Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The activists at the center of a new documentary talk about the fate of the city’s struggling police reform efforts.
As the Baltimore police department contends with back-to-back years of record-high homicide rates, it’s also dealing with its own internal strife: police caught on body camera planting drugs on suspects, surfaced corruption among the police department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force, and a fight between Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan over how to fight crime. Going further back, there’s also a damning U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the police department and its consent decree, and, of course, the ongoing fallout from the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in 2015. Meanwhile, President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions continue to instigate more police violence and posterchild Baltimore as a city out of control. It’s quite a bit to unravel.
But in many ways, Gray is the cynosure for Baltimore’s criminal justice woes. It’s from this tension that Baltimore Rising, an HBO documentary directed by actress/filmmaker Sonja Sohn (who played a homicide detective on the Baltimore-set HBO series “The Wire”) was created. It follows the work of several activists in Baltimore through the post-riot fog, when everyone in the city—from the mayor and police chief on down—seemed to know that something needed to be done to rein in police violence, but no one was sure exactly what. Activists roam the streets, the city council chambers, and state legislative chambers exploring what police reforms are possible and launching demands accordingly. Mostly what they want is accountability from the police.
Baltimore Rising looks at several routes that activists in the city are taking to find that accountability. Much of the story follows Genard “Shadow” Barr, a former gang member who now works as an addiction specialist at the Penn-North Recovery Center. Black residents respect him, so Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis entrusts Barr with creating plans for tightening relationships between the community and the police. The idea is that these strong ties would lead to less violent interactions, especially as the dates of the trials for the police officers involved in Gray’s death approach in the documentary.
When the cameras aren’t focused on Barr, they follow the work of a group of young activists: Adam Jackson and Dayvon Love head up Leaders of the Beautiful Struggle, a local public policy organization founded several years before Freddie Gray’s death, while Makayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Rose became radicalized during the Baltimore Uprising itself. In the film, this group spends much of their energies on crafting proposals to change the laws that govern how police can and can’t conduct themselves while on duty. Through their eyes, viewers learn about the legislative processes in both the city and the state of Maryland (Baltimore’s police department is a state agency, though the city controls its budget).
The documentary shows how all the activists’ respective approaches are woven together in the lead-up to key court dates for the six Baltimore police officers who faced charges stemming from Gray’s death. The outcomes of those court hearings, however, were not what many activists had hoped for. CityLab spoke with Barr, Jackson, and Rose last month about their activism, their appearances in the film, and where their work stands today.
What I took from the film was that there are these two major strains of activism in Baltimore. One is focused on containment and forging a relationship between black communities and the police, which Shadow is working on—a kind of insider strategy. And the other is more at the macro level, as an outsider strategy, that LBS is working on. Does Baltimore activism fit that neatly in those two buckets, or is the picture much wider than that?
Kwame Rose: Baltimore is a big city with a small-town feel, but we all were connected in some type of way before this happened. If you look at the young people in the film, such as myself and [fellow activist] Makayla [Gilliam-Price], we were thrust into a spotlight, but we were building upon work that Adam [Jackson] and Dayvon [Love] did way before the uprising. It really honed our skills and our attitudes, willingness, and resilience to challenge institutions, to speak out against the status quo, and to fight for the liberation of people in Baltimore.
Genard “Shadow” Barr: Without other groups, organizations, nonprofits, protesters—none of this happens. The tone of the film seems rather chaotic because the whole process was very chaotic.
Adam Jackson: Some people think [the relationship between the activists] is antagonistic when the reality is that we really need Shadow, we need LBS, and all the people working towards a common path, as opposed to us working against each other. So, with brothers like Shadow—for whatever [negative things] people say about people who are “gang members” or people who are returning citizens from jail, those brothers were out there working with us. Having some balance amongst our people is always important because it could never be that LBS is the only solution.
Shadow, the fact you were able to work so intimately with members of the Baltimore police department seemed really courageous, given tensions toward the police at that time. Were you concerned that this might get misinterpreted by others in the community as too much cooperation with police, like snitching?
