While CNN was reporting on a teen-led, Purge-styled attack on police on Monday at Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore, Meghann Harris, 25, was there. And after seeing the media's tunneled focus on the fires and violence that erupted as citizens of Baltimore protested the death of Freddie Gray, she took to Facebook to explain what she saw that day:
The post went viral on social media and became a symbol of the other side of the Baltimore protests, as well as cable news' part in how protesters are portrayed. Harris' testimony shed light on the build-up to the destruction that eventually happened and proved that there was much more to the narrative presented by the mainstream media. Harris, who has taught architecture and design at Baltimore Design School for the past three years, has stayed busy since then, joining in on the clean-up efforts in Baltimore and returning to her classes. After school let out on Thursday, Harris jumped on the phone to talk with us about what she saw at Mondawmin Mall, the true nature of Baltimore's youth, and what the police need to learn in wake of this week's protests.
Tell me about the hours before school let out on Monday.
I teach a variety of grade levels, but at the end of the day I teach high schoolers, and they’re usually the ones who are more in the know. At around 1 p.m. I started hearing my students saying, “Purge, purge, purge. Oh yeah, stuff’s popping off.” Finally I went, "Okay, what the heck is the Purge?" They started pulling out their phones and showing me the post on Instagram.
So you knew things weren't going to be good?
Yeah, we knew things weren't going to go well. The students started talking. They were going, "Are you scared?" And finally I started hearing a bunch of students talking about how they didn’t know how they were gonna get home. So I pinpointed like three students who thought that they had absolutely no ride, one of which was going directly to the Mondawmin neighborhood. Meanwhile we have parents picking up their kids early, the office is full of parents, and our desk assistant is getting calls every minute. Then the end of the school day happens and immediately our principal made the announcement like, “Teachers, usher your students out. We need to get them home immediately.” So all the kids were kinda like, “Oh crap.”
You wrote about what happened next in your Facebook post, but can you describe the scene to me more?
It looked like the students were getting put into a situation that they couldn’t get out of. Public transportation was completely shut down. I don't think people understand the gravity of that situation. We don't have yellow buses—students take public transportation. If you shut down the metro, and you shut down the buses, then you have completely taken away every way for the kids to get out of the neighborhood.
So everyone was just stuck?
When I got to Mondawmin, nothing was happening. There wasn’t a melee, there wasn’t a riot, there wasn’t a purge. It was just cops in full body gear, face masks, shields, and batons—like big batons, that you could see from far away. And all of them had their arms linked, and they were marching with about 20 to 30 officers per line.
Do you think what happened was a direct result of all this? Like a forced panic?
I think it was a panic. Like, how could something be run so badly? Dr. Thornton, our CEO, released a statement that he didn’t know until 9:30 p.m. that the buses had been shut down. If cops have information that the city school board doesn’t have, that’s a problem. How could something be run so poorly unless it’s intentional? If you don’t want a riot to happen, why aren’t you getting people out of the neighborhood?
And honestly, I kind of feel like people are trying to change the story so everyone starts to feel a little sorry for cops.
What's the difference between what happened and what's being reported?
The media immediately just turned it around on what happened that night. When it came to Monday, everybody was just talking about how violent it was.
How do you ultimately feel about what happened on Monday?
I hear where my students are coming from, and I hear what they’re saying. No one can say that looting didn’t happen. No one can say that rioting didn’t happen. If you’re an outsider, you’re just looking at this going, “What the heck are these people doing?” But if you’re an insider, you know that you’re in a community of people who are completely and utterly disenfranchised. If you’re an insider you also understand the fact that this was something completely student-led at the beginning. And you know what? They’re trying to do something. It didn’t go well, obviously. But if the second I step out of school there are cops in full body gear, I’m gonna feel a little offended.
Piled on the context of why people were protesting in the first place—
Right, it's just piled and piled on. The people in Baltimore—I think you can say this about a lot of inner city youth—you have students who are coming from poverty. You have students who are coming from multi-generational trauma from being descendants of slavery. You have people who are living in a completely drug-ridden community. The amount of things that these kids have to deal with is insane. And then on top of it, all of these kids just know. It is common knowledge in Baltimore that cops do not treat black kids fairly.
It's just a fact of life growing up in Baltimore?
Many of my students have appalling stories about things cops do to them. One of my students, I've taught her for the past four years—we were having a class discussion yesterday and she said, "You know what? They just know they can snuff us out."
And that's the sort of thing people aren't seeing or hearing on TV. They aren't hearing about the disenfranchisement of an entire community—they're just seeing a CVS burning down.
Exactly. Your own mayor is calling you a thug. Your police commissioner is calling you a criminal. They're kids!
Why do you think the mayor—and many others—have reacted that way and chosen those words?
I think they want to make it seem like [the protesters] are the enemy.
How do you feel the past couple of days have gone, in the aftermath of Monday's violence?
Well I think people are definitely trying to prove everyone wrong. I think there's hope. On Tuesday I went out to Penn and North, which was one of the places where looting was really taking place. I got there at 7 a.m. and we couldn't even find things to clean because there were so many people helping.
And how have the protests gone in the past couple of days?
Yesterday, there was a student protest—I believe it was Johns Hopkins students, Towson students, MICA students—and it was amazing. I think there are just so many positive things happening because people are really trying to prove: We don't do this. At the same time though, I don't think the city needs to be ashamed of what happened. I think they need to look at it and go, “Why the hell did this happen?”
Why do you think it happened?
Because there’s crazy systemic racism in our city. There's crazy inequality for our kids and for our adults.
So now, looking ahead at the weeks to come—when the results of the Freddie Gray investigation are released—are you worried?
I am. Every protest I’ve gone to, people were pointing out that these policemen are on paid vacation right now. They’re on paid leave! A small enough step to not piss off the community would be to take away their pay. And now there are reports online saying Freddie Gray was slamming his head into the van. What!? How could he have severed his own spine?
That was the Washington Post report on police documents that “leaked” on Wednesday night.
It’s impossible. I understand why everyone is angry.
Could the things that happened on Monday happen again?
I think it’s likely if the judgment doesn’t go well. Just look at what happened in Ferguson.
So what can police learn from Ferguson? What can they learn from Monday night?
They need to lean on community members who know the issues best. I think they need to look into how they can empower the community to be part of the system so that they can actually start to build more trust. It’s not just a matter of cops listening more—because I think the whole damn system is corrupt as hell.