What’s happening in Baltimore?
Why is the media so quiet?
What has changed since the uprising that occurred just a few months ago?
What is now being done for the education and decriminalization of Baltimore youth?
These questions, among others, hung heavily in the air as panelists waited to step onto the stage in Nyumburu Cultural Center on Wednesday night.
The following is a partial record of what was said during this panel, along with personal interviews.
Two of the panelists, Gary Johnson and Orlando Gilyard are the founders of“Bridge the Gap,”an organization in Baltimore helping to unite individuals across the perceived barriers of age and race.
To start the event, poet Kondwani Fidel, author of the poem Baltimore Bullet Train, recited a poem from his new book Asperous Artistry. Hearts cracked and audience members shook their heads as they connected with his words.
Panelist Gary Johnson, 28, grew up in West Baltimore City. He is a former gang member who helped organize gang leaders during the Baltimore Uprising. Today he is a mentor for students in Baltimore City schools.
He worked with fellow panelist Orlando Gilyard to found a community outreach program called “Bridge the Gap.”
“I’m not a teacher, but I’m in the school educating every day. . . I’ve taken the responsibility upon myself to be an educator, to be a mentor, or to be just a voice sometimes. . . It all starts with accountability of ourselves.”
Johnson suggested individuals need step across racial lines and take part in this accountability.
Recently, Johnson stepped into the street to see if a train was coming and a white man locked his car door in fear.
The panel was asked to speak about the lack of resources for Baltimore’s youth as well as the criminalization of young people in Baltimore city. Johnson began by detailing his past.
“Those resources weren’t there. They weren’t there at home, they weren’t there at school, they weren’t there in the community. I became a delinquent, or a ‘statistic’ as people want to call it. I started getting arrested when I was 14 years old. I had an adult criminal record since I was 16 years old . . . I was arrested when I was 16 years old for some pretty serious crimes where I was charged as an adult. At that period of time, I was actually the youngest person in Baltimore County detention center.”
“From there that lack of resources, lack of people in the community, sent me on a downward spiral. After that, 16 [or] 17 years old, I got involved with gangs, got involved with the drug trade, and that life provided a substitute for the life or the substance that I really needed. By me being very intelligent, I excelled in that area in my life. I became – to put it in decent terms – I was really good at selling drugs. It got me to a point where I was going state to state.”
“About two years ago now, I actually got into a situation where I was going to sell something. . . and this is what really changed my life. I got robbed. . . They had about four or five people with guns on me, and they actually chased me down and shot me where I could have died.”
He still has bullet wounds from that day.
“For me to get through that, it was God telling me ‘this is not what I need you to do, this is not where I need you to be. “
After this realization, Johnson said he became dedicated to giving back.
“I need everybody to know the severity of the situation and the importance of us to all stick together. Not [just] blacks, whites, not Muslims, Jews, not gangs, not civilians. This is America, right?”
How has Baltimore changed while you have been living there?
“The community that it used to be isn’t the community the way that it is anymore in a sense of a mom or a grand-mom . . . Everybody knew each other’s name, it’s not like that anymore.” He described his personal transformation from his youth in the mid-90s to his late 20s now.
He explained that the schools in Baltimore are less disciplined than they used to be.
“When I was younger, a lot of the programs were open, like the summer basketball leagues, aren’t around anymore; all types of big brother programs they aren’t around anymore.”
How do you see that reflected in the feelings of young people?
Johnson was in a fifth grade classroom that same day with approximately 25 students in it. He asked them to name one thing they had learned in school this year. Not one of them could answer the question.
“When I was younger, we had something that was called in-school suspension. . . They don’t even have that in the schools anymore. So the kids, for lack of a better term, are running wild.”
Why is this happening?
“A big part of it is gentrification because they’re trying to approach the middle to upper and lower income families are pushed further out. See more impoverished areas.”
This problem stems from “the lack of that family structure and a lack of morals being instilled in these kids. It’s not their fault . . . but it’s the situation that’s out of control.”
Lamontre Randall helped organize the event. He is a Graduate of UMCP where he majored in criminal justice. He is an activist in Baltimore city.
What inspired you to create this panel?
“I was just tired of hearing just professors talk and I was like I want some authenticity from real people living in Baltimore and I wanted to have a diverse group of people. I wanted to get the point of view of scholarly people. I wanted to get the point of view from the streets, so people who did the truce with the gangs. I wanted college educated individuals. This is a platform for everybody to come talk about the real solutions they’re doing and building the city.”
Did it live up to your expectations?
