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Freeman Hrabowski Reflects on Race, Peace and Trust in Baltimore

BALTIMORE  Freeman Hrabowski learned early in life the sting of being abused by police because of the color of his skin.

As a 12-year-old, Hrabowski, who is Black, marched in the May 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner, ordered officers to turn fire hoses on the children and unleashed police dogs on them.

Hrabowski – now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and board chair of Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News – recalls coming face-to-face with Connor, who said: “What do you want, little Negro?”

Facebook Live on June 20: Marguerite Casey Foundation in Baltimore

Live Coverage of the Art Project Unveiling: Visit Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Facebook Page at 4 p.m. (Eastern)/1 p.m. (Pacific)

From Equal Voice News:

“Peace is Coming: Art Unites Baltimore Youth and Police”

To kneel and pray for freedom, Hrabowski replied. Connor spit in his face and hurled him into a police vehicle used to take people away. Hrabowski, along with hundreds of other young children, spent five days in jail.

Hrabowski thinks back often to that day in Birmingham, reminded, in recent years, by a series of high-profile police shootings of unarmed Black men, and the Black Lives Matter movement that arose in response.

In Baltimore, as in other American cities, racial tensions flare regularly between police and residents of poor, Black neighborhoods, who say they are routinely harassed by police and sometimes held or arrested without cause.

So, Hrabowski reached out to the nonprofit Shriver Center on the UMBC campus. What could be done to break a cycle of violence and mistrust that has roots as deep as American history?

The first step, he and his colleagues agreed, had to be improving communication. Their goal was to get kids and police officers sitting down together, doing something engaging, in the hope that shared work would spark a larger dialogue. The result is the mosaic project, which will be unveiled on June 20 at the Baltimore Police Department Headquarters.

It is a collaborative effort involving UMBC’s Choice Program, the Baltimore City Police Department, youth, AmeriCorps student volunteers and artist Carien Quiroga, a mosaic artist and teacher. 

Photo courtesy of The Choice Program – Peace Circle art organizers

Hrabowski recalled a revealing exchange between a Black Baltimore teenager and a White police officer. Both participated in the project in which teens and police worked side by side on a peace mosaic to be hung in the foyer at Baltimore City Police Department Headquarters.

UMBC helped bring the group together to create the mural as part of its youth-focused Choice Program.

“Why is it that you always have to dis us when you pull us together and put us all on the ground instead of letting us stand and looking at us?” the young man said to the officer.

The officer’s answer was surprising: He was afraid. How do I know if you have a gun or not?, he said, describing the vulnerability he felt on the street. “All I know is that, believe it or not, I get scared.”

The kid seemed floored by the revelation: Cops get scared, too.

With that short exchange, Hrabowski said, the officer and the teen gained more understanding of one another’s mindset in a city where many Black residents, particularly teenage boys, despise and distrust the police.

The five days spent creating the mosaic broke down barriers and shattered stereotypes among the officers and the teens, Hrabowski believes. “Whenever people work on a project like this, they learn more about each other, and inevitably begin to understand the other’s perspective,” he said.

When teenagers hear an officer say, “‘I want to be around to help my children. I don’t want to die,’” Hrabowski, continued, “the kids realize the police are scared too, and human.”

These exchanges were crucial, but it was the collaborative process of creating the mosaic that advanced Hrabowski’s central goal: creating a sense of community among two groups whose mutual sense of fear and suspicion had polarized the city.

 “You bring a part of you to a project like this – that’s what so powerful to me,” Hrabowski said. “You can look at something of your own creation [as part of] what others have created, and you begin to see how strong community can be.”


Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and CBS News. About the top image from AP: Jazmin Holloway sits below a mural in Baltimore on Dec. 16, 2015 depicting Freddie Gray. AP Photo by Patrick Semansky

2017 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper

Published by Marguerite Casey Foundation

One Response to "Freeman Hrabowski Reflects on Race, Peace and Trust in Baltimore"

  1. C. G.  June 26, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    While the officers become humanized in the eyes of the youth, in contrast, this exercise (or at least the article) does not seem to fairly advocate for the youth, who are being inhumanely killed, and are not becoming, likewise, humanized in the eyes of the officers.
    Nor does it make it clear that though the officers have feelings that are human, the onus of responsibility for handling those feelings lay in the hands of the officers who are sworn to protect.

    In the face of fear and challenge, they are supposed to consistently master their emotions and behave in a way that does not cause egregious harm, merely out of being afraid. Unacceptable.

    Being afraid is not an acceptable reason to kill and claim they want to go home to their families while denying a citizen the right to be alive, as if their unsubstantiated fear of the unknown as an officer has higher priority over the life of another human being.

    What is not being said is that shooting to kill should be a last stop–an emergency– measure when real criminality and a real and clear threat to life exists.
    Often, the trend has been that the citizens killed are not armed nor posing a threat.

    Why in the world should a child or youth be forced to shoulder the responsibility for the failings and feelings of an adult who chose their vocation to protect and serve, yet claims to not be able to do their job honorably and protect lives because they are “afraid” of what often does not exist and is not present as a real and imminent threat at the time of impulsive shootings of our children, and community members that we are hearing about in the news.

    Attacking, holding down humans viciously enough to break spines has nothing to do with fear. It is hatred. It is bias. It is assumption not an educated guess not a smart judgement call. And that is unacceptable.

