A demonstrator raises his fist as police stand in formation as a store burns during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore on Monday, April 27, 2015.
Patrick Semansky—AP
By Phillip Agnew
April 29, 2015
IDEAS
Phillip Agnew is mission director of the activist group Dream Defenders.

Seeing the protests in Baltimore has filled me with a sense of pride in seeing a community come together with empathy and sharing the very human emotion of anguish at the senseless death of Freddie Gray and many others. It shouldn’t be a surprise when a reaction like this bubbles to the surface. People are fed up. We feel it very acutely when someone in our community dies. We are the ones left to pick up the pieces. This began long before this week; we’re just now being jolted.

The police reaction to the protests is a continuation of the wrong-minded, heavy-handed, militarized response that we’ve come to expect. This is the current state of American policing—Police seem to believe that citizens are enemy combatants, and that is how they’re treating us. There is a culture of contempt for black, Latino, poor, and young people. No cosmetic legislation or body camera can fix that. An uprising will.

The debate about the role of violence in protests gets brought up when people stand up to the government. I don’t see a distinction between violent and nonviolent protests. What I see is protest.

Consider that we’re shipwrecked on an island. We’ve written S.O.S. on the sand, we’ve put a message in a bottle, and we’ve screamed at the top of the lungs. But planes and boats never came to our aid. Then we decide to set our boat on fire, and people finally take notice.

In Baltimore, I see people who have tried everything in their disposal to be heard, and they’ve gotten no response. The destruction of property, the fighting back—that’s starting the conversation. They’re setting a fire so people will notice. This will happen again.

This looks a lot like the protests in Ferguson, and it looks like the months in Florida after the Trayvon Martin murder. This is not the last time this is going to happen. The ingredients are there in every city in this country. You have people who believe they have no opportunity, you have police departments who see their community as the enemy, and you have racism as an underlying issue that must still be addressed.

I would tell protesters in Baltimore: Fight on. That’s the only way anything is ever changed. The greatest changes in the history of this country have come about by people rising up and not taking “No” for an answer. Increasingly the world is watching a country that has claimed to be a stalwart defender of human rights now have that veneer come down. This must happen. This must continue.

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