“I shoot high. I wanted 200 people to come out.I don’t think I got 200 people to come out. But it was definitely a great crowd, and I think everybody that was there was supposed to be there. It was just awesome just to get my people from Baltimore and my people from PG and University of Maryland to come together and unite. A lot of times we are separate.”
How do you think the University of Maryland is doing now, being educated on issues that are going on? For example, in Baltimore.
“People are not aware. . . I think a lot of collaborative efforts can be made to happen one of the collaborative efforts.”
He used the example of professor Audra Buck-Coleman, who did an art project where the youth of Baltimore lead and plan their own creative own on how they feel about the uprising. He says that he does appreciate the tremendous amount of resources that the University of Maryland has, but there could be improvements. He said a young caucasian woman once accused him of stealing her cellphone, when he just walked past her. It was found that there was not enough probable cause to proceed with the case.
“I even talked to president Loh about it and all he could do was give me a quote from Gandhi. . . to me as a black student it kind of makes you feel hurt. It makes you feel unheard. It lets you know that we have a long way to go.”
He says that he is here to work with this university. He is doing a collaborative effort with professor Coleman. He wants more people, no matter their backgrounds, to be more educated on the issues going on.
Randall explained that his concerns transcend racial lines. For example, he explained that he has seen plenty of white people who do not care about homelessness, and he has seen many white people while speaking at homeless shelters. “We aren’t listening to each other when we should . . . A lot of us share the same problems.”
Panelist Orlando Gilyard (Magik), 29, is an artist who grew up in Southwest Baltimore. Gilyard became involved in gangs at age seventeen and served five years in federal prison for gang conspiracy. During the Baltimore Uprising, he helped unite the gangs of Baltimore.
He is currently a member of the outreach committee for the 10-10-15 Justice or Else movement on the 20 year anniversary of the Million Man March. He worked with fellow panelist Gary Johnson to found a community outreach program called “Bridge the Gap”.
“My city teaches you how to have thick skin because you have to have thick skin in Baltimore City. I had a lot of family members that were involved in the drug trade and a lot of family members that were strung out on drugs. I had two family members that died from AIDS due to heroin usage. So, I saw a lot growing up.”
“I started messing around with the gang thing probably when I was seventeen years old. Not because I had to, but because you know as they say you become a product of your environment . . . Selling drugs, doing whatever, man. Fighting, shooting, been there done that, you know? Seventeen years old I caught my first gun charge, and a day before my court date for that gun charge I caught another gun charge, and a robbery.”
“When the uprising took place, I looked that as the opportunity to say: ‘you know what, we helped mess up the community with the gang-banging and all the stuff we was doing, let’s help build it back up.’”
So Gilyard and others called gang leaders in Baltimore City to bring them together and “show the people that we can stand for something positive.”
After Gilyard returned from five years in prison, he explains that he devoted himself to his music.
He talked about focusing on progress for future generations.
Panel Director Rashad Staton, 24, is an activist within Baltimore City. He is a Capitol hill intern who is interested in the issue of education. Staton explained that his purpose is to serve others.
“[For] 24 years of my life I’ve lived in two different housing projects in Baltimore. Imagine that, the first male college graduate in the family but you’re still going back to a housing project . . . That’s just what it is, a project. And when you’re finally aware of that you look out your window and you see every single lab rat that walks out. . . I’m being experimented on and studied on every day.”
What would you like the University of Maryland students to know?
“The pinnacle of the future of our generation in this country takes place at the university, on the college campus. . . If it doesn’t take place on a college campus it won’t take place anywhere else. Your future leaders are being educated in these institutions.” He explained that although this panel was happening after the protests, it is proactive rather than reactive because this conversation is looking for solutions.
He said that the importance is to “Know that you have a voice and that voice can be heard anywhere.”
When you think of the Black Lives Matter movement in particular? What image comes to mind with regard to this movement?
“Energy repeating itself. And I don’t say history, I say Energy. Energy repeats itself . . .”
He used the analogy of the body decomposing and the soul continuing in order to explore the black lives movement as a piece of ever-flowing history.
“This black lives matter is like the birth of the civil rights movement. . . It’s going through the same tarnishment, the same degradation, the same infiltration. . . as the civil rights movement. I see it as another energy transferring to another generation.”
The movement might not encompass everything, he explained but it’s a good start.
He spoke of a vicious cycle: “When you say black lives matter, it doesn’t mean black pride and white hate. . . we deal with this systematic oppression, the whites deal with unconscious white privilege, and they go together.”
Where do we go from here?
“We need to transcend our civil rights and deal with human rights. That’s where we all fell short at in all of our martyrs and our messiahs.”
Featured Photo Credit: Vickie Connor, Bloc Reporter
Raye Weigel is a sophomore multiplatform journalism and English major and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.