Outsiders and Insiders: Reinventing Solidarity in the Baltimore Uprising


For a few weeks, all eyes were on Bal­ti­more. For some, the gaze of fas­ci­na­tion even trans­formed into a com­mit­ment to come act. Activists, medics, and lawyers from far-away places crowded the city, want­ing, sim­ply, hun­grily to help. At Red Emma’s, the book­store-café where I am a worker-owner, the phone lines were flooded with calls from peo­ple want­ing to donate to some­thing, someone—to the store itself, even. The store was packed with out-of-town­ers and well-inten­tioned folks, often white Bal­ti­more res­i­dents, bear­ing bag upon bag of food dona­tions and med­ical sup­plies.

Although Red Emma’s has worked to redi­rect callers to legal defense funds and orga­nize and re-dis­trib­ute dona­tions to cen­ters in West Bal­ti­more, and though we have been a space for black orga­niz­ers and youth to uti­lize, these moments have given me pause. Although a decade of tire­less work has made Red Emma’s a place that the city (and beyond) looks to for lead­er­ship, it has been dis­ori­ent­ing, to say the least, to be cast into a role of author­ity because of my rel­a­tively new pres­ence in a rad­i­cal space, par­tic­u­larly as a white per­son who has only lived in Bal­ti­more for two years, and is so clearly not from West Bal­ti­more. In these moments, I am struck by the com­plex, con­tentious role of out­siders, both polit­i­cally and per­son­ally, and ques­tion of when, and how, it is appro­pri­ate to act.

Among other things, the Bal­ti­more upris­ing has forced all of us to reex­am­ine urgent strate­gic ques­tions about sol­i­dar­ity. What does it mean to con­sider white peo­ple as par­tic­i­pants in, and not just bystanders to or tar­gets of, a black-led polit­i­cal move­ment? How do we main­tain both the speci­ficity of – and res­o­nance between – dif­fer­ent strug­gles? The move­ments against police bru­tal­ity and the per­sis­tence of racist state prac­tices in the past year have forced us to reflect on how the ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ments of out­siders (whether because they are white or because they are not from the com­mu­nity from which strug­gle has emerged) have been trans­lated into prac­tice. While at times the tac­tics and inclu­sion of out­siders has been pro­duc­tive, the involve­ment of out­siders often risks lim­it­ing the move­ment, or worse, serves as a form of co-opta­tion. In this con­text one won­ders whether the out­stand­ing moti­va­tions for the refusal of black orga­ni­za­tions dur­ing the Black Power strug­gles of the 1960s and 1970s to enter into coali­tions with white co-actors per­sist. This poses the ques­tion: what is and isn’t novel about the sol­i­dar­ity work tak­ing place in Bal­ti­more today? And what can we learn from it?

Black Lives Matter

In Bal­ti­more, the cam­eras only came out when the fires were burn­ing, the win­dows of police cars were shat­tered, and cops were injured. They did not come out for the count­less peace­ful protests and calls for social change that have gone unan­swered. They didn’t cap­ture the mun­dane, quo­tid­ian strug­gle to sur­vive on the West and East sides, where poverty is reported to be worse than in some third-world coun­tries. They come out for the spec­ta­cle. Only this time, there was push­back; they were told to get out and go home. Take, for exam­ple, the video of a West Bal­ti­more man con­fronting Fox News reporter Ger­aldo Rivera.

“I want you and Fox News to get out of Bal­ti­more City,” the man said.

It’s not just the media whose pres­ence has been called into ques­tion. The No Bound­aries Coali­tion, made up of res­i­dents of Sand­town (where Fred­die Gray was mur­dered), put out a call for out­siders not from Bal­ti­more and white folks, includ­ing those from Bal­ti­more, to work with the black com­mu­nity not for it.

This call came a day after a peace­ful stu­dent-led protest, which brought approx­i­mately 5,000 peo­ple out on April 29th to march from Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity down­town to city hall. Sev­eral groups of black stu­dents were at the head of the march, their fists raised to the air. But at Penn Sta­tion, a group of over­whelm­ing white, young peo­ple with flow­ers in their hair, and hip­pie attire joined the march. Their signs read: All Lives Mat­ter, Love is Col­or­blind, and Bmore Peace. One sign even read: Weird lives mat­ter!

