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Towson University students draw lessons from the Baltimore Uprising

Carly Milligan & Brander Soderberg

Baltimore Sun

With the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death just a couple weeks away, 22-year-old Towson University student, activist, and writer Bilphena Yahwon has a busy evening ahead of her this Friday night in April. She’s making appearances at two events that evidence the lasting impact of the uprising: a panel in Charles Village on the topic of activism and a legal defense fundraiser in Mount Vernon for Keith Davis Jr., the first man shot by police since the death of Gray.

Yahwon rushes into St. John’s United Methodist Church on St. Paul Street in Charles Village and takes a seat at the table in the front of the room as Towson University students, alumnae, faculty, and staff sit attentively in the audience, ready to discuss local activism. Also on the panel are Reagan Hooten of the Baltimore Free Farm, community organizer and Green Party mayoral candidate Joshua Harris, and Charles Graham, a Baltimore City student activist from Free Your Voice. Yahwon discusses how many of the problems at Towson University must be addressed on a state level, the importance of intersectionality, and the ways in which she obtained “the language to understand [her] oppression” which included getting involved with Towson’s Center for Student Diversity.

“To deconstruct the system of Towson sometimes you need get off of campus,” she says.

Panels like this one happen almost weekly since the uprising. And occasionally, uprising talk—how it happened, what does it all mean, where does it go next—also pops up at big, city-sanctioned festivals such as last month’s Light City, which invited Tawanda Jones. Jones, whose brother Tyrone West died in police custody in July 2013, spoke with the rest of her family at the McKeldin Fountain for the weekly West Wednesday protest as projected illustrations of other police brutality victims lit up the Inner Harbor.

Yahwon also discusses #OccupyTowson, two sit-ins that took place on the Towson University campus last November. The first student sit-in was staged at a Student Government Association (SGA) meeting. The second took place in the University President’s office, lasted nine hours, and resulted in then-Interim President of TU Timothy Chandler agreeing to a list of 12 student demands, which would improve the quality of life for minorities on campus. The demands: an increase in the hiring and retention of black tenured and tenure-track faculty; required cultural competency courses for faculty, staff, and students; more diverse representation and considerations in Greek Organizations and the SGA; a review of the contract between Towson and Maryland Correctional Enterprises; increased multicultural representation among the President’s Diversity Coordinating Council and the committees that determine tenure; better enforcement of the University’s policies on non-discrimination and hate bias; equal policing practices of student events; and the return of Towson’s nationally-ranked debate team.

#OccupyTowson was just one of many ripple effects of the Baltimore uprising, as activists continue their fight for change. On the mayoral front, candidates DeRay Mckesson, a nationally prominent Black Lives Matter leader, and activist favorite Harris have launched strong campaigns but been subsumed by establishment figures such as Sheila Dixon, Catherine Pugh, Nick Mosby, and Elizabeth Embry, who are leading in the polls. And the city continues with problematic policies, such as the massive Port Covington project with its tax breaks for developers and recent investigations of police misconduct (the aforementioned Keith Davis Jr.’s case grows increasingly knotty; the police shooting of unarmed Morrell Park man John Rau was recently declared “legally justified”; Alfred Evans, who was spit on by police; and Aaron Winston, whose family alleges police brutality during his arrest in February at the Inner Harbor).

Change comes slowly to Baltimore, but grassroots groups like the Baltimore Algebra Project, Baltimore Bloc, City Bloc, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle—and many others to which #OccupyTowson is tangentially tied—continue to push for reforms.

Following the panel in Charles Village, Yahwon takes a 10-minute drive toward Mount Vernon to attend a legal defense fundraiser for Keith Davis Jr. at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Parish Hall.

The Keith Davis Jr. case is one that seems to get more complicated as the details unfold. Here’s a primer: It started back in June of 2015, when Baltimore Police officers who believed Davis had robbed a hack cab chased him to a garage. Police fired at least two dozen shots at Davis, who allegedly pointed a gun at police but did not fire. In February, when Davis’ case finally went to trial, he was found not guilty in 15 of 16 charges. He was, however, convicted of possession of a firearm with a felony conviction—a charge that was added to the case about five months after the other charges. Not long after Davis’ trial, he was charged with the murder of 22-year-old Kevin Jones, the result of ballistics records matching the gun Davis had when he was shot at and cell phone tower data that linked him to the location of the murder. Activists question the timing of the charges and the charges themselves and also point out that Davis has relatives who live near Pimlico, where the shooting occurred, which might explain the cell phone tower data.

Davis Jr.’s fiancee, Kelly Holsey has remained a dogged supporter of her partner since the shooting and has teamed up with Bmore Bloc to keep attention on this case.

