Baltimore Rising spotlights courage, collaboration in wake of Freddie Gray death

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis talks with community leader Genard “Shadow” Barr in the new HBO documentary Baltimore Rising. (courtesy HBO)

In April 2015, a seemingly routine arrest turned tragically fatal when Freddie Gray – a twenty-five year old Baltimore City man – died within a few days of his apprehension. A firestorm ensued, pitting police against protestors, and as the world watched, many wondered if Baltimore City would ever recover. The city is still bleeding, but no one could have imagined that the warring parties of 2015 would band together in an effort to bridge the chasm of mutual mistrust.

In the weeks and months after Gray’s death, film maker Sonja Sohn (one of the stars of the Baltimore-based HBO series “The Wire”), followed activists, police officers, community leaders and gang affiliates, as they struggled to hold Baltimore City together. Exploring how to make change, when change isn’t easy, is Sohn’s documentary: Baltimore Rising.

HBO held an advanced screening of Baltimore Rising last night in Hart Auditorium at Georgetown University Law Center. A brief discussion followed.

Filmmaker Sonja Sohn at Georgetown University Law Center. (Anthony C. Hayes)

As the film opens, Sohn sets the tone with a sweeping visual of the crumbling inner city and a cogent observation by former Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes.

Speaking of an encounter where he was asked if a section of boarded up houses were a result of the recent riots, Stokes (paraphrased) says, “Look at the boards on those houses. Do they look like they were put up yesterday? The riot didn’t tear up this community. The condition of the community is what caused the uprising.”

Stokes’ comment underscores one of the decades-old problems in Baltimore City – a city that was once comprised of strong family units – aided by foot patrolmen who knew everyone on their beat.

Freddie Gray’s death, while in police custody, inflamed many in Baltimore’s Black community. The subsequent peaceful protests and unruly riots that effectively shut down the city for over a week, were followed by grave concerns of more violence, as the six officers charged in Gray’s death went to trial.

Given the wide circle of blame, it would be easy to point fingers in a film such as this. But Sohn opts to spotlight the unlikely heroes of the city’s ongoing healing efforts:

Twice-arrested youth activist Kwame Rose, who lost a good-paying job after being seen on television in a confrontation with FOX News reporter Geraldo Rivera, reflects, “There are ways the protests can become counterproductive.”

Activist Makayla Gilliam-Price. (courtesy HBO)

High-schooler and activist Makayla Gilliam-Price, whose family worries she is neglecting her future by engaging in the protest efforts, even as she states: “We are not doing anything that is going to hurt us by educating our people.”

And community leader and former gang member Genard “Shadow” Barr, an addiction recovery specialist in the volatile Penn-North community, who angrily avers, “You’ve got a city of 700,000 people and 300 jobs.”

Sohn doesn’t mention the 78% increase in homicides after Gray’s death, or the steep decline in police numbers, even as crime continues to soar. However, she does try to balance the film by highlighting the personal responses to the uprising by individual officers, such as Detective Dawnyell Taylor – the lead investigator in the Freddie Gray homicide case; Commissioner Kevin Davis, who assumed command in the midst of the homicide investigation; and Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell, chief of the Community Partnership Division, Baltimore Police Department.

Taylor, a mother of three, endured death threats, because her work largely helped to exonerate the six officers in the case. Driving her cruiser through town, she admits, “You’ve got to pick your battles.”

Davis, who at one point tells Shadow, “Your pain is not my pain,” also opines, “We (the police) are forced to shoulder all of the woes of society.”

And Russell, seen throughout the film as a voice of reason in blue, believes that Baltimore is a city that is, “underserved and over-policed.”

Detective Dawnyell Taylor received death threats while investigating the officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray. (courtesy HBO)

It is interesting to note that Russell’s division has lost some 80% of its members since the uprising, as the department reassigns officers in an effort to plug holes left by hundreds of vacating cops.

Sohn relies on archival news footage to mark the way certain events unfolded, but she doesn’t get bogged down in the history – allowing her subjects room to fill in the gaps. The ninety-minute film moves quickly and was warmly received by the near-capacity audience. Several people remarked it was great to see police and activists interacting.

In the post-screening discussion, Sohn told the audience that, when she looks at the film, she identifies with Shadow.

“That’s how I came to this work. I wanted to contribute and make this city a better place. Engaging with the community showed me what I needed to do. We all have talents; we all have gifts. Getting in is going to be messy. You’re probably going to be critiqued and get your feelings hurt or hurt somebody along the way. But this is the messy business of change, and if we all continue on that road long term, we’re going to see that the needle does move. My unique contribution was to listen to people tell their story in a narrative way, the best I could.”

Baltimore Rising debuts Monday, November 20 at 8:00 PM on HBO.

This documentary is highly recommended.