Who Were They Protecting?

Kelsey Donnellan, ’15, Interdisciplinary Studies (Community Health & Nutrition), has participated in several of the recent actions for justice in Baltimore.

IKelsey Donnellan 2 am prefacing this reflection by recognizing my white, class, and educational privilege. My intent is not to elevate my own voice, but to elevate the community’s voice by sharing what I have witnessed in the city.

I would like to start with Wednesday, April 22nd, a seemingly normal day when I cooked with high school students in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood for the Kids in the Kitchen program at Paul’s Place. The social worker there offered me a ride to the UMBC Transit stop, because there had been a shooting up the block the previous night, witnessed by Paul’s Place staff members and school children: a far too common occurrence. Before we reached the bus stop, a group of protesters blocked the way. I got out of the car to join the community in solidarity and silence; to listen to the community’s outcries for justice in Freddie Gray’s death. It was a call for peace, and mourning, and time to heal, on a solemn night.

I was next in the city on Saturday for personal reasons, and saw four helicopters circling the city for hours. As my group walked toward the UMBC Transit stop, we saw peaceful protesters blocking traffic at the intersection of Light and Pratt streets, and realized that bus would not be able to reach us. We checked for updates and route changes, but none were posted before the bus turned around and returned to UMBC. We were stuck in the center of a peaceful protest that combined mourning with a call to action from the community. People sang and held hands. Small children stood with their mothers and fathers as I observed from the sidewalk in solidarity while trying to find a way home. We listened to the community’s outcry and felt the emotional support of those gathered together.

Then, a woman starts yelling: “Get out your phones, get out your phones, they are coming!” I look over to see the Maryland State Police approaching. They have come prepared for full-on war, with riot gear, helmets, batons, mace, and guns. The state troopers stand with straight faces and broad shoulders. I feel no emotion from them, only an assertion of power as they widen their stance and the tension grows. My group continues to stand in solidarity with the protesters, and next thing I know, I am face-to-face with a state trooper in full riot gear. The older man next to me starts yelling, “Get the children out!,” and mothers reluctantly pull themselves from the front of the line. My friend Nnamdi and I step in to fill the gap, and now I am a full-on protester.

Kelsey Donnellan Baltimore 1

A peaceful protest

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Police in riot gear

Monday night, back at UMBC, we sat in fear while watching the so-called “Baltimore riots” sensationalized on TV. Someone posted a photo of the view from UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library of the fires downtown. Watching the news and listening to Mayor Rawlings-Blake, I thought: We have it all wrong. The police started this. The community’s anger is a matter of self-defense. If only we would listen, we could hear that in their voices.

Kelsey Donnellan Baltimore 3

The burned-out CVS

Tuesday, April 28th, I joined four other UMBC students–Yoo-Jin Kang, Crystal Ogar, Norma Nance, and Daniel Heckman–in delivering food and medical supplies to Sandtown. We next drove to the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues–site of a CVS that had burned the previous night–to join a protest. Hundreds of people joined to play music, dance, and sing. There were no police; they did not feel the need to block us in here. It was a large block party. I listened to the community affected by this violence and hate every single day. The residents told their stories and they made a call for intentional action. We did not simply say “the system is broken,” we talked about where the system is broken and why there are human rights violations. I could write a whole blog on this issue itself, so I instead encourage you to read about the chronic inequalities in Baltimore City.

 After marching for a few blocks, we stopped for a moment of silence at the corner where Freddie Gray had been arrested. Freddie Gray’s cousin joined us to speak for the family, thanking us for being there and reminding us to honor Freddie with peace. He asked asked us to remain calm and focused, because the family was focused on the legal battle about to ensue.

We continued to march through the neighborhoods Freddie Gray and his family called home, and the chants rippled down the road as neighbors joined. We were stopped by a line of police in full riot gear, at which point we sang a song and danced. We did not hate the line of police as individuals, but we did hate that they were blocking the road. Who were they protecting?

My group continued to march until we needed to turn around and head back to UMBC for a class. We made it a block or two when we ran into two middle-aged women, who stopped us by yelling, “You’re the people! You’re them! You were on TV, and you’re the reason we are here. I am here because of the bravery you showed by being here, and we had to come support.” We told them they were so close to the march and they would be able to catch up soon. We exchanged information and took a picture together.
Kelsey Donnellan Baltimore 4

Wednesday, the 29th, I headed back to Baltimore with Nnamdi Edokobi, who just wanted to get his hands dirty by helping cleanup efforts at Mondawmin Mall. When we arrived it was like a fortress, with the National Guard holding large guns and walking along the mall’s roof. Druid Hill Park, where volunteers had been told to park for the cleanup, was filled with cop cars. The cleanup was cancelled for the night. I was hurt, and again I ask: Who were they protecting?

Kelsey Donnellan Baltimore 6

Police presence at Druid Hill Park

We drove to the intersection of Pennsylvania and North again, and found a smaller gathering than the one the previous night. The CVS had been boarded up. News cameras stood by. Nnamdi and I opted to walk to the other scheduled protest, but we didn’t realize how far we actually were from the event. We walked through Sandtown, where stoop life is every day, wheelies are commonplace, and a community needs to be heard. We walked for 20 minutes, realized we were still far from the protest, turned around and walked back. For many of the community members, life had returned to a relative normal; children played on the streets. But the conversations were all about Freddie Gray and the protests.

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UMBC students who participated in protests Wednesday, April 29th

It is about time we put a mirror on ourselves, because oppression is the reality of our Baltimore community. One of my favorite quotes that keeps me marching is from Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

The community is screaming and crying. What are we doing? What will we be doing a week from now? A month from now? A year from now? When it comes time to vote? I am a transplant to the city, but I’ve never felt a more powerful sense of belonging.

I encourage you to get involved it whatever way you can. Donate to a small business to help replenish its inventory, clean up where you can, keep up with the events through multiple media outlets, share a photo from someone who is at the protest, join a protest, and most of all listen. Listen with intent.

Just Food UMBC will be hosting a food drive for youth living in Baltimore. Vegetables, fruit, and water are in high demand. Students can bring food, toiletries, and feminine products to The Commons, where there will be a box near the Commons Information Center. All donations will be delivered to the Youth Empowered Society (YES), which was damaged during Monday night’s unrest.

Contact the author, Kelsey Donnellan, at kdonn1@umbc.edu.


  1. Excellent post!


  1. […] The next day, after reflecting with close friends, I joined Kelsey Donnellan and others at march downtown. (Kelsey described our experience in her own post). […]

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