Barr: Yeah, absolutely, if I went according to how movies portray us. Remember, the only exposure that [people outside of Baltimore have] to what we do is from the news, but they will never tell you that we invented community policing. So it wasn’t really a courageous thing. We were already working with police to keep our communities intact. But at the same time we were also getting blamed for [the perceptions of Baltimore seen in] “The Wire.” I feel you and there’s a certain amount of danger, but there’s also the fact that if I don't know nothing, I can’t tell nothing.
After all the work you did with the police, were you disappointed that none of the police officers were convicted for any crimes related to Freddie Gray?
Barr: What disappointed me was that anyone believed that they were going to convict one of their own. More of our work was making sure that folks know that it ain’t gonna change tomorrow and as long as you know it ain’t gonna change tomorrow you should be better equipped to deal with it. When people from the news showed up right after the verdict, nobody in any hood anywhere were under the impression that these people who do these things to us, with their badges and such, will ever be in trouble for any of it. That wasn’t the point. Our point was, you know that they are going home, why get mad about it? Everybody was riding around looking for angry black people, and that wasn’t the case. That’s never going to be the case. We know for a fact that these people will never be convicted as long as the policy is what it is.
Kwame and Adam, I know you all worked very hard on the policy piece. Where are you at today with police reforms?
Rose: One thing that has to change is we have to continue to mandate that civilians have voting power on police review trial boards, and that police are not allowed to investigate themselves. Police officers should not have ten days to get their stories together. People have been reporting police brutalities in Baltimore for decades—and we saw this with the [U.S. Department of Justice] consent decree: The department that investigates the police still operates from within the police department, and they even found corruption within the way those complaints were being received and pursued. When we talk about community policing, it has to be community-centered. So the police department is being held accountable by our community, is responsible to the community, and the community has the power to implement change in policing departments and practices. We cannot continue to give police officers more money for astronomical amounts of overtime and for new militarized weapons and vehicles. That is not a way to solve crimes. That is a way to provoke crimes and to continue the practices of injustice that led to the uprising in the first place.
Jackson: Some things have moved in a positive direction. One thing we were trying to change was the police trial boards, which is the process that the police department uses to determine whether or not someone committed misconduct and also the level of punishment. Now in theory, that should be a good platform for us to determine whether someone should lose their job, but what you find is what’s currently happening with the officers involved in the Freddie Gray case, who’ve walked thus far without punishment. The reason for that is because there are no residents on those trial boards. What the police say is [residents] don’t have the proper training, or they don’t know policing so they can’t be involved.
The problem with that is the police department is a third of the city budget, and we don’t have any way to judge the police department on its inefficiencies. As of this year’s general assembly we were able to make the trial board hearings public, and we were also able to shorten that 10-day time span that Kwame talked about to 5 days.
The main thing is that the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] union here in Baltimore do not want any residents on those trial boards. In fact the city has failed at negotiating a new contract with the FOP because that’s the one thing they don’t want. What that tells us is they are not interested in transparent accountability to residents and being able to open up some of those police files to residents.
What do you want people to take away from this narrative?
Jackson: There are black people in Baltimore who have been doing this work for years, so there’s no need for white saviors here. What we need are investments in the institutions and leaders who have been doing this work. Usually black people are seen as people who are in need of saving, or who need white institutions to come grab us, as opposed to what the documentary shows, which is that we have been doing this work in our communities and we just need more investments in the work that we’re doing.
Barr: The primary thing for me is there is no answer, no microwaved way to fix all of this. There’s gotta be steady work and collaborative efforts between multiple organizations and people. People always think the community doesn’t get involved, but the community does get involved. This just doesn’t get picked up by the media. I hope that we can see that it takes a lot of work and dedication and humility.
Rose: Before the uprising, people were doing this work, and after the uprising those same people have continued to do the work. Though the documentary highlights only a few of us, there are countless people in Baltimore doing this work. But the status quo still has not changed, and the conditions of how black neighborhoods are policed are still very militaristic. The solution to this problem has to be led by an independent black institution.