.
Love: I think the fundamental piece is cultivating communal-based, independent black institutions. If you look at the black radical tradition and you look at the way movements have happened among people of African descent in this country, it was those independent black institutions that provided the basis for all of the icons that we hear about and know about today. Without those institutions, you may have a policy or two that gets through, but the people who are most directly affected by these issues won’t have the protections of their humanity that I think are necessary in a society like this.
Wilson: This is one of the things that is really important, I think, for the States and everywhere else to learn from Canada: It’s wrong to assume that the institution is always in the right. It’s wrong to assume that the institution always has adequate measures in place to supervise, to performance-manage, to discipline, and to get rid of people who shouldn’t be there in the first place. We just saw example after example of people who were acting in ways that were not only vicious but in many instances criminal.
It’s not just about the courts. Are there preventative safeguards to make sure there’s a fighting chance from the beginning and not just perpetual, after-the-fact cleanup—which, meanwhile, has allowed for a whole lot more rancor, distrust, and rage?
“The Uprising has opened a window that we need to take advantage of.”
Is Reconciliation Possible?
Wilson: I don’t want to be presumptuous about your situation in the States. I don’t live there. It’s not my truth. All I know is when you create safe space where firsthand accounts with real, lived experiences can be shared—when you bring good people into new rooms and allow each other to hear each other, perhaps for the first time—things can start to shift.
The most commonly used word at our events was “transformative.”
If you create mechanisms for people to take forward what they have learned, people will do good things.
Ifill: I wrote a whole book about truth-and-reconciliation processes, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century. There, I talked about the need for these conversations in local communities where lynchings happened.
But I think it’s important that people understand it’s not just talk. It is about policy, laws, and investments.
Look at, for example, housing segregation in this country, which was a practice that was created and perpetuated not only by individual races but by the federal government through a series of practices they engaged in fairly explicitly until the 1960s. The money and investments that we put into housing segregation—including what we put into the creation of the white suburbs and an interstate highway system that made those white suburbs possible—those are huge investments.
Well, if you decided you’d done that, and you realized you’ve created and perpetuated segregation through this effort, what’s the answer to that?
This is not a matter of just feelings, and even frankly, to be honest with you, conversations around “truth and reconciliation.” It’s also about investment. It is about investing in integration. It’s about investing in an inclusive society. It’s about investing in equal opportunity. And that’s where you find many people don’t want to go. But that is the reality of what it will take.
Love: The notion of truth and reconciliation makes sense to me as a way of putting demands on the table, concrete demands. And the response to those demands will determine the way that we relate to the other group.
I think that black folks have been socialized to not think in terms of power. We’re willing to just do whatever it takes to get crumbs. So there needs to be a shift in thinking. You come to the table as equals and an understanding of what you have to offer. Only in that context does truth and reconciliation make sense. We have to make sure those on the other side of the table understand the terms—that we’re not your pets, we’re not a charity case.
Jackson: I agree. It’s not my job to make white people feel good about racism. It exists, and you should be actively working with black people to build, and it don’t mean we’ve got to be friends. Like a white person healing from their own personal prejudice; that’s cool, you do that with white people, but it’s not my job at any point to be like an arbiter in that. Like, you figure that out and if you do that, that’s good for you. You go ahead. It’s my job to do that with black people. It ain’t my job to do that with white people.
Hicks: Segregation exists because of the way people are. People do not admit it, but people like to be with their own kind. We don’t want to see ourselves that way, but it really is true.
You can’t reconcile differences unless you have two people or two groups on the same level. There has to be a common understanding that one side is just as good as the other, entitled to the same future and advantages, is just as worthy, and has just as much to offer.
If we don’t start from that perspective, no, it’s not going to do any good. We keep going after the wrong things. You know, we need more guns, more rules, restrictions, ordinances, whatever. That doesn’t change anything. I still don’t trust you.
I’ve worked with the police on a regular basis. And I tell them all the time, “The day I can’t trust you, that’s the day this is all over.” You want me to trust you, you have to trust me. You want me to respect you? You’ve got to respect me. If you see me as something different or less than, it won’t work.
We’re not ready. We’re not ready.