Interviews with Johns Hopkins Students

Stepping Out from an Elite Campus, and Standing with the Rebels of Baltimore

May 21, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Thousands of students from Johns Hopkins University, Goucher, Towson, and other campuses in Baltimore and nearby rally at the City Hall after marching through the streets, two days after the uprising. April 29.
Thousands of students from Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, Towson University, and other campuses in Baltimore and nearby, rally at City Hall after marching through the streets April 29, two days after the uprising. (AP photo)

On Wednesday, April 29—two days after youths in Baltimore rose up in defiant rebellion—thousands of students from colleges and universities in and around Baltimore, as well as from some highs schools, rallied and marched through the center of Baltimore to demand justice for Freddie Gray. It was very good and important that this protest took place. While there were various views among the students about the uprising, they were acting in the face of the attempts by Obama, CNN, the Baltimore mayor, and others to turn people, especially in the middle class, against the rebels by attacking them as "thugs" engaged in "senseless violence." The students were standing on the side of the oppressed and against the depraved and intolerable police murder of Freddie Gray.

A Revolution/ correspondent talked separately with two students at the Johns Hopkins University campus in north-central Baltimore who were active in organizing and leading the action. B., who is finishing his sophomore year, and K., winding up her junior year, are both Black students at this mainly white university, which is considered one of the top schools in the country and draws people from all over the U.S. and around the world. They are both originally from outside Maryland.

Breaking Out of the "Hopkins Bubble"

The Johns Hopkins campus is in a middle-class neighborhood—not all that far away, but quite different in character, from the poor, mostly Black neighborhoods in large areas of the city where people live in projects or in homes scattered among rows of abandoned buildings.

K. said, "For me, when I go to a new place I always like to explore. And one thing that happens here is this thing called the 'Hopkins bubble.' I heard it happens in other institutions as well, especially primarily white institutions, where students—there's this sense of, if you leave this mile radius around campus, all of the sudden the world changes, and you're not supposed to go there. But for me, I like to walk. I've walked to downtown, walked into Greenmount [a poor Black area of East Baltimore], I've walked throughout the city, just because I can't confine myself to one place in any new living situation. It's experiences like that that make you more attuned, wanting to help where you live. Like you can't just come to an institution and keep taking and taking from the city without feeling any need to give back or do something and have some sort of respect for the city."

B. said he had been aware of the situation in Baltimore beyond the "bubble" around the campus: "I know that there's two very different cities. And what upsets me is that a lot of kids come to a place like Johns Hopkins and they only know, really, the Inner Harbor area [a downtown tourist area] basically, of Baltimore. They don't explore any other areas, like they don't know how depressed the middle-east area is right next to where the [downtown] med campus for Hopkins is. It's very upsetting. Then they just say, 'I don't really like Baltimore, it's not like New York, it's not like Chicago.' But once something like this happens, they feel like why are people doing this, don't destroy my home. And I'm like, it wasn't your home to begin with. You're really intruding [laughs]. That's honestly how I feel."

Reacting to the Police Murder of Freddie Gray

What did they and their friends think when they heard about how Freddie Gray had died at the hands of the police? B. told Revolution/revcom, "We looked at it kind of, you know, the streak is continuing after Ferguson, all the events that have been happening—it's just been a lot of emotional turmoil. And we were really concerned because we kind of talked a few months ago, when Ferguson occurred, about what it'd be like if it had happened in Baltimore. And it so just happened that it did occur. And we kind of predicted the response would be larger since Baltimore is a larger Black community and it's a high-profile area. And I think we just wanted to make sure if it's right in our area in the future, we should definitely try to get involved. When it did happen, it was very upsetting. Lot of kids, students and friends who are from Baltimore, were really hurt, because this was their city. And after watching the riots and protests that were going on, just what people were saying about Baltimore, people were really hurt by some of the offensive comments that were made."

B. went on to talk about some of these comments: "A lot of racist remarks were made in general toward Blacks involving this conflict. And it kind of made Blacks on campus feel unsafe, some of the things people were saying on social media. The thing that made us more concerned was that it was through means like Yik Yak, which is an anonymous source of social media that you can post on. And it was really upsetting. Because you can't figure out who it is, but you just see people posting all these things, and it's just really upsetting. As a student here I'm upset about Freddie Gray but also about my safety on campus with things people were saying. You go to an institution that's supposed to be very educated and people were making very ignorant remarks, which was very concerning."

