Amelia Meman, ’15, Gender & Women’s Studies, is the Grants and Marketing Intern in UMBC’s Women’s Center
[Cross-posted from the Critical Social Justice blog. Originally posted there on April 30, 2015].
It’s a simple enough question, but one that has a stronger implicit meaning this week. Many keep asking me “How are you doing?” pointing their eyes toward the city. I keep asking my friends “How are you doing?” with my mind flying to people dancing at North and Penn encircled by police in riot gear. It’s a simple question, but right now, it’s an important question—an important act of social justice that I want to emphasize, and that I believe is crucial to a Critical Social Justice movement.
By reaching out to one another, asking open-ended questions, and really just caring, we are taking some of the first steps toward activism in this Baltimore Uprising.
Don’t know quite what I’m talking about yet? That’s okay. Here’s a quick run-down: I’m talking about the recent often peaceful, often turbulent release of years upon years of tension in Baltimore City. Though there are many instances that have pushed the Baltimore community, it has been the murder of Freddie Gray by police that has really motivated people all around to speak louder and fight for their voices.
According to the police, the young black man from West Baltimore made eye contact with a police officer, ran away, and was then arrested. In the time that he was taken to booking, he suffered critical injuries including a severed spinal cord and a crushed voice box that put him in the emergency room. A week later, on April 19th, Freddie Gray died. The police have yet to release a report on the incident, which has only exacerbated the frustration felt by many in Baltimore, but especially black folks who have had to bear the brunt of police brutality and institutionalized violence for centuries in this city. This frustration was funneled into organizing peaceful protests, (on Saturday, April 25th gaining ten thousand supporters) which sparked incredible dialogues that centered on violence, police, poverty, and racism in Baltimore. With stronger numbers taking part in the protests, came stronger police presence and higher tensions. On Monday, April 27th, police in riot gear isolated and cornered teenagers coming home from school and riots began to break out in small pockets around Baltimore. Since this rough Monday, militarization of the police has escalated, Gov. Hogan has called in the National Guard, and a curfew from 10 pm to 5 am has been set for the city.
With this unrest, however, we have also seen communities come together to clean up after property was damaged; people gathering to help board up windows and sweep up debris. We have seen people across Baltimore and in our neighboring counties come into the city to donate and prepare food for kids who weren’t getting lunch on their days off from school. We have seen organizations like the 300 Men March come into protests to create human walls between police in full riot gear and protesters dancing in drum circles. We have also seen many all over the world come out through social media, personal blogs, and progressive news organizations, writing articles about why we should care about what’s happening here in Baltimore and why we need the change so many of us have been chanting about.
There are many ways to get active with this movement, and the first step really is simple: it’s in caring. If you just read the above wall of text summarizing what has been going on here in Baltimore and felt a little something, then I think you’re on your first steps.
Those of us who support both Critical Social Justice as a week-long event and critical social justice as a way of being involved know that there are many different ways to show support for our communities and to be an activist that supports those fighting for justice in Baltimore. Often activism is thought of as something where you march with a hand-painted sign, but it can be so many more things and include so many other people. Critical Social Justice is about meeting people where they’re at, and fostering growth from that position. Here are some ways to be a critical social justice activist for the Baltimore Uprising:
Many people come up to me and ask how they can get involved in an event, a march, a movement, and I often ask if they’ve read up on the history or if they’ve attended any public meetings on what they’re standing up for. Critical Social Justice centers not just action, but education, because we believe that the first steps to creating engaging and sustainable social justice movements is in knowing what you’re talking about, and being able to communicate with others who might need convincing. To do that, you should be reading up.
In the case of the events in Baltimore and with Freddie Gray, those leading the Baltimore Uprising (this Google Doc has even more important information on it, as well, so take a look) have listed a few must-reads for people wanting to be involved. These include:
- Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, “Non-Violence as Compliance”
- Mark Puente’s “Undue Force, An Expose on Police Violence in Baltimore” and “Some Baltimore police officers face repeated misconduct lawsuits”
- Willie Osterweil’s “In Defense of Looting”
All of these articles shed light on the particularities of the conflict in Baltimore (the monetary and physical cost of police brutality, the lack of accountability for police, the anger and frustration of being black in the city, and the conflicting messages of demanding non-violent solutions to violent problems) and are really important to read and understand as we try to make change in our communities.
Another important part of social justice movements comes with listening. That means actively listening to others who are speaking on a topic either in a classroom-type setting, or even in a casual conversation. To really allow yourself to broaden your perspectives and learn from others, you have to listen to what they’re saying, ask questions, and empathize with their experiences.
In Baltimore, this can look like listening to the community voices rather than the news anchors looking for a sensational spin. I suggest listening to WEAA (88.9 FM), especially for their political and community news segments. The Marc Steiner Show comes on from 10am to noon, but also has podcasts that you can download and listen to at your convenience (say, at the gym or walking to class).
When you’re a white ally, listening is really REALLY key. This can be as simple as not interrupting people of color as they talk about their experiences and also by validating their experiences.
- Use your social media to speak up
For many right now, social media can be draining to look at. Everybody’s racist cousins or belligerent friend from elementary school suddenly have opinions about who should and shouldn’t be committing violence; however, it is important that we power through this mess, call people out in productive and educational ways, and share information that offers insight into these events.