When Yahwon arrives, the Keith Davis Jr. legal defense fundraiser is alive thanks to the night’s poetry readings (by Tariq Touré, Mecca Verdell, and others), performances (by rappers Eze Jackson, Son of Nun, and others), and the smells of homemade food from veteran activist and caterer Duane “Shorty” Davis and protest veteran PFK Boom. Also on tonight’s bill is Voices of TU, which includes #OccupyTowson organizers John Gillespie and Korey Johnson, along with Towson students Gabe Flood and Vicky Brianna. They perform a spoken word piece titled ‘Open Season.’

Yahwon circles the room and speaks with friends and fellow activists. The event feels festive, an example of the familial nature that activism has enabled post-uprising.

Part of the joy is because this was a big week for activists, particularly Baltimore Bloc. Along with the aforementioned, higher-profile West Wednesday event at Light City, it was also the week in which activist Abdul Salaam won a $70,000 civil suit settlement against the Baltimore Police Department. Salaam alleged that he was beaten by Baltimore Police in July 2013, just a few weeks before the death of Tyrone West. His case is of note because two of the officers involved in Salaam’s suit were also involved in West’s arrest and subsequent death during that arrest. Attention to these pre-Freddie Gray cases is building.

Although Yahwon is part of the activist community here, her involvement is relatively new—she even hesitates to refer to herself as an “activist” outside of the realm of Towson because her direct involvement in Baltimore is is so recent. She held her first event for her series Yanja at Impact Hub in March, an official first step for bringing her social justice work from Towson University into the city. This Friday, she will speak at rapper/poet Abdu Ali’s Earthseed Earthseed event at Floristree.

She sees parallels between the systemic problems at Towson University and the issues in Baltimore: “It’s the same conversation they are having in the city,” she says.

Both Yahwon and John Gillespie recognized this connection last April during the Baltimore Uprising. Gillespie says TU’s intercollegiate protest, which took place two days after Monday, April 27, the day of the riot, was the start of that consciousness. On March 29, hundreds of students and community members marched from Towson’s campus to Penn Station and then City Hall, in a rally organized by Gillespie and Korey Johnson.

“We were able to start to bridge that gap [between city and county],” Gillespie says of that day. “To facilitate that kind of relationship that was not there before.”

The uprising in Baltimore led to teach-ins, conversations about race, and a wave of awareness sweeping across the campus—all of which set-up the backdrop for #OccupyTowson.

“We understand that it’s a permanent struggle and it’s not one of those things where at the end of this protest we have to stop,” Gillespie told The Towerlight, Towson’s student newspaper, after the first #OccupyTowson sit-in back in November. “We need to actually make something happen and I personally feel like seeing us together like this, even if you think we are just a mob of people without direction, is how we are going to be able to hold administration accountable.”

Gillespie says that the motivation behind the sit-in came not only from the systemic concerns and frequent microaggressions on campus, but also from residual racial tensions on campus. Infamously, there was the formation of an unofficial group called “The White Student Union,” which was headed by a then senior at Towson, Matthew Heimbach, in 2012. Heimbach also brought Jared Taylor, a white nationalist to speak at Towson.

“All these different events have shaped the culture of Towson for me,” Korey Johnson said to the Towerlight following the #OccupyTowson sit-in. “I can’t just forget that Jared Taylor was here. I can’t forget that Matt Heimbach and his posse were like, patrolling to make sure that black men didn’t rape white women and I was afraid to go to my dorm.”

Heimbach, by the way, gained national attention last month when he was identified as the white man who shoved a black woman protesting at a Donald Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky.

There is also the curious hiatus of Towson University’s debate team in 2014. The debate team has long provided academic opportunities for black students at the school: In 2008, Towson became the first all-black debate team to place first nationally and in 2014, Korey Johnson, along with Ameena Ruffin, became the first black women to win a national debate championship tournament. Yet the team was put on a year-long hiatus from all competitive national debate travel and tournaments this past fall. It was one of the issues #OccupyTowson called attention to, and earlier this month, Towson administration said that the team is back on track to start again in the fall.

This is not the first time in Towson’s history that a national movement has sparked activism on its campus. In 1970, inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement and just two years after the Baltimore riots in 1968, a group of black Towson students staged a protest in the University President’s office. They presented a list of demands asking for black clubs and programs, more black teachers and students, and fair treatment of all black individuals within the institution.

“We were received on campus with a jaundiced eye because we were from the city,” says Towson’s first Black Student Union President Arthur Woodard, who helped organize the 1970 protest, “Folks looked at us sideways and we were basically called troublemakers.”

