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?”
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.
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.