It is one thing for All Lives Mat­ter chants to come from black folks. But it is quite another when a group of white peo­ple chants All Lives Mat­ter. This not only ren­ders race and racism invis­i­ble; it dis­torts and dilutes the speci­fic strug­gle of black com­mu­ni­ties seek­ing jus­tice into an empty, lib­eral cry for empa­thy and recog­ni­tion. In this con­text, it is a slo­gan that erro­neously attempts to re-cen­ter a move­ment that is not about jus­tice for white folks back onto their lives, open­ing up the strug­gle for Black Lives Mat­ter to the dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory of out­side demands: in this case, the demand to be included in and rec­og­nized as part of the move­ment, with­out con­sid­er­a­tion for how “equal” inclu­sion might ham­per the mes­sage of that very same strug­gle. Once this level of equal inclu­sion and com­par­ison of injus­tices enters the dis­course, false and depoliti­ciz­ing impres­sions fol­low. Sim­ply put, the real­i­ties of state repres­sion and police bru­tal­ity within com­mu­ni­ties of color are obscured and deem­pha­sized.

This has real effects in terms of invert­ing and dimin­ish­ing the cen­tral strate­gic aims and demands of the move­ment. Think of the prob­lem­atic ways in which the main­stream media and elected offi­cials (includ­ing Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake) spoke of vio­lence as a moral­is­tic fail­ure on the part of black com­mu­ni­ties riot­ing in Bal­ti­more (as opposed to a polit­i­cal tac­tic embed­ded in the vio­lence at hand, whether of the police or poverty itself). In this way, the media and gov­ern­ment effec­tively par­dons the vio­lence of cops and white vig­i­lantes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in a relat­able idiom that effec­tively reveals this incon­gruity: “Some humans riot because their school lost the big game. Oth­ers because the state can’t stop killing them.”

Later in the stu­dent march in which All Lives Mat­ters made its entrance, I noticed a young white man with bleach-blonde hair flip­ping his mid­dle fin­ger off at a huge army tank. My part­ner, who is black, peeled off from the march and walked towards this man, afraid, he later told me, that he would incite vio­lence. I was reminded that one of my friends wit­nessed, in an ear­lier march, a few young white pro­test­ers start­ing throw bot­tles at the police and oth­er­wise agi­tate the crowd. Since then she watched them very closely, ready, she said, to ask them to stop should they do these same things again. She asked me, and some of our other white friends in the march, to do the same.

In both of these cases, the under­stand­ing was that the strate­gic, and polit­i­cal choice of whether or not to pro­voke the police should be left to that of black pro­test­ers, for whom police repres­sion is far worse than that of out­siders. In this instance, it is evi­dent that cer­tain types of agi­ta­tion from out­siders – agi­ta­tion that fails to con­sider the input of peo­ple of color, the poten­tially neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions towards peo­ple of color of such agi­ta­tion, such as arrest, and the image evoked by such agi­ta­tion –threat­ens to dis­tract, and at times deem irrel­e­vant, the strug­gle at hand. Fur­ther­more, the act of defer­ring to black lead­er­ship, how­ever var­ied black lead­er­ship might be, is in fact an essen­tial sol­i­dar­ity prac­tice. Defer­ring allows for the black com­mu­ni­ties to autonomously make polit­i­cal choices, choices which have his­tor­i­cally been char­ac­ter­ized by the state as ter­ror­ist, as made clear by COINTELPRO, the FBI project designed to infil­trate and destroy the Black Pan­thers dur­ing the 60s and 70s. If we are to take seri­ously that Black Lives Mat­ter, and not suc­cumb to the lib­eral coun­ter­part of All Lives Mat­ters, we must actively work to amplify the voices of the black com­mu­nity, and con­tin­u­ally assert that the acts of dis­sent pro­voked by black lead­ers are polit­i­cal and, in fact, nec­es­sary tac­tics within a strug­gle for jus­tice.

At the same time, how­ever, we need to be cau­tious. Often, we speak as if com­mu­nity is a mono­lith or homo­ge­neous bloc. The black com­mu­nity. The white com­mu­nity. The West Bal­ti­more com­mu­nity. But when we speak of com­mu­nity as if it is just one, neatly cat­e­go­riz­able entity, we ignore the way in which com­mu­nity itself is var­ied. Any so-called com­mu­nity con­tains mul­ti­tudes: of peo­ple, his­to­ries, pol­i­tics. While a com­mu­nity of peo­ple may be bound by some or many sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences, it is dan­ger­ous to speak of com­mu­nity as if it is unequiv­o­cal and con­stant.