    This program should be focusing on officers proving to these children above all else, that they are trustworthy officers, that they are here to protect them, that they want to see the youth and their (the kids’) communities thriving and safe, that they want these kids to go home to THEIR families, so that the officers can focus more on protecting them from criminals that make the world tough for everyone.

    Many of these kids don’t think they even have a future because of these officers and the beleaguered environments where they live. They need hope. They need love, care and peace. They need to know they are being protected and not HUNTED like prey. That is what creates value and trust.

    The dialogue in that exchange noted in the article sounded like the officers were talking to people they only envision as little worthless, predatory, criminals and begging the youth to understand: please don’t harm me, though I am an officer with a badge and the law is on my side, I just want to live and go home to my family, who is more valuable than you, and you people are making my job scary and hard.

    To indoctrinate our children with that hateful, selfish, non-inspiring dribble is terrible from any officer of the law who has decided to take a position that involves going into the most beleaguered, disadvantaged areas, and are supposed to protect them with the same honor they also protect and treat the most wealthy and privileged citizens and those that look them too. ALL of our citizens should be treated well and respected.

    ALL of our children in ALL communities should be able to see and officer and feel protected and safe, not hunted, hated and treated like enemies in their own country and town.

    No child or youth should be made responsible for the feelings of authority figures who should be masters of their craft, behaviors, reactions and emotions and should couch their own overwhelming, unacceptable biases for themselves as responsible adults do without trying to treat our kids as little adults responsible for nurturing actual adults who won’t love them, protect them, and will use a flimsy excuse like noted in the article as a backhanded way to explain why they do not value the lives of these kids and explain why they aren’t going to be bothered to even try since eliminating and executing these kids when they get on their nerves is easier so they can go home to heir kids. They just explained that basically that to eliminate their feelings of fear, they choose to extinguish and murder instead of using skills they have been trained to have to de-escalate. They are basically saying it is too much work to actually use those skills, unless the kids are their kids. And their kids at home, or people they identify with are more worthy of the effort apparently.

    Abuse, murder, causing harm NEVER have an acceptable excuse. No authority figure gets to abuse power and claim such an excuse that costs lives in this country. That is not acceptable. It is abominable. It is inhumane. It is selfish. It is an abuse of power. It is unlawful. Again, no matter someone’s fears, that behavior is inhumane and officers who do this are fully responsible with no acceptable excuse. None.

    No child needs to be understanding of such a rule breaking, murderous, hatred. Never.

    This program should be focusing on teaching our kids how cared about, respected, and deserving they are as community members by the officers. The officers need help with a better outlook and in my opinion learn to get rid of their bias, racism, poor stress management skills under pressure, and to use the proper training they were given instead of jumping the gun, escalating situations so quickly simply due to unsubstantiated fears. The kids need to hear, believe and see that the officers do truly believe in them and see that the children are valuable and have a future.

    So far, our kids have been treated as if they have no value, particularly, in the presence [of] some of today’s officers. They are treated as if they have no future to protect, no life to protect, and consequently, any resulting behaviors reflect this.

    However, even our most law abiding, straight and narrow, educated youth and adults are being attacked, stopped, pulled over, questioned like criminals, being treated with disrespect as citizens, harmed and killed by today’s officers who claim unsubstantiated fear of the unknown and their own misguided assumptions. Those officers refuse to use their skills to deescalate, to monitor heir own emotions and biases, to not personally jump to conclusions and function with a lack of patience and respect. They still function in a way that they wan to see Black people as beneath them and envision all as thugs deserving of death. Some still interpret even educated Blacks as challenging them as opposed to law abiding citizens asking questions or providing information. They still see them as uppity and therefore deserving, in their eyes, of immediate execution on the scene.


    A much too large segment of today’s officers need training. It is NOT the responsibility of our kids to do that.

    It is not the responsibility of anyone but them to get rid of their biases, racism and thinking.

    No one can change of the mind of someone who does not wish it to be changed and choose to see peace as an option.

    That person or group must want it or they will fight not to do it and use any excuse for hate and “fear” to exist.

    PAL [Police Athletic League] centers are still needed back into communities where officers truly interacted and guided kids, believed in them, impacted their lives, proved themselves caring not selfish about their own fears and feelings, and were trustworthy. That was successful. Yet those valuable programs funding was cut, there were other problems and it disappeared leaving our kids with little positive impact from a program like that.

    At least then, youth had a place to go, people who wore the badge are there. They could trust them to be responsible, interested adults, true mentors.

    Now the kids are burdened with the onus of responsibility for racism, hatred, ignorance, and selfishness of adults who refuse to be accountable for their biases and “fears” and some of those adults who chose to wear the badge, but have chosen the wrong vocation for themselves and now make excuses for devaluing life and killing our kids, yet claim they serve and protect. They just don’t want to serve and protect our kids.

    There are many terrific and honorable officers out there who can and do navigate this climate responsibly, take accountability, build bridges, protect and serve. They honor the badge and make us trust them and proud of them.

    But, there is no excuse that is acceptable for those who cannot and do not protect and serve but instead choose killing as an immediate option and then offer a flimsy, childish excuse for devaluing life and murdering citizens.

    Those that do this are not honoring the badge. No thanks. No honor. No excuse.

    The men and women officers that serve along with them who are honorable and great at their challenging jobs, we salute you.

    Thank you.


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