This month marks five years since Freddie Grey died while in police custody. His death sparked riots that shook the city and captured national attention. At the institutional and the individual level, the Jewish community is marking the progress since then — or lack thereof — in different ways.
Howard Libit, Baltimore Jewish Council executive director, was working in the mayor’s office in 2015. “The riots focused a lot of attention on inequalities and disparities in our city, which have [been] present for a long time, but were probably not receiving enough attention or resources,” he said. In 2015, the BJC and The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore expressed solidarity with the black community. Nearly 100 members of Jews United for Justice marched for justice for Gray. Beth Am Synagogue Rabbi Daniel Burg offered testimony to support changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
Rain Pryor, a Baltimore activist and entertainer, was particularly shaken by the incident as a black Jewish woman. The moment triggered her childhood memories of watching Ku Klux Klan members beat up black people. Then the 2015 protests happened, and her daughter started asking questions. She taught her daughter the lesson that, because she was black, she needed to be more careful.
Despite some support, Pryor felt targeted and found her two identities at odds with each other.
“You sometimes have the two clash when it really should be bringing the voices up together,” she said. She wants Baltimore to recognize its differences yet understand that “we can all profit with from appreciation for others.” Pryor would like to be able to show up to the JCC “and not have someone ask, ‘How did you get here?’” or go to a Jewish pizza place and not be considered an outsider.
Exhibits, Events, and a ‘Real Concerted Effort’
For Baltimore, the cycle of violence against African Americans, and the sparking of intense outbursts of destructive protest in response, has produced a bruise that never fades. In 1968, the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. prompted an exodus of Jews from the city after Jewish merchants’ stores were looted and burned. Rabbi Etan Mintz, rabbi of B’nai Israel in downtown Baltimore, told Haaretz that the destruction of Jewish businesses was the “nail in the coffin” for Jewish flight.
Joanna Church is the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s director of collections and exhibits. She was at a conference when the riots broke out in 2015, and remembers watching the news in her hotel room. “Things are on fire,” she recalled thinking in shock.
Later, when Church drove down Interstate 395, she saw the national guard parked. “That was…” She paused.
JMM put together an emergency exhibit about its activism throughout the years, “to show we were aware of what’s happening and remind them the Jewish community and black community work together. Not always on the same side, but nothing happens in a vacuum.”
For the five-year anniversary, JMM plans to feature photographs by Joe Giordano in a series titled “Gray in Black and White,” tentatively scheduled for April 30. The exhibit will be available on JMM’s website.
“We are trying to push [representation] as part of the rewritten vision statement,” Church said. “It’s not just a question of helping our audience see and reflect on activism, but also, we are not of the city — we’re in the city. The uprising affected everybody.”
Repair the World Baltimore will have a Virtual Community Conversation April 30 with Van Brooks, founder and executive director of SAFE Alternative Foundation for Education, Inc.
“Our focus for the community conversation will be doing a brief commemoration of the five-year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death, and then discussing the gaps in Baltimore City that were highlighted during and after the 2015 uprising, particularly in education,” said Diana Goldsmith, Repair the World Baltimore program manager. Brooks will speak on how he and the Sandtown-Winchester community, where Gray lived, addressed these gaps.
Those interested can join at Zoom.us/j/656026150.
Pryor is optimistic that at least more Baltimore residents are aware of the systemic change that is needed.
“What still needs to be done is to make a real concerted effort to bring investments into the underserved community,” she said.