The slip­per­i­ness of the notion of com­mu­nity has been revealed in some of the lan­guage used to talk about the Bal­ti­more Upris­ing. For instance, pro­test­ers in Bal­ti­more often speak of defer­ring to the black com­mu­nity. While defer­ring to black lead­er­ship is, as noted ear­lier, an impor­tant pre­con­di­tion for sol­i­dar­ity, we must not lose sight of the fact that the black com­mu­nity is diverse and at times diver­gent in its demands and tac­tics. Some black com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions in Bal­ti­more are ask­ing for speci­fic pol­icy and legal changes to hold cops account­able. Oth­ers are speak­ing of sys­temic changes – com­mu­nity-con­trol to replace polic­ing in poor neigh­bor­hoods, and an end to the poverty that under­cuts black com­mu­ni­ties.

It rapidly became clear that there is no sin­gle black leader in Bal­ti­more, and as many black pro­test­ers have pointed out, even within the black com­mu­nity the lives of black and trans women killed by police are often effaced, despite the fact that the Black Lives Mat­ter hash­tag was cre­ated by a group of queer black women. Only two weeks before the mur­der of Fred­die Gray, the life of a black trans woman, Mya Hall, was taken by secu­rity forces at the NSA head­quar­ters in Fort Meade, MD, after she made a wrong turn onto a restricted-access park­way. The dis­par­ity in the out­rage her death moti­vated com­pared to Gray’s trag­i­cally reminds us that, beneath every rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a uni­form col­lec­tiv­ity, there exists a whole series of sub­or­di­nated inter­ests. It becomes cru­cial, then, for out­siders to rec­og­nize cleav­ages and con­tra­dic­tions within “com­mu­ni­ties” as they move with them in sol­i­dar­ity. It is not pos­si­ble to sus­pend our pol­i­tics here, as there is often a stark choice between the tac­tics and aspi­ra­tions demon­strated from below, from Baltimore’s crim­i­nal­ized black youth, and admo­ni­tions from above.

Comrades, not Allies

At the last march I attended, on May 1st, the day the state pros­e­cu­tor announced charges of manslaugh­ter and mis­con­duct against the six offi­cers involved in Fred­die Gray’s death, I politely asked a white man to give up his mega­phone.

We were march­ing through West Bal­ti­more, yet again. A white friend of mine was dis­trib­ut­ing a flier he had put together, titled: “How to Be a White Per­son in Sol­i­dar­ity with the Bal­ti­more Upris­ing.” Points included: 1. Under­stand Your White Priv­i­lege. 2. Stop Using #All­Lives­Mat­ter. 3. Speak With, Not Over. 4. Do Jail and Legal Sup­port. 5. Talk to Other White Peo­ple. I later brought the flier to Red Emma’s, feel­ing that this small piece of paper with clear, digestible bul­let points might be of use to the white peo­ple so hun­gry to help. Copies were put in the vestibule (a space open to, and over­flow­ing with, pub­lic fliers). A friend of color later told me about her expe­ri­ence hand­ing this same flier out to peo­ple at a rally. She recalled the shifty-eyed looks of the white peo­ple she handed the flier to, not­ing the com­par­a­tive friend­li­ness of the white folks receiv­ing the fliers from our white friend. The sug­ges­tion being that per­haps a sixth bul­let-point is needed: Lis­ten actively and openly when peo­ple of color engage you about race.

The notion of an ally is not new. Nor is the request from peo­ple of color for allies to be good allies. What feels new is the way in which ally-ship is being inter­ro­gated, and the desire for some­thing more con­crete, sub­stan­tive, and polit­i­cally mean­ing­ful than just allies. What of com­rades? Co-con­spir­a­tors? These are terms I’ve heard used as less-ambigu­ous step-ups to ally-ship. As Rev­erend Osagyefo Uhuru Sakou reflects: “What we need from white peo­ple is not be allies but free­dom-fight­ers.” Or as Robin D.G. Kel­ley has put it, “We don’t need allies; we want com­rades.”

When call­ing-out the white man with the mega­phone, I was fol­low­ing my friend’s flier, believ­ing that talk­ing to other white peo­ple is a cru­cial aspect of sol­i­dar­ity work today, but I fear this call­ing-out risked cre­at­ing a dan­ger­ous dynamic of good ver­sus bad white per­son. We have to avoid this call-out cul­ture of white folks polic­ing white folks, which can often look like a com­pe­ti­tion to assert one­self as the best, “most-good,” white per­son.

