'Baltimore Rising' Shines a Hopeful Light In the Era of Police Brutality & Black Lives Matter

Courtesy of HBO

Makayla Gilliam-Price, Youth activist
Courtesy of HBO

Growing up in Baltimore, I witnessed the rising tension between police and citizens, and the effects of communities stripped of resources firsthand -- while being afforded certain opportunities with my father being a cop in a different area with more assets. It's what fuels me to get more involved, and why I care so much about narrative. And that's what makes Baltimore Rising such a must-see HBO documentary (airing November 20 at 8 p.m. ET)  and a critical resource that contends with both prejudice and media depiction. Because footage of cops in riot gear -- or a CVS burning -- after the death of Freddie Gray doesn't even begin to tell the whole story ... and I should know as my mother lives just blocks from where it all happened.

  • The 2015 death of Freddie Gray sent a reverberating shock wave throughout Baltimore and became a driving force for social justice.

    Union square protest rally in support with the Baltimore protestors.
    R. Umar Abbasi / Splash News

    Questions still remain unanswered about 25-year-old Gray and the spinal injury he suffered in  police custody in transit that led to a coma and his untimely death. Yet, neither the suspicion surrounding his death a medical examiner ruled a homicide nor Baltimore's history of severe tension between citizens and the police mattered: All eyes were on the civil unrest that ensued after Freddie's passing that painted Baltimore in a ghastly light in one broad and dismissive stroke.

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  • Seeing protesters and police -- set to the backdrop of smashed and ablaze cars, and rising clouds of smoke -- was indescribable.

    Baltimore riots
    Gabriella Bass / Splash News

    I was eight months pregnant with my second child at the time and 1,300 miles away from my mother -- whose street sign often made a cameo on nightly news -- to do anything, or see if she was okay. I felt helpless, worried about her safety and others who call Baltimore home, and concerned given the overwhelming visuals that continued to loop on major networks.

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  • All eyes were negatively turned towards my beloved hometown.

    Baltimore Riot
    Gabriella Bass / Splash News

     The New York Times reports "a racially diverse and mostly calm crowd" of protesters, upwards of 1,000 people, took to the streets of Baltimore on April 25, 2015 to express their revulsion for Freddie Gray's arrest that led to his death on April 19. Sadly, a small percentage of individuals -- including "isolated pockets of people from out of town causing disturbances," the Baltimore Police Department tweeted -- decided to take matters into their own hands by damaging property and provoking physical altercations.

    On April 27, the day Freddie Gray was laid to rest, rumors of school-age kids planning a "purge" began to circulate, prompting schools to close early and Baltimore police to take preemptive action by shutting down a popular public transportation stop. Readied officers in riot gear faced off with a swelling horde of students trying to get home that ended with some individuals taking the opportunity to throw rocks and bottles at police and their vehicles in response.

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    That same night, individuals burned and looted a CVS near the location of Gray's fatal encounter with the police, and ransacked other small businesses, causing discord in the street. (An uncompleted senior center across town also succumbed to destruction the same night.) Governor Larry Hogan later announced a state of emergency and activated the National Guard with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issuing a mandated curfew for Baltimore residents.

  • I knew people would judge this city based on the actions of individuals deemed worthy of media attention that diverted from the bigger issue.

    Baltimore riots
    Gabriella Bass / Splash News

    The Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park area, a nearly all-Black region Freddie Gray once called home, faces many disproportionate challenges that contribute to the climate of the communities. Sandtown has more incarcerated residents than any other Baltimore neighborhood with two times as much poverty and unemployment. One-third of the properties are abandoned, the Justice Policy Institute notes, with the median household income falling below $25,000.

    Pair that with some of the highest arrest rates in the city, a known "harassing [police] presence," Baltimore's problematic history of police culture -- resulting in a $5.7 million police settlement payout between 2011 and 2014 alone to alleged victims of police brutality (the city approved a $6.4 million settlement for Freddie Gray's family in 2015) -- and an investigation concluding Baltimore Police regularly target poor neighborhoods of color with "with dubious justification," and you have the breeding grounds for the systematic mistreatment that can lead to both wrongful death and an undesirable uproar.

    As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in a 1966 CBS interview, "a riot is the language of the unheard." And while I certainly do not condone the destruction and vandalism of one's own neighborhood, I truly wish more attention was paid to problems that led us to this point and those advocating for change in a constructive way, instead of focusing on the response.

  • Because the media, who headed into town for the "hot" story, often did little to report on the surrounding issues while they were there.

    Activist Kwame Rose, whose community advocacy origin story is documented in Baltimore Rising, made headlines for his encounter with Geraldo Rivera -- challenging mainstream media to cover the whole story, instead of the riots that make for "good news" -- in a clip that went viral.

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  • They also neglected to cover positive protests -- like the 500 ministers taking to the streets to declare healing the same night as the riot.

    Or the numerous individuals who, with linked arms, put their bodies on the line to create barriers between police and agitated protesters, and community members who worked endlessly to keep their streets accountable, among many, many others.

  • "Baltimore Rising" pushes the discussion beyond the riots and dares viewers to remove their presumptive lenses without restriction.