K. described her thoughts on learning about the police murder of Freddie Gray: "It was reminiscent of previous cases—of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir [Rice]. All these cases that had already happened. I was like, oh, here we go again. But, just when you see the video, and you see the pain of the man, and all these things that for me blatantly kind of raised suspicious alarms. I was thinking, how quick is this going to turn into an actual prosecution, when is it going to go to court, this and that. That kind of was my thinking initially. I was one of the students who were following it from a behind-the-scenes look, seeing where is this going to go? It was when you start to see it's not going to go in an efficient and timely manner where it needs to go, that you as a student can't sit back anymore. That's when I kind of got myself more involved and engaged."

Compelled to Act by the Uprising

K. and B. recalled how they were looking at things and what they were motivated to do when the uprising happened in West Baltimore. B. said, "When the rioting…well, I guess uprising, yeah, that's a better word… I'm on the side of it. It was bound to happen, honestly. Because people look at, 'Oh, the CVS burned down,' like that. But if you look at Baltimore on a daily basis, well that's what it looks like normally, it's a lot of depression, poverty, just a lot of issues that the city has not addressed. And they want to show you the side of Baltimore that tourists love, which is the Inner Harbor, the college campuses, university, stuff like that. But there's another side of Baltimore that doesn't feel like it's connected and their voices aren't heard."

B. went on, "So what I try to tell other students who thought that it was just a violent uprising was more that people have been trying to talk with the community leaders, they have been trying to talk to the politicians and everyone. And no one's hearing them out. And if your words aren't getting anything done, people are gonna have to take action in order to get some sort of attention. So honestly, I think it's very hurtful because people wanna complain, 'Why are they doing this?' But I'm like, 'Well, you weren't listening before and now you want them to stop. But there's no other way for them to be heard. What do you expect?'"

B., who wants to go into public health, said that one big issue for him is "food deserts"—places where people don't have grocery stores or other places they can get fresh and healthy food—and related that to the uprising. "If you notice, the areas where these uprisings are happening are also where they're dealing with food deserts and other issues… And you wonder why people are upset. They're being deprived of not only their voices but of nutrition, health, everything."

K. talked about her reaction to Obama and others labeling the rebel youth "thugs." "I mean, initially you get upset. For me, when I came here I wanted to know more. So I've worked in the Carmelo Anthony Community Center, which is a community center downtown. When you see these kids—they're just kids, like any other kids… I think 'thugs' is a euphemism for what people really want to say, which is nigger. That's what they're alluding to, that's what they're trying to say. But 'thugs' is a little bit more… softer. 'Oh, we'll just call them thugs.' Especially when you're talking about children who are growing up in a situation you may not even know about… Just going downtown to City Hall for different protests and hearing mothers speak, teachers speak, all these people speak, and the message was very consistent: that my son and daughter, my children are not thugs, our children are not thugs. That message was hit over and over and over. Because that's how the community feels, of course."

B. worked with others in the Black Student Union to take action. K. said that she organized with a group of friends: "Me and some friends saw that there was going to be a big rally with other colleges—primarily I think Towson and Goucher and maybe UB [University of Baltimore]. And so we were like, 'Why is Hopkins not involved? There was a meeting in our Office of Multicultural Affairs. We sat down, we kind of made a format of what we wanted to do, made signs, stuff like that, put it on Facebook. It was actually in addition to an event we were supposed to do before that was specifically going to be about Hopkins and racism at Hopkins. But then with all the events, we were like, alright, there's something that's very important for our community, for the city right now."

Things were very tense in the city at this time, with a state of emergency in effect and thousands of National Guard troops, state police, and law enforcement from other cities and states pouring in to reinforce the Baltimore police and the clampdown. B. said that his parents called to tell him to not get involved, and other students got similar calls. But, B. said, "I didn't agree with that. It didn't sit well with me at all. Because I was like, I'm not going to sit here as all these other students were going out and they want to protest. I'm supposed to be taking a part and trying to be part of Baltimore, I think it's my home. I don't think I should just be sitting around not taking a part in something that I care about. I just have to not listen, and go."

K. said that when she first heard about "the martial law being put into effect," she felt "really defeated." What did she mean by that? "At first, just from what I read and saw, I was like, 'I could be put in major danger, just by holding a sign and walking down on the sidewalk.' That's what I saw." She said she was not so much worried about herself but the safety of others who may come out to rally and march. "And so, I had to ask myself, 'What are you gonna do?' And then, by the time I woke up the next morning, I was like, 'You know what you're gonna do. We're still gonna go.'"

