On International Women’s Day: Baltimore Marches

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on March 9th, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

When global corporations such as BP and Accenture become vaunted sponsors of International Women’s Day, it’s easy to worry that the holiday—first organized by early 20th-century socialists—has lost its radical roots. But for the 50 Baltimore citizens who convened on Sunday to celebrate, commemorate, and mobilize fellow women activists, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well.

The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organized the three-hour event, which included a march that began at the corner of Hillen and Fallsway and ended with a rally outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gathering at 3 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, the organizers were clear about their objectives for the day.

“We have to remain vigilant about reclaiming and remembering the black female victims of police brutality because black women and girls’ lives matter too,” said Lynae Pindell, a 23-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We have only framed [police violence] as a black male problem.” Pindell spoke of the need to “move beyond that sexist lens” which renders invisible the racial profiling, sexual harassment, strip searches, rape, and other acts of gender-based violence that women and girls are regularly subjected to. Reading off a list of black women and girls who have died at the hands of police—including Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, and Aiyana Jones—Pindell pointed out that all of these women received far less media attention than Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

Colleen Davidson, an activist with FIST, reminded the crowd that their International Women’s Day march was coinciding with the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The fight against racism, she stressed, is deeply intertwined with their battle against patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and police brutality. “More communities are mobilizing, and the struggle is growing,” Davidson said enthusiastically.

Before the march began, the crowd was encouraged to shout out names of women who are important to them. “Ella Baker! Mother Jones! Nina Simone! Coretta Scott King! Harriet Tubman! Leslie Feinberg! Billie Holiday! Sojourner Truth! Audre Lorde!”

When the diverse crowd finally began to march—with women leading in the front, and men instructed to hang in the back—activists lifted banners and bright green picket signs, chanting, “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

Jessye Grieve-Carlson, a sophomore at Goucher College, was there with fellow members of the Goucher Feminist Collective. She said she was looking to do more off-campus activism and engage with local organizers. Another marcher, Ellen Barfield, said she dreams of a time when there will be an International Men’s Day because that will mean that women will have gained power. Barfield, an army veteran and longtime peace activist, co-founded the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace, but notes that the group is largely male. “Even though they’re well-meaning for the most part,” she says, “they’re still pretty blinded by the patriarchy.”

When the group arrived outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center, standing beneath the tall barbed-wired fence, activists took turns making speeches, reading poems, and singing songs. Central to the speeches were calls for economic justice—specifically for better jobs with living wages, increased access to affordable housing, and an end to mass incarceration.

According to the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative, “Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City.”

“We are not just out here marching for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights,” said Sharon Black, a 65-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We are here for our real liberation.” Pointing her finger at the bleak-looking detention center, Black urged, “People don’t need to be locked behind bars and treated like animals. Our sisters deserve better.”

After the rally concluded, the activists left East Baltimore and relocated to the church hall of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, marching along with chants like, “No justice! No peace! No sexist police!”

Waiting for them in the church was a big buffet of chili, macaroni and cheese, salad, sandwiches, desserts, and other snacks prepared by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and IWW union members. Local activists, like Tawanda Jones—the sister of Tyrone West and a leader in Baltimore’s fight against police brutality—were recognized by the organizers and given awards. Other honorees included Palestinian activist Laila El-Haddad, Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sara Benjamin, and Tiffany Beroid, a leader pushing for Wal-Mart to grant pregnant workers their rights.

So what’s next for these women and men?

“We’re not looking to form a new organization, because a lot of us are already involved in so many groups,” Black told me. “But we want to help unite everyone, so that next year we’ll be more poised to take collective action.”

Black reiterated this sentiment when she addressed the crowd, suggesting that maybe everyone would consider reconvening quarterly, to strategize for more sophisticated city and statewide efforts. She also made a plug for the Fight for 15 movement’s next national day of action, which is scheduled for April 15. Though the Fight for 15 movement has not been as strong in Baltimore as it has been elsewhere, the organizers hope to at least plan a march in solidarity with the fast food strikers in other cities.

