Honoring the Spirit of Protest on the Anniversary of the Baltimore Riots TIME CoverPolitics Features Baltimore
All these years later, and I can still recall the first protest I ever attended. I’d been adopted only two or three years before, and my new mom wasted no time molding another young feminist. It was a march for women’s rights, specifically survivors of domestic violence. “Out of the kitchen and into the streets, we refuse to be discreet!” I shouted along with the others. Boston, Massachusetts. I was 9 or 10.
The last photo of my mother healthy (to the naked eye) was taken at a demonstration for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. She’s holding a black and white FREE MUMIA sign. It was the last time she was able to march. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Maybe 1999 or 1998. The next protest I attended was at Bush’s inauguration. She was already gone. Fuck cancer, etc.
It’s been one year since Devin Allen’s incredible photograph made the TIME cover on the Baltimore riots. Before the publication, when Allen posted the photo on his Instagram account, he wrote a simple caption:
We are sick and tired. #Baltimore #ripfreddiegray
There were myriad reasons so many of us rejoiced at the sight of the image. At the time, it felt like the world’s biggest weekly news magazine may as well have printed the words “FUCK THE POLICE” on the cover, because that is what the shot signified to so many of us. A single, black man, with a sea of officers in riot gear chasing behind him. The man is not in a suit and tie. He’s not on his knees, praying. He doesn’t have his arms linked in with the arms of other black protestors, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Regarding the difference between the Civil Rights movement of 1968 and America’s Black Lives Matter movement of the present, TIME proposed to consider “What has changed. What hasn’t.” And Allen’s image represented one powerful response: this is not your mama’s protest movement.
This is, for some, a difficult message of Black Lives Matter to get behind, because it seems to work in exact opposition to America’s most beloved (at least today, because he was considered a terrorist by much of America when he was alive) civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The majority of the activists of my time are not interested in catering to white empathy—some of us have outright rejected it. Pulling on the heartstrings of white America, many of us have decided, isn’t our job, and isn’t going to bring down the body count in cities like Baltimore anyway. It can’t save us, and we don’t need it, even if appealing to white America represented a key strategy in King’s movement.
Because there is such blatant rejection of certain tenants of the civil rights movement (tenants that also included sexism and homophobia), there has been much to do about the methods of BLM. Artists like Devin Allen continue to reflect those methods—especially a certain willingness to embrace black rage (at injustice, tragedy and all forms of oppression) as sacred and powerful.
The Baltimore Uprising represented a boiling over, and a critical shift for those of us who weren’t content with holding up signs, marching, singing and/or praying. I admit that, in spite of my mother’s hard work, I did arrive at a certain point, where I was disillusioned with the concept of protest. I’m not allowed to say it—because black people are [still] not allowed to say that we get angry, to the point of wanting to exact violence against a person or thing, or that we support uprisings both non-violent and otherwise—but I wanted to see the windows smashed out of a police car. For every black person killed by police, pulled over without just cause; for every black child unjustly suspended from school, or sitting in a classroom with mold coming out of the ceiling—yes. I’d like to see some symbol of their oppression burned, broken or destroyed. In a world where so few will actually pay for the crimes against the poor and black in America—in a society that still finds the concept of reparations for slavery laughable—it feels good to see a people rise up. To see such an uprising celebrated by TIME was a welcome shock.
Protest does not look how it looked in the ‘60s, and it seems ridiculous to have to say that. Why would it? And why should that matter? What matters is that we are still out here, protesting. If not the practices and methods, the spirit of protest that inspired the generations before ours continues to move us.
And it’s that spirit that should be the topic of discussion. That same spirit moving through the Baltimore riots is part of what inspired the Chicago shutdown of a Donald Trump rally. That spirit of revolt is what inspired Michael Moore to reject those well-meaning water bottle donations, because what Flint, Michigan needs is a revolt. That spirit has led to more BLM representatives disrupting campaign speeches (not just Trump, but Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both been taken to task)—granting more visibility to the movement and forcing the issue of racial injustice into the presidential campaign. That spirit is in the streets of North Carolina, right now. And it’s not always a grand gesture that the whole world can see. I can’t help but think of an incredible scene from last week’s Underground, where a little black boy refused a piece of Necco candy from his white half-brother—his soon-to-be legal master on a plantation. A small protest that bears no witnesses, can be as significant as a riotous uprising.
One year after the iconic TIME cover, and Devin Allen’s work continues to be reflected in signs of protest big and small. From the visuals and lyrics we experienced with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, to Beyoncé’s Formation, his aesthetic prevails in the culture. If you follow his work, you can’t even look at the images in Beyoncé’s Lemonade without considering similarities in the treatment of the black feminine as fierce, sensual and vulnerable. All of these artistic performances are a reminder of the unique force of the artist as activist—such a force is how battles are won, and how legends, like Prince, are made.
It’s true that my mother—who would have turned 69 this month—likely wouldn’t approve of all the ways protest has evolved. My personal favorite photograph of Allen’s shows a little boy on a bike, throwing up his middle fingers at a group of cops. I suspect she wouldn’t celebrate that image as much as I do. And that’s okay. Like the other mothers of civil rights and early black activism, she has passed on a legacy that I’ve interpreted, and one which I have to make for my own. She had her Nina Simone, her Gordon Parks. I have Kendrick, Janelle Monáe, Beyoncé. And I have Devin Allen.
And the spirit I inherited will be passed on. Yesterday night I came home from the grocery store and some kids in our apartment complex were standing outside. The loudest of the bunch yelled at me, “WE’RE PROTESTING!” They’d recently been banned from playing in the grassiest (and therefore, most kid-friendly) area of the complex for reasons none of us could figure out, and they wanted to make signs, asking for a park or playground area. We live in subsidized housing. There is, technically, already, a “playground,” which is a small empty, gated area with a tiny bench and literally nothing else. There were about 10 kids in total, and they had started to makes signs that read, “We Need A Playground!” Some of the parents looking on told them to stop wasting their time. Another scolded that if they hung up the signs they’d get in trouble. I went inside, put down my groceries and got the crayons.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.