Just a few hours ago, Marilyn Mosby Baltimore City State’s Attorney announced that her office would bring criminal charges, including murder, against the six police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray.
Mosby stressed that Gray’s arrest by Baltimore police was illegal. “No crime had been committed,” she said. Across the city today, cries of “Justice” can be heard — people have been given a reason to believe in a system that, all too frequently in the past, they have felt has not served them.
The prudence of Mosby’s statement comes at the end of complicated and strange week in Baltimore. I’d like to share with you my experience photographing on the streets these past few days and I’d like to explain how my portraits sit alongside — or even in spite of — the dominant narratives that have emerged from Baltimore this week and commanded national attention.
Let’s Go Back Five Days
Monday afternoon after the city schools let out, the Baltimore Police Department shut down a major bus hub at Mondawmin Mall, forcing teenagers off city buses based on vague rumors of a “purge” in retaliation for the death of Freddie Gray. After eliminating their means of transport, police then used loitering as a provocation to advance in riot gear, leading to an altercation that escalated to a full scale uprising. Violence and looting spread towards downtown from that flashpoint, injuring police officers and leaving a store and numerous vehicles in flames.
My MICA photo students and I photographed Tuesday morning, to document and bear witness to the tragic events. We saw lots of communities and volunteers helping each other, cleaning up, pitching in. We saw many stores with broken glass and a CVS that was completely burned out inside, products fused into indistinguishable debris. But amid all of this, there were families with small children helping to sweep broken glass, volunteers passing out garbage bags and water, and more press credentials than could be counted. There were community organizers passing out voter registration forms to encourage civic participation.
North Ave & Pennsylvania Ave
We watched the police mass at North Ave & Pennsylvania Ave — from a few officers when we arrived, to 100+ over the span of an hour. This led to them sealing off the block, displacing all those that were trying to help peacefully.
The police then proceeded to hold the block — 27 officers standing shoulder to shoulder in full riot gear — while continuing to stage behind their line. The police then installed a sniper team on a nearby roof and began buzzing the crowd with a helicopter, instilling anxiety and anger in the crowd. My students no longer felt safe and we decided to leave as a group.
I went back that same evening, and there were 26 citizens forming a human wall, separating the crowd from the police, for their mutual protection. My heart was heavy all day but lifted at this spirit of self-sacrifice and generosity.
On Wednesday afternoon, Baltimore City residents were still at the intersection, waiting and watching. The Baltimore Police Department was there, waiting and watching, but this time in their standard uniforms. The national news media carried on all around, outnumbering the officers, and interviewing residents. The media conversation seemed to have everything to do with shaping fear and little to do with my city.
Tired of the abstraction of media narratives, I wanted to look carefully and to make portraits of individuals. I asked each BPD officer that I encountered on Wednesday and Thursday if I could make their portrait and made a portrait of each who consented.
I also made portraits of community members who gave their consent. On Wednesday evening, I made portraits of National Guardsmen that had been activated by the declared State of Emergency. On Thursday evening, I went to city hall, and circled the media camps, making portraits of the fourth estate.
It feels important to put faces to all these groups that are otherwise abstracted by the national media coverage and to examine the media figures shaping our stories. I’m suspicious of easy narratives and think that the truth is much more complicated. I hope that these portraits embody the complexities of Baltimore City and lend nuance to the narratives surrounding the events. These photographs are a small way of knowing my city from the ground in this difficult time.
After so many recent killings of Black men by law enforcement in this country, one began to wonder just what had to happen before a murder charge could stick. Unfortunately for Freddie Gray and his family, his life was the cost for us to find out.
I hope due process in the courts and a justice that rings true for all citizens might be the start to a slow process of reconciliation and systemic reform.
My heart is with Baltimore.
Nate Larson is an artist and educator based in Baltimore. He has taught at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) since 2009.