Baltimore Heroes

Robert Valentine

The situation in riot scarred Baltimore is not pretty. You already know that if you’ve been following the news. CNN has been reporting on the mess there practically round the clock. Because there is nothing new to add to the coverage, I was inspired by one of my FB friends to look at the overall situation from a different angle. We know who the bad actors are, but can we salvage something out of this national embarrassment? I’m happy to say yes.

Let’s start with a man with a message, but not just a message – a message delivered at extreme personal risk. The kind of message that carries authority and commitment with it. Meet Mr. Robert Valentine. He truly is a late Valentine to what he calls his “charmed city”. CNN’s Joe Johns found Mr. Valentine forming a one man barrier between himself and rioters on one side and Baltimore Police trying to calmly maintain order, on the other. Valentine, a 72 year yound Vietnam Vet told Johns:

Here’s number one. I did 30 years, came out a Master Sergeant. I’ve seen more than all this. I’ve been through the riots already. This right here is not relevant. They (the rioting youths), need to have their butts at home, they need to be in their home units with their families studying and doing something with their life, not out here protesting about something that’s really about no thing. They do not respect this young man’s death, you know?

Johns followed up with an observation about Valentine’s willingness to brave a daunting situation. “A lot of people would think twice, wouldn’t they?” Valentine replied, “I love my country, I love my charmed city and I’m an American. I’m not Black, White, Red, Yellow or nuthin’ – I am an American.”

This sort of an expression is the very key to the solution to the chaos. It’s people uniting as Americans not racial identities.

One thing – amidst all the dramatic footage and photos of anarchy, fires, violence and looting, that gets missed in the distorted lens of news coverage, is the plain and undeniable fact that in contrast to the hundreds of rioters, there are tens of thousands of people in Baltimore, in black neighborhoods that chose not to take part; who opted to stay away from the disgraceful melee and instruct their children about what’s right in the circumstance.

there were folks, like Jason here, that didn't riot
there were folks, like Jason here, that didn’t riot

Steven Thrasher, a reporter at large, observed one group of citizens at 10PM who formed a line and linked arms to push protesters off the street, telling them to go home. Each one of these families and parents are heroes. Which brings me to Toya Graham. If Toya’s life wasn’t real, she’d sound like a cliche. Toya Graham is a single mother of six, but she’s not surrendering to circumstances. She’s fighting back.

We saw Toya in an amazing video clip taking matters into her own hands, going into the street to retrieve her son, 16 year old Michael, who became seduced by the adrenaline and the lure of the peer group. Toya wasn’t dainty about matters. She had a mission to accomplish and she had to get serious as the business end of a .45, real quick – and she did. Graham told reporters, “That’s my only son and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.”

Graham described the encounter. “He knew he was in trouble. At that point, I just lost it. I was shocked, I was angry, because you never want to see your child out there doing that.” Scenes like the mayhem going on in the street were all too real for Toya. At home last August, three or more shots rang out in the middle of the night on the street near her home and a man was killed. Graham, never an onlooker, made sure her kids were safely situated, went out to see if she could help the victim. All she could do was call 911. It was too late for an ambulance. Toya was determined to see to it that her children didn’t get mixed up in tragedies like that. “That was somebody’s child, and it’s real overwhelming that somebody takes somebody’s life like that and he was just left there.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner, Anthony Betts, in reaction to the video clip of Toya taking care of business with her son, commented, “I wish I had more parents that took charge of their kids out here tonight.”

Elsewhere in the city, was a 32 year old man with a knack for problem solving on the fly and plenty of old fashioned guts to go with it. Brian Woodyard works as a bouncer at the ‘Old Clubhouse Beer & Wine and stood guard against waves of looters with the only thing he could muster – a nasty looking machete. “It’s the only thing I have. I can’t pull out a shotgun,” the bouncer, 32-year-old Brian Woodyard, told The Washington Post. Was he prepared to actually use the weapon he was holding? “You’re damn straight I am,” he replied. He was asked, would it be legal? “Nope,” he laughed. “But forget the law when the law can’t protect civilians. This is kind of all-out war.” The store wasn’t ransacked and this photo kind of tells the story why.