Tawanda Jones also encouraged everyone to come to Annapolis March 12, where the Maryland legislature will be considering several bills that address police accountability reform. “We can’t bring Tyrone back but we can stop another family from feeling the same,” said Jones. “That’s why we do what we do—justice for all victims of police brutality.”

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Western Maryland, The 51st State? Don’t Laugh Yet

Originally published in the JHU Politik on September 29th, 2013.
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49-year-old Carroll County resident, Scott Strzelczyk, is leading a grassroots movement to secede from the state of Maryland. Dubbed “The Western Maryland Initiative,” individuals in the five western counties of Garret, Allegany, Washington, Frederick and Carroll, are working to rally political support for what is certain to be an unattainable goal.

Demographically, the five counties are populated with more than 653,000 people, greater than both the populations of Vermont and Wyoming. And geographically, the western Maryland region is larger than both Rhode Island and Delaware. Consequently, Strzelczyk insists that his plan is not wholly unrealistic and that secession would not be from the Union itself, but from the “oppressive and abusive treatment from Annapolis.”

Unsurprisingly, Western Maryland’s push for secession has been met largely with ridicule. One writer in The Baltimore Sun suggested that “a simpler solution for everyone involved” would be for the aggrieved to just move across the state line to West Virginia. Another Sun writer pointed out that western Maryland counties contain about 11 percent of the state’s population, yet account for only 10 percent of Maryland’s tax base and receive more than 13 percent of Maryland’s total unemployment benefits. It’s clear that secession would entail major, likely untenable, economic consequences.

Across the country, several other secession movements have cropped up in upstate New York, the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, Northern California and various northern Colorado counties. These radical movements consist of primarily white, conservative voters, living in predominantly rural regions. Their outrage stems largely from legislation around gun control, energy use and increased taxes.

The Western Maryland Initiative shares some characteristics with these other secession movements, but it is distinct in its primary grievance: gerrymandering, the process of deliberate redistricting in order to influence an election’s outcome.

Gerrymandering is one of those terms we are taught in high school government class. Perhaps we shrug when we hear it today and say, “well yeah it’s bad, but everyone does it.”

It’s certainly true both parties are guilty of redistricting. However, Maryland’s record is particularly disappointing. An independent geospatial analysis firm ranked Maryland as the most gerrymandered state in the entire country. Take a look at a map of the 2012 congressional voting districts for yourself. There are reasons whyThe Washington Post described District 3 as resembling “blood spatter from a crime scene.”

Federal law dictates that legislators use new Census data to redraw congressional districts every ten years. However, when the Maryland legislators proposed their newly drawn districts, Common Cause of Maryland, the League of Women Voters, civil rights groups, and a supermajority of the Montgomery County Council met them with outrage. In response, Republicans managed to place “Question 5,” a redistricting repeal referendum, on the 2012 ballot. But redistricting never stood a chance of eliciting the type of political attention that some of the other Maryland referendum items could, like marriage equality and the Dream Act. Ultimately redistricting passed with a pretty high margin, even though many on both sides agreed that it went too far.

I sympathize with these alienated conservative voters. Particularly as liberals and Democrats rally against the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and as they band together to fight duplicitous voter identification laws, I find their silence on this matter suspicious at best.

Some will say Maryland’s redistricting is just “tit for tat.” Republicans are gerrymandering Texas! Look at North Carolina! Democrats have no choice but to play dirty.

But this is false. Gerrymandering is just another form of disenfranchisement. It’s a political maneuver to make some votes count more than others, and some to not count at all. If liberals are going to be up in arms about voter suppression legislation, (which we should be) then we should also be concerned and sympathetic to the deep frustrations voters feel in Western Maryland due to gerrymandering. Mocking these feelings is cruel and antidemocratic.

Maryland redistricting should model states like Arizona that have created an Independent Redistricting Commission, responsible for drawing new district boundaries independently of their state legislature.

Who knows how long Scott Strzelczyk’s campaign will last, though don’t expect to see a 51st state anytime soon. But in the meantime, at the very least, hold off with the snark.