Woodard describes a divide separating Baltimore City from Towson that he says continues to exist. York Road, which passes in front of Towson’s Stephen’s Hall and continues into to the city, is a historic and physical representation of this disparity. When Woodard came to Towson from his home in Baltimore City in 1969, he recalls tutoring children in a predominantly black community off York Road. Today, that area is known as “Uptown Towson” and is home to a public library, college bars, shops, restaurants, and a massive, brand new movie theater, among other upscale amenities.

“Do your history and you’ll find out, there were black people in Towson,” Woodard says. “But they eliminated their housing, and so they eliminated them. They turned it into an economic mecca up and down York Road.”

Woodard says that the University, through its public relations, has always portrayed itself as disconnected from Baltimore City and he doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

“The legacy of that racial segregation is still a part of the [Towson] landscape,” Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III says. “It really paints the picture of what the personality and what the desire of that community was at least in former years. And then you’ve gotta ask the question why, still to this day, do these artifacts of racial segregation still stand?”

Brown mentions the Guilford Community on the southern end of Towson where a stone wall stretching along York Road roughly from Cold Spring Lane to 43rd Street was constructed, he says, to keep people from coming into the area. A satellite image of this part of York Road will show well-spaced neighborhoods with upscale homes and lush tree-filled yards on one side, while the other side features tightly packed row homes and parking lots.

A 1937 redlining or “residential security” map of Baltimore illustrates the extreme disparity between each side of the road as well. It shows “how racial prejudice and racism can help to determine policy even down to the make-up of communities, down to the opportunities in communities,” Brown says. “The reality of it is, that the quality of life for children in this community is affected just by crossing the street. The employment opportunities are affected.”

The tradition of countering Baltimore’s segregation policies stretches back from Woodard at least, to present-day student activists such as Gillespie, Johnson, and Yahwon, to recent Towson graduates such as Adam Jackson and Dayvon Love of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

“Our plan the entire time [at Towson] was to use the university as a playground for how we were going to train ourselves to do this stuff in Baltimore. So the debate team, the Black Student Union, The Brotherhood, these were all just training grounds for all of us to figure out and refine our activism over a period of time,” Adam Jackson says. “Towson doesn’t produce leaders, black student leaders. Towson has students that are leaders in spite of its institutional arrangement.”

And the “next generation” of Towson activists are being prepped for when Gillespie, Johnson, and Yahwon move on. Breya Johnson is a sophomore who took charge during #OccupyTowson and is viewed as part of this next generation .

“I think [Towson is] more concerned with making everyone comfortable, specifically white people comfortable, and I just don’t think that we can accomplish that list of demands if everyone is comfortable. They are more concerned with keeping control over the situation and not actually meeting the demands I feel like,” Breya Johnson says. “As an activist you spend more time trying to prove what you are doing matters more than getting things done.”

At a City Hall sit-in in October, Baltimore’s activist groups, including Towson students, combined efforts and made national news by shifting the conversation among local activists.

Following the first of two City Council hearings regarding the appointment of then-interm police commissioner Kevin Davis as police commissioner, a group of mostly student activists, including Gillespie and Korey Johnson, refused to leave City Hall. The day before, seven groups including Baltimore Algebra Project, Baltimore Bloc, City Bloc, and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, gave the police commissioner a list of demands, most of which had to do with how protesters should be treated and what they described as “heightened aggression” in the police force.

The sit-in lasted until around 3 a.m., when more than a hundred police arrived and arrested 16 of the activists remaining inside.

Outside, Korey Johnson and Gillespie, who had occupied City Hall but left along with others shortly before the arrests, were particularly powerful voices confronting lines of police. Johnson shouted Assata’s chant—”It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.”—at a booming level and told the officers, “You’re here to arrest children!…These could be your kids! You should be ashamed of yourselves!”

Gillespie paced a line of officers and similarly appealed to their humanity (“This is about love!”) and asked them to “stand for something bigger than yourself.” As Gillespie spoke, a black officer stared straight ahead past Gillespie and other activists, but his lip quivered and tears welled in his eyes as the rhetoric grew stronger.

Although their goals for social justice remain the same whether they are in Towson or Baltimore, Gillespie and Yahwon understand that the role they play changes as they move from leaders of #OccupyTowson to relatively new activists amid Baltimore City’s protest movement.

“What happened last April with the Baltimore Uprising, what happened last semester with #OccupyTowson, these are things that are connected in ways that we perhaps don’t necessarily see in the moment of doing the action,” Gillespie says. “I plan on doing work with Baltimore Bloc, and doing work with Baltimore Bloc means sitting down, shutting up, and being a student to other people who have been doing this work a whole lot more than you.”

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