    Kwame Rose, Makayla Gilliam-Price, Adam Jackson, Dayvon Love
    Courtesy of HBO

    The HBO documentary, directed by The Wire star Sonja Sohn that airs November 20, visually narrates the intersection of resentment and hope between activists, leaders, and the police  during the trials of the six officers involved with Freddie Gray's death -- all while keeping the focus on the realities of living in Baltimore so many experience without a fixated gaze on the riots.

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    "When the riots happened, it turned into a free-for-all," Genard Barr, a peer advocate, explains in Baltimore Rising. "Every major media outlet possible had a field day with it. Of course they're doing their job, but now that they've gotten to tell their story, now we get to let the bastard stepchild of America -- which is Baltimore City -- tell its story. We do not want to be known as savages. We don't want to be known as animals. We want to be known as a community."

  • "We're in a community where it's underserved and over-policed," Lt. Col. Melvin Russell admits in the documentary.

    Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell
    Courtesy of HBO

    Last year, the Department of Justice determined Baltimore Police Department engaged "in a pattern and practice of conduct that violates the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws" after a thorough investigation," a 2017 statement from the Department of Justice's Office of Public Affairs notes.

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    "The department found that BPD made stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; used enforcement strategies that unlawfully subjected African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; used excessive force; and retaliated against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression. The pattern or practice resulted from systemic deficiencies that persisted within BPD for many years and exacerbated community distrust of the police, particularly in African-American communities."

  • Police cars are seen outside of the Baltimore City Police Headquarters in Baltimore
    MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

    "... When all you're doing is responding to calls, you're only seeing the people in these neighborhoods when there’s conflict," Michael A. Wood, Jr., a former Baltimore City police officer seen in Baltimore Rising supporting activist Kwame Rose, once disclosed in an interview about police corruption and brutality. "So you start to assume that conflict is all there is. Just bad people doing bad things."

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  • Russell, a trusted law enforcement officer in the community, confesses officers expressed concerns about policing after Gray's death.

    Lt. Col. Melvin Russell at the Baltimore Rising premiere
    Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for HBO

    Relations between police and Baltimore residents became strained after Freddie's death. Police presence diminished months after Gray's ruled homicide and contributed to a surge in murders.

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    "After the uprising in Baltimore City, I talked to the police in West Baltimore," Russell explains in Baltimore Rising. "They were saying, 'Colonel, can we keep it real? We're tired of getting out of the cars. We gotta keep looking over our heads and ducking bottles and dirty diapers and all this crap, and we just want to do our job. When we make a good, legitimate arrest, all the cameras come -- wham! -- in our face. And just hatred being spewed, Colonel, that hurts!'"

    Still, Baltimore's history of tension doesn't escape Lt. Col. Russell. "The facts speak for themselves, and I understand it," he says. "We stopped policing."

  • With tensions high, hope manifested when police and citizens were able to come together to address deep-rooted issues plaguing the city.

    Kevin Davis and Genard
    Courtesy of HBO

    "History will one day look back and identify this year to define when American policing began to change," Kevin Davis, the Baltimore Police Commissioner said in Baltimore Rising

    While peace on Earth was not accomplished during the documentary's 90-minute run, community leaders and police officials were able to identify ways -- like a community football game between the police department and residents, and an interfaith prayer circles throughout the trials and the six officers having all charges dropped -- that instilled healing in one of several acts that didn't often capture attention of national broadcasters. Advocates, like Dayvon Love, were able to get Maryland state legislature to pass an amendment allowing citizens to participate on police disciplinary boards and obtain public access to some hearings.

  • Cities like Baltimore are used as a talking point to dismiss dialogue about social justice. It's my hope this documentary broadens the discussion.

    Dawnyell Taylor
    Nick Ruechell/Courtesy of HBO

    Since Freddie Gray's case, the Baltimore Police Department continues to make national headlines. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) notes two Baltimore officers' body cameras allegedly caught them planting evidence in separate incidents this year that's extremely troubling and problematic. David Rocah, senior staff attorney for ACLU of Maryland, says "the fact that the officers have not yet been criminally or administratively charged is itself not just a travesty, but further evidence of the deep, systemic problems with accountability in this agency." Officers from the elite Gun Trace Task Force have recently been indicted amid accusations of extortion and robbery -- with four of the eight officers pleading guilty to federal racketeering charges.

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  • The death of Freddie Gray, and countless others who've become hashtags, have fueled me to do more and become the change I wish to see.

    Makayla Gilliam-Price
    Courtesy of HBO

    Activism has become a lifelong mission to help ensure both my words and actions manifest in a positive way that brings forth change -- not just for my children, but others, too. I believe in being a voice for the unheard and championing for policies and practices that promote both equity and accessibility in communities that are overlooked, underestimated, and underserved. I am but one of the guardians and consciousness of my community, and it's a duty I don't take lightly.

    When such a tragedy hits so close to home, it not only wakes you up, but makes you aware of how others will see and judge a situation based off a sound-bite. As quick as the nation is to criticize protesters -- even when peaceful -- and sporadic upheavals, where is the outcry and disdain for the reasons why things got so bad in the first place, or a legal system that often protects officers from convictions involving questionable use of lethal force while on the job?

    It can't just go one way.

  • Couldn't have said it better.

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  • "Baltimore Rising" premieres on HBO November 20 at 8 p.m. ET.

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