On Wednesday, April 29, the city was still under occupation, with a 10 pm curfew and heavily armed National Guard troops deployed to key areas of the city and rumbling through the streets in armored vehicles. K. said, "So we rallied everybody. We met in front of the Hopkins sign. Distributed signs, water bottles, any precautionary gear just in case. Surgical masks. Who knows, we just wanted everyone to be ready and safe."

As it turned out, the marchers from Johns Hopkins got a go-ahead from the police to march in the street. The group from Johns Hopkins joined the others gathered at Penn Station, a major transportation hub, and then they all marched through downtown streets to City Hall. Apparently, there was some high-level decision by forces in the ruling class that it would not be in their interests at that time to unleash a police attack on the protest by students from Johns Hopkins and other campuses.

An Inspiring Mix of Students

B. also described the beginning of the march from the campus: "There was a large group of us right on the street over there, and a lot of other students saw us and started to join us, which we were really happy about. They were asking for Black Lives Matter T-shirts, they were asking for signs."

The core group of the protest was mainly Black students, but then many white students and people of other nationalities joined in. B. said, "Yeah, that was what we really loved. We didn't get as many people for the Ferguson protest—but I think because this one was in Baltimore, people understood that 'this is current events happening right around me, just a block away, I need to do something to help out.' Which I was really proud of. When we started marching, people started following us, and they weren't there at the beginning, [so that] was really great. I think it was the fact that they saw so many students there in the beginning when we started, standing out there protesting, that first caught their attention, like, 'What's going on?'… There was no way you could say—even though some people did—that Freddie did this to himself. He was just taken. I think people realized this is what Black students, Black people are concerned about, just the fact that there's so much violence against us, and we're not getting attention for it, people don't care about it. I think all those factors combined to get a larger number of people who would not normally come out to something."

K. also talked about the mix of students involved in the march: "That was one of the things that was more uplifting for me, seeing that many people. Of course you can say different things—maybe they're going because it was like, 'Oh that looks cool.' Because we were being loud and stuff. But just this showing support, especially after the events, especially after the comments, especially after the tensions rose even on our own campus—it was good, it was nice."

Revolution/ asked these two students: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tony Robinson, Freddie Gray, and so on… what do you think it's going to take to put a stop to the murders by police?

B. said, "Of course whenever these things happen we have to take action immediately. We can't stand for this. But it's also gonna even take just protesting even when stuff isn't going on. I understand that when something actually happens, definitely take more action. But if there's a period when something's not happening, you should still protest—we're upset about this, because we still feel that this is happening. And it is. We've seen the pattern. There was a lull, and then another occurred. I also think it takes a lot of education on the college and school level. I think a lot of people have very concerning opinions and they don't really understand the social situations of the cities and areas around them. I think we need to educate people on race, on cultural competency, cultural sensitivity, and just understand that there are very fundamental dynamics in this country that we need to change."

K. said, "I will say that when it comes to this country, I don't think you can expect a population to deal with so much injustice, blatantly, in their face, consistently over and over and not have some sort of retaliation. I will say that one thing I've seen is these events have progressed and retaliation is getting stronger and stronger. Which is to be expected. I mean, my thing is, I don't like it when people come around and say, well, they should handle it some other way. I'm like, what do you expect? It was handled that way, 10 years ago. Guess what, nothing happened. And it's getting progressively higher and higher. And that's to be expected. So for me, if this consistent pressure doesn't keep up, if people throughout the nation still decide to basically like stomp on those who aren't as privileged or stomp on those who they feel are insignificant because of their race, if those stories keep happening—you're just going to see more and more of an uprising. I mean, it's not just Baltimore. There are other uprisings happening around, feeding off of what happened in Baltimore. Let's say something else happens in a different city, another story. Don't think that Baltimore is gonna be like, well it's not us this time. No. You're adding fuel to the fire. I would love, and I would hope, that the system is able to quench the flames by serving justice as they should. But if it doesn't…."


The heroic uprising of the oppressed in Baltimore sent shockwaves far and wide and deeply impacted all of society. The protest by thousands of students from Johns Hopkins and other campuses was one significant sign of the very positive effects of the uprising on people in the middle class. This has significant implications not only for the fight to stop murder by police, but the overall movement for an actual revolution. As the Revolution/ editorial "High Stakes in Baltimore" points out:

In sum, this rebellion revealed the potential of the most oppressed to rise up against big odds, with courage. This rebellion transformed how everyone saw things: it made very clear the urgency of this injustice and that it must not and would not be tolerated. And it showed how, when this is done, there is potential to win active and important support from people who do not face that same hell, but can be won to sympathize.


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