Then there’s Dmitri Reeves, a local musician and a talented Michael Jackson impersonator who danced atop a Yellow truck in order to provide a diversion and take the edge off the mood of protesters in a riotous frame of mind. Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun captures the scene first-hand:

It was hard to tell exactly where the music was coming from — perhaps from the large yellow van at the corner of North Avenue and Monroe Street — but the song was clear and loud: Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” which goes: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways.” A skinny man danced to the song on the roof of the van, washed in the flickering blue-white light from a police helicopter.

Another voice of credibility was that of the Reverend Jamal Bryant of the Empowerment Temple, the minister who conducted the memorial service for FreddieGray. Bryant, told reporters:

Absolute, complete dismay, if not complete horror. We had made a covenant with the community and with the city at large, that on this day there would be no protest, there would be no marching, as it was a request of the family that this would be a moratorium. So you can imagine the shock and amazement, coming from the burial, the news of a code Red that this outbreak had taken place is really disappointing and unfortunate. It doesn’t mirror or reflect the ideal of this movement which is in and unto itself non violent, and all the more, it is peaceful. It is our resolve that violence doesn’t bring justice. It is counter to what it is that we are aiming for. Breaking glass and windows is not reflective of justice.

Commissioner Batts, himself a black man stated in a press briefing,  “This is not protesting, this is not your First Amendment rights, this is just criminal acts doing damage to a community that is challenged in some ways that do not need this and do not need to be harmed in a way that we have today.”

As mentioned before, there was a muted majority of blacks that disavowed the destruction, stayed out of it and came along behind to clean up and repair the general perception caused by the appalling video and photos of looting and vandalism. Here, 59-year-old Wayne Snipes was cleaning up garbage and debris in front of St. Luke United Methodist Church so that the area would be clear before services began.


The family of the young man who died in police custody, expressed their disapproval of the lawlessness of the rioters. “To see that it turned into all this violence and destruction, I am appalled,” said Richard Shipley, Freddie Gray’s stepfather.  “I want y’all to get justice for my son, but don’t do it like this here,” said Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden, who wore a T-shirt with her son’s photo. “I don’t think that’s for Freddie,” said his twin sister, Fredericka Gray. “I think the violence is wrong.”

Lt. Col. Melvin T. Russell enlisted the help of the Rev. Kinji Scott, a Baptist minister and community activist, to stand in the path of angry demonstrators and urge them not to be confrontational with law enforcement attempting to preserve the peace. Trouble was coming, Russell said, and he wanted Scott’s help in intervening between “a lot of angry, hurt people” and the police. “We got maced trying to hold people back, separate them from the police,” Scott said. “We tried to say to people, ‘If you don’t want to go to jail, go home.’ . . . People are hurt out here, they’re angry.”

Also on hand at Monroe and Fulton, attempting to discourage violence and disorder, was Munir Bahar and his 300 Men March. Mr. Bahar, for the past 14 years, has been actively helping divert young people from the negative path he fell into growing up in Baltimore. Bahar operates COR for Kids, an after school program that fosters alternatives to gang participation.

Baltimore also heard from NFL veteran Ray Lewis. Some might question whether Lewis’ comments were driven by personal conviction or for publicity reasons.  One also wonders if the exhortations fall on deaf ears of those who are predisposed to riot and merely serve as a confirmation of the instinct of those who arent, but the former Baltimore Raven and Super Bowl winning linebacker did deliver a worthy message of which this is an excerpt:

No way. No way. No way can this happen in our city. No. Young kids you got to understand something, get off the streets. Violence is not the answer. Violence has never been the answer. Freddie Gray, we don’t do nothing for him doing this. We know there’s a deeper issue. We know what the jungle looks like. But this isn’t it. There’s enough of us in the streets trying to change what’s going on. Baltimore get off the streets. Kids go home. Stay home. You don’t have any right to do what you’re doing to this city. Too many hard working people build this city. With put this city together. We put this city on our back. We’re with you. We know what’s going on. We know the problems. We know there was wrong done. We know we’re not getting the right justice. We know all these answers. But rioting in our streets is wrong. It’s dead wrong.

And Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, who grew up in Baltimore, said this on Instagram:

We all want Justice. And our city will get the answers we are looking for. My deepest sympathy goes out to the Gray family. To see my city in a State of Emergency is just shocking. We need to protect our city, not destroy it. What happens when we get the answers that we want, and the media attention is not there anymore? We go back to being the same ol Baltimore City again. If not yourself, then think about the youth. How this will impact them. Let’s build our city up not tear it down.