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Five years after Freddie Gray unrest, Baltimore sets an example for peaceful protests

“I’m proud that Baltimore is showing the nation how we can begin to build a more perfect union,” Gov. Larry Hogan wrote.

BALTIMORE — As cities across America burned in recent days, there was a notable omission from those facing curfews, mass arrests, arson and police brutality: Baltimore.

The Maryland city is no stranger to racial tensions, having experienced civil unrest after the 2015 police custody death of Freddie Gray. But demonstrations for George Floyd over the past four days have been largely peaceful, with no curfews issued and Monday’s youth-led march drawing more than 1,000 participants on the eve of Baltimore’s consequential mayoral primary election.

Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted Tuesday, “I’m proud that Baltimore is showing the nation how we can begin to build a more perfect union.”

“We had thousands of people out expressing their very legitimate and real frustrations and anger but peacefully, working together in cooperation,” he told a local radio station.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young said at a press conference his city “leads the nation in setting the example of how to conduct peaceful protests.”

Even as protests grew tense Monday night after an “agitator” set off fireworks at officers and Maryland State Police activated reinforcements, both the police and the protesters avoided any violent escalation.

Kwame Rose, an activist, was arrested during the Gray protests five years ago. His charges were dismissed, but his firsthand experience made him prioritize getting all the protesters home safely so that no one would have to be in jail -- especially during the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation.

“Go home! We proved our point, we did what we came here to do tonight,” he told the remaining crowd late Monday after the police gave a second warning for them to disperse. “Do not turn this into something it does not have to be. I’ve been where you’re at five years ago … do not give them what they’re looking for.”

Rose, 26, helped turn over a man lighting fireworks to the authorities, saying he felt compelled to protect the integrity of the protests and avoid chaos like that being seen in other cities.

“When I see it, I understand it,” he said. “But I know what I want in my city. We’re going to do things in a way that brings about change in the most strategic way because we've been through this before.”

This is not to say there hasn’t been unlawful behavior -- Monday night’s protest resulted in six arrests, while Saturday night’s led to 14 arrests, eight reports of destruction of property and 11 burglaries. But these incidents pale in comparison to those in other major U.S. cities, 40 of which are under curfew.

Hogan, who began his tenure a few months before the Gray riots, offered advice to leaders in other states: “peace through strength.”

“Having the ability to keep the residents safe without becoming aggressive and without interfering with the peaceful, lawful protests,” Hogan told WBAL radio. “I think the community was much more involved and they didn't want to see it happen again -- and city police were much stronger and much more prepared.”

Demonstrators face off with Baltimore Police as a CVS pharmacy burns at the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Md.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Gray, 25, died from a spinal injury suffered in a police van following an arrest. His death was later deemed a homicide. Six officers were charged in connection with his death, but they all later returned to the force after they were acquitted or their charges were dropped.

Gray’s death sparked days of protests that resembled moments from the current unrest: officers in riot gear, protesters marching, police vehicles and businesses set ablaze, curfew orders issued, tensions spilling over.

The Gray protests led to the Department of Justice and Baltimore agreeing on a consent decree to implement reforms in the city’s police department, including de-escalation training and enhanced transparency.

But as flashbacks of Gray echo throughout the latest wave of protests, so does the unfinished work.

“It's not about one city getting a handle on it because there were millions of dollars pumped into this city after the Baltimore uprising, but the community where Freddie Gray grew up still looks the same,” said Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, associate producer of African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland. “The issues they were having prior to the Baltimore uprising, with boarded-up housing, with the unemployment, those issues haven't changed.”

City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed said Baltimore remains in a fragile state.

“We still have a lot of incidents that have happened in Baltimore City since,” Sneed said, citing a local gag order bill she presented. “It just proves again that we have a lot of ground to cover.”

While Rose says the department has “a long way to go” before making community policing a reality, he noticed that when protesters arrived at City Hall after the youth march, police were not yet wearing riot gear.

The Youth, which organized Monday’s demonstration safely marching through I-83, released a statement Tuesday evening distancing its message from the actions of evening protesters and pushing back against Hogan’s comments.

“We understand that the police establishment as a whole is too corrupt for reform, therefore we are calling for a complete restructuring of the system,” it reads in part. “We will continue to fight, until it is clear we no longer have to.”

Whitehead, a mother of two sons, says the main difference five years later is facing a battle on dual fronts.

“I've called it #BlackLivesMatter meets #BlackCOVIDStories,” she said. “Because even in the midst of trying to reconcile ourselves with the fact that so many people from our community have died from COVID-19, we also are back into the reality of what it means to deal with predatory police officers and would-be vigilantes who see black lives as something that can be disposed of, something that's not worth saving.”

Rose thinks the peaceful nature of the demonstrations in the city is a testament to the respect that community leaders and activists have earned from its residents.

“We won’t let outside agitators tell the story of Baltimore,” he said.

“Baltimore is a city of resilience. Our main objective was to show the rest of the country that Baltimore is the place where we will be calm, we will display our anger and outrage in a productive and strategic manner, and also practice proper social distancing and protective etiquette during this COVID-19 pandemic.”