Fur­ther, how can we move beyond call-out cul­ture to develop sol­i­dar­ity prac­tices that do more than merely present a spec­ta­cle? As Asam Ahmad points out: “Indeed, some­times it can feel like the per­for­mance itself is more sig­nif­i­cant than the con­tent of the call-out.” Ahmad fur­ther warns: “Call-out cul­ture can end up mir­ror­ing what the prison indus­trial com­plex teaches us about crime and pun­ish­ment: to ban­ish and dis­pose of indi­vid­u­als rather than to engage with them as peo­ple with com­pli­cated sto­ries and his­to­ries.”

The night before the mayor lifted the 10 p.m. cur­few, a group of pre­dom­i­nantly white peo­ple gath­ered in Ham­p­den, a mostly white neigh­bor­hood, to silently break cur­few. Their objec­tive, as artic­u­lated in their Face­book event, was to reveal how starkly racism was impact­ing the police’s imple­men­ta­tion of the cur­few. Down at cen­tral book­ings, jail sup­port crews were busy sup­port­ing the many mostly young black men who had been arrested in poor Bal­ti­more neigh­bor­hoods for break­ing cur­few by some­times as lit­tle as ten min­utes. Many were being released past cur­few with no means of get­ting home, putting them at risk, once again, for arrest. One woman, I heard, had left her home to get tam­pons after cur­few. When she left cen­tral book­ings her one request was a tam­pon because, one long night later locked up, she still hadn’t been given one.

The silent cur­few played out as expected. A group of cops came and spoke very nicely to the pro­test­ers: “We respect why you are here and under­stand what you are doing. Please don’t make us arrest you. This is your first warn­ing…”

And the warn­ings went on. Two, three, four. Report­edly, some cops even offered to help folks get home. The police stated that they would arrest indi­vid­u­als if they did not dis­perse within five min­utes. But after five min­utes, the cops merely came back to make fur­ther warn­ings, and still did not arrest any­one. By 10:15 p.m. the pro­test­ers had dis­persed, all safely, and freely, headed to their homes.

At least one black Bal­ti­more activist, to my knowl­edge, ques­tioned the fact that the pro­test­ers did not con­tinue to break cur­few and there­fore force the police to arrest them. This activist crit­i­cized the silent cur­few protest for sim­ply demon­strat­ing what is already evi­dent to black peo­ple every­day. Some pro­test­ers claimed they were actu­ally pre­pared and will­ing to be arrested. Some expressed con­cerns about bail – which was set at incred­i­bly high prices dur­ing the state of emer­gency period – in this instance, it could take away bail resources from oth­ers, as white arrestees would likely get pushed through cen­tral book­ing first. The same Bal­ti­more activist noted, how­ever, that silent cur­few pro­test­ers likely had more access to funds and resources – a dip into the bail pool might not have been nec­es­sary.

It is impor­tant to use white­ness as a tac­tic to reveal, as in this case, the racism of the state. But how can sol­i­dar­ity go fur­ther than per­for­mance? Must there be some greater sac­ri­fice, and how might that sac­ri­fice act as some­thing more sub­stan­tive than mar­tyr­dom? What are out­siders will­ing to sac­ri­fice – and to what end? Though the silent cur­few was orga­nized as a response to calls for sol­i­dar­ity actions from sev­eral black lead­ers, this by no means rep­re­sented the views of all black lead­ers, and the extent to which the silent cur­few built last­ing sol­i­dar­ity remains to be seen. Cri­tiques remind us that, while this action did suc­cess­fully deliver its goal of reveal­ing the racist cur­few enforce­ment prac­tices of the police, while defer­ring to the polit­i­cal vision of some black lead­ers, it is still nec­es­sary for sol­i­dar­ity work to go fur­ther. What would it mean, for exam­ple, for sol­i­dar­ity actions to force the state to do pre­cisely what it does not want to do? In this case to arrest a group of peo­ple they expressly do not want to crim­i­nal­ize. And to use the resources endowed by the state to these indi­vid­u­als to sub­vert, at least tem­porar­ily, the race and class-based power dynam­ics the state so des­per­ately wants to con­serve.

Uniting the Struggles

In 2011 when I was liv­ing in New York and par­tic­i­pat­ing in Occupy Wall Street, protest­ing and march­ing often felt like the most impor­tant thing I could, and should, do. In a move­ment that was crit­i­cized for hav­ing no clear demands and a lack of unity, the one thing every­one did agree on was occu­pa­tion, and protest. In fact, Occupy, with its slo­gan “We are the 99%,” strug­gled to be as inclu­sive as pos­si­ble, cre­at­ing the feel­ing that every­one was an insider. Of course, this was not the case, and women, peo­ple of color, and many oth­ers crit­i­cally inter­ro­gated this claim to inclu­siv­ity. In this con­text, cau­cuses emerged as a kind of orga­ni­za­tional means of help­ing to cre­ate a higher, more inclu­sive sense of unity.

