A Photographer Reflects on the Unrest in Baltimore
Photographer Noah Scialom was on the streets of Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray and riots in Baltimore last month. With time to reflect on the events, Noah shares his observations of the turmoil.
I was walking around Sandtown on what would be a desolate alleyway, except for this group of chatty, friendly, and incongruous National Guardsmen going for a stroll of their own. They seemed aware on some level how out of place they were, but described how sorry they were that it had come to this. A group of bystanders joined our walk shortly after I took this frame, heckling the guardsmen and chronicling the scene with their phones–asking them what they were doing and why they didn’t just go home. The guardsmen only murmured in response.
The man lighting a cigar is a sort of quintessential moment in Sandtown: every few minutes, you would get the sweet smell of smoke wafting in the air. The national guardsmen sitting in their Humvee just added a layer of surrealism to everything that happened that day, acting as a backdrop of power in a neighborhood where residents were described as powerless and voiceless.
The young girl on Pennsylvania Avenue was with her father almost the entire time I saw her. I was surprised to see her out in the streets, as there were few people her age around. It was a pretty tense situation on the street at that time– the nearby CVS drugstore was burning, the riot at the Mondawmin mall had just ended, and people were looting other pharmacies and liquor stores along the way. Her father was walking with her for a while and I followed. She wandered to check out the destroyed police car in the background on her own and I happened upon her returning to her dad, covering her mouth from the acrid smoke of burning buildings.
The police officer waving his baton at me was right near Mondawmin mall during the worst of the rioting. I was with a group of maybe seven photographers. We were in between a sizable group of kids throwing rocks and the police, who were catching the brunt of it. They were tossing smoke bombs back and forth. As the officers charged the group, I ran up with them and got hit with a pretty big rock that bounced into my shoulder. It seemed like the kids then got the upper hand, taking high ground and pelting everyone with bricks and broken rocks, then the cops started to retreat in a haphazard fashion and one officer just decided to yell at me and tell me to back off because it was a dangerous situation. That was part of why this experience was so wild, everyone seemed totally caught off guard at the level of violence and tenacity shown by the protesters.
I had climbed up to the roof of the subway station at Penn and North, having seen a few kids up there yelling at the police and laughing. The mood was pretty relaxed compared to the insanity of the day before, and people seemed intent on keeping it peaceful. The guy getting arrested at center of the frame ran up to the police first, screaming, and threw a beer can at them. Then he was taken by a fellow protestor to the center of the crowd where people pleaded with him to be peaceful. He ran up again a few minutes later, throwing some other piece of trash at the police line. When he got close enough, a ranking officer ran out with another cop, collared him, and rushed him back through the line pretty quickly. Shortly thereafter, music appeared out of nowhere and saxophones and a drum circle helped change the mood for a while.
This frame of the kid throwing the rock is in the thick of it at Mondawmin Mall. At times it would calm down, and then 10 rocks (like this one) would fly past my head and I would have to dodge them as they fell while keeping an eye out for police trying to keep order on one side and angry crowd on the other. The kid on the left continued to come up to me after this frame, but only screamed into my camera and moved on. A minute later, I got punched in the face as I leaned on a light pole, or maybe it was a minute earlier. This whole time is a bit of a blur.
This kid mimicked shooting and popped off a few imaginary rounds at me as I took pictures. This corner was bustling with activity and we were in the middle of a riot; I had just been punched in the face on the other side of the street. I guess you just move along in situations like this, none of the protesters are really out for specific blood–they’re just angry at everything. So I took the picture, smiled at him and turned around for more, even though it made me feel weird to experience.
The Nation of Islam, and its security detail, the Fruit of Islam, had a pretty big presence that first day once the unrest made it to North Avenue. They were standing in front of black-owned businesses to stop kids from looting, and were grabbing people who were throwing things at lines of riot police. This young man got dangerously close to the line a few times, challenging the officers to fight and calling them names. The older man, who was with the Nation of Islam, grabbed him like his father might have, and pulled him away from trouble and almost certain arrest.
This corner at Penn and North is always bustling with activity; people yell “butes!” “bars!” as you walk by. In the days following the unrest, it was like someone had thrown a rock into water–ripples of unease would be followed by a nervous quiet. I love walking around in the evening light. As I came to this corner, the young man walked by bouncing the ball right beside me as I shot from the hip… watching and hoping that I got it. The woman in the “LAWLESS” shirt was standing at almost the exact same spot as the young man with the basketball. The southwest corner of Penn and North is always a hub of characters, and she was no exception. I read her shirt and almost couldn’t believe it. I just walked up to her shooting, hoping not to be noticed and ruin her phone call.
Photos by Noah Scialom / Photo Editing by Jill Foley & Swikar Patel/Education Week