It can often feel like shouting into the void when you get into a Facebook debate, or when nobody likes the article you just reblogged, but often the things you’re doing make a difference. Jay Smooth and Franchesca Ramsey both talked in their CSJ keynotes about the importance of your online voice. They said that even when it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere, you’re making a public dialogue for people surfing through their feeds to read and think about. So maybe even if an argument on Facebook got you nothing but tired, at least you put your voice out there and didn’t just let something prejudiced or hateful fly.
Right now, many people in Maryland are looking down on the violence in Baltimore, because that’s all they see from their local broadcaster or cable news. Try to understand where they’re coming from, the limited view they might have of the situation, and shoot them a private message. If that’s too direct, even just continuing to share materials is a useful way of spreading better information and important articles.
- Find alternative media sources
As stated several times before, the mainstream media we consume is often tilted and biased. Even though it can be really good to test your media literacy skills, having to do it constantly is exhausting, and not getting accurate information is frustrating. Find yourself another grassroots way of hearing about what’s going on.
As Ferguson has shown us, social media (especially Twitter), is important for getting community-centered information. I’ve been following these twitter users for live updates from the scene and awesome critical thought:
Deray McKesson (@deray)
Baltimore BLOC (@BmoreBloc)
James McArthur (@BaltoSpectator)
Revolution News (@NewsRevo)
Red Emma’s (@redemmas)
Also check out this list of first-person accounts.
As you follow and retweet these people, notice the networks being created, and start trying to follow it. You’ll find awesome news sources and a media community you can trust a little easier.
This might be a rather obvious thing to do, but serving the community you are working with is important. This can take so many shapes, as well. In Baltimore, many people joined up to clean the city after the mess of Monday looting and riots. Many others were working to create kids’ activities for all of the students who wouldn’t be attending school. Even more were donating online and in-person to bail and legal funds and food drives.
You could also go out to rally, and help give voice to the problems on the ground. Rallies can seem intimidating to some like myself who are introverted and anxiety-prone, but they’re a really great way to join together in common cause and make issues visible.
Baltimore BLOC is my personal favorite resource for finding the latest on rallies and meet-ups, and you can follow them on Twitter and Facebook.
Here are some donation sites that you can contribute too, as well:
- Take Care of Yourself
Sustainability in social justice movements is incredibly important. In the plainest language: You’re no good for the revolution if you’re no good yourself. Burnout, anxiety, depression, fear—they all hit us and sometimes at the worst possible times. It’s important to know that you can take a break from what you’re doing and help yourself to be better. If you don’t already know, you should try and think about what you need to do in order to recover on tough days.
Just yesterday, I had to take a little break from social media, because I was exhausted from fielding Facebook debates and reading people’s bigoted tweets. In that time, I tuned out of social media, watched some Planet Earth, drank some chocolate milk, and I felt a ton better. Now that I feel better, I’m writing this post and trying to think of more ways that I can help in my community.
The Women’s Center and the Mosaic Center have been teaming up to host Community Safe Spaces. These safe spaces are not intended to be open discussions or debates. Rather, these opportunities are meant to provide intentional healing and supportive space for UMBC community members to process and share their thoughts, emotions, and reactions as related to racism, institutionalized violence, and anti-Blackness. There will be others scheduled over the next few weeks. Follow the Women’s Center and Mosaic Center on myUMBC to get updates.
Also understand that you should be critical of the self-care you are privileged with doing. Often, self-care is used as a means of stepping away from difficult conversations that should be had. For example, a white cis woman claiming in the name of self-care that she needs to step away from a conversation about the racial or cissexist micro-aggressions she’s committed. Maybe that’s valid, and the conversation could be tabled, but that doesn’t mean that the conversation shouldn’t ever be had. Similarly, we should also think about who is allowed to have time for self-care and who isn’t.
A key aspect of Critical Social Justice is reflection. You can critically reflect on your experiences by writing, making art, conversing with friends, what have you; think about, perhaps, the ways privilege has benefitted you in this social justice work; maybe on what you learned from a really great speaker at a rally; possibly how you could’ve made a past project better with what you know now. Reflection is incredibly important, because it keeps us accountable for our actions and in tune to ways we can be better.
Right now, I’m reflecting on the role of Critical Social Justice and UMBC in Baltimore. What we could do, what we aren’t doing, who needs to speak, who doesn’t, why people on our campus seem so separated from the issue (but aren’t at all).
Recently President Hrabowski and Provost Rous emailed the UMBC student body about the challenging times Baltimore has been facing and how UMBC can be a part of this:
“Our words and our actions speak volumes about our values. Courage to address critical social challenges—while respecting others—is a hallmark of the UMBC community.”
Critical Social Justice is about having the courage to learn, speak, act, and reflect on what could be better. I encourage those reading this post to get involved in any or all of the ways I have listed above, and simply to have the courage to care. It’s easy to turn away from what’s going on in Baltimore City, when you’re a 10 minute drive away. It’s easy to ignore things and stay silent in the face of injustice. What’s hard is caring. So if you care—and if you got to the end of this post, you probably do care—you’re being courageous, and you can go so much farther.
Contact the author, Amelia Meman, at email@example.com.