The scene in Bal­ti­more is quite dif­fer­ent, and the upris­ing showed that we need dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tional mod­els, beyond cau­cuses or gen­eral assem­blies, to link dis­parate strug­gles. For one, the cat­e­gories of out­sider and insider are being spo­ken of much more urgently and overtly, per­haps because the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, unlike Occupy Wall Street, presents more con­crete demands and higher stakes tied specif­i­cally to racial iden­tity. In Bal­ti­more, there are those stand­ing on the out­side, whether by choice or because they have been asked to. And there are insid­ers, count­less, whom no one can claim. Both sides strug­gle, and their strug­gles, though cer­tainly dif­fer­ent, are nev­er­the­less deeply con­nected. The chal­lenge, then, is to hold mul­ti­ple strug­gles at once with­out los­ing focus. Out­siders must find ways to act with­out dis­rupt­ing the integrity of the strug­gle of those on the inside, such that dif­fer­ent strug­gles become linked together with­out eras­ing the real dif­fer­ences inte­gral to those strug­gles.

In doing so, we must ask what the strug­gle for black lives to mat­ter requires us to do, and what it would mean for the black lives of those liv­ing under state repres­sion in West Bal­ti­more and beyond to truly mat­ter. It is the respon­si­bil­ity of the out­sider to not only lis­ten to and learn of the many rad­i­cal visions that have been put for­ward (point­ing towards wider strug­gles, per­spec­tives, expe­ri­ences and real­i­ties), but to live out these visions as they relate to the outsider’s posi­tion and strug­gle, with the under­stand­ing that the cat­e­gories of out­sider and insider must them­selves be manip­u­lated and dis­rupted. At times, this requires relin­quish­ing power, at other times, directly, and tact­fully, con­fronting it.

Cre­at­ing inter­ra­cial sol­i­dar­ity is cen­tral to the strug­gle to help­ing make black lives mat­ter. This was, in fact, a cru­cial aspect of the long tra­di­tion of black rad­i­cal­ism in this coun­try. We would do well to recall, for instance, the famous Chicago Rain­bow Coali­tion ini­ti­ated by the Black Pan­ther Party, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can Brown Berets, and the Young Patri­ots, a group of poor rev­o­lu­tion­ary white youths, in the sum­mer of 1969. Later expanded to include other rad­i­cal social­ist orga­ni­za­tions, the Coali­tion strug­gled against insti­tu­tional racism, state ter­ror­ism, and cap­i­tal­ism, as well the racist chau­vin­ism in its own con­stituent par­ties.

In a stir­ring scene cap­tured in the film Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion 2, Black Pan­ther Bobby Lee explains at a Young Patri­ots meet­ing, “The Pan­thers are here for any­one who lives in uptown, whether he’s brown, green, yel­low, pur­ple, or pink. When I say the Pan­thers are here, you have to tell us what we can do, and what we can do together.” He went on, “there’s police bru­tal­ity, there’s rats and roaches, there’s poverty up here, and that’s the first thing we can unite on.” The poor whites at the meet­ing, some of whom, includ­ing Young Patriot leader William Fes­per­man, had moved to Chicago from Appalachia, shared sim­i­lar con­cerns, com­plain­ing espe­cially of police bru­tal­ity – “you call up the police when nothing’s going on, and the police are gonna come make it hap­pen,” or “they try to put your words in your mouth, make you put your­self in jail.”

The fight against racism, poverty, poor hous­ing, and even police vio­lence, the Coali­tion argued, could only be based on rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­ra­cial sol­i­dar­ity. As one older white man at the meet­ing put it,  “I’ll stick with the Black Pan­thers if they stick with me, and I know they will.” While we can, and must, chan­nel some of these pow­er­ful insights, the speci­fic forms that such sol­i­dar­ity will take today remains an open ques­tion. Among other things, the Bal­ti­more Upris­ing and the entirety of the cycle of strug­gles around the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment – in Fer­gu­son, New York, other Amer­i­can cities, and even abroad –  has forced us to con­front a pri­mary strate­gic ques­tion: the rein­ven­tion of the very idea of sol­i­dar­ity work.

Author of the article

is a writer living and working in Baltimore. She's a worker-owner at Red Emma's bookstore where she makes mega vegan nachos for people, orders feminist fiction, and helps organize the Baltimore Free School. She can be contacted at chelsea.gleason@gmail.com for inquires about her work.