An 18-Year-Old Activist On How The Baltimore Protests Inspired Her

Photo courtesy of Dawnya Johnson
As the year draws to a close, It’s a time to look back on things that happened over the past twelve months. Over the next few days, we’ll be revisiting some of our favorite stories from throughout the year, and seeing again what they mean for 2015 in review.

This story was originally published on May 1, 2015.


Dawnya Johnson, 18, grew up in the community at the center of the demonstrations that have rocked Baltimore this week. For her, and many of the young men and women in her neighborhood, the events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray are making more headlines than usual, but nothing new.

Dawnya is a high school senior, but she's already been an activist for years. This week, she's been organizing protests and community meetings as a part of a group called Baltimore Intersection. She talked to us about her experiences growing up Black in Baltimore, what she's seen during the protests, and what she hopes will happen next.

What’s one thing about Baltimore right now that you’d want everyone to know?

"I’d want them to know that there are a lot of amazing grassroots organizations that are working to organize peaceful protests and peaceful interactions. They just want to change the system that oppresses people who look like me, brown and Black people, and break down the barriers that negatively impact our communities."

Tell us about the work you’ve been doing this past week.
“The protests have been amazing. We had a small revolt here in Baltimore, and I feel like it was something that has brought the community together and has created a lot of positivity in the Baltimore community. We’ve had a protest every day since Freddie Gray was killed, and the majority of the protests have been very peaceful and very empowering and very engaging for all people from all different walks of life.

“As far as the rioting goes, we recognize that police violence is a symptom of a deeper sickness. We recognize that there are commonalities in the communities where these things happen: The education isn’t always of quality; a lot of these communities are food deserts; the people who live in these communities aren't politically engaged. All in all, the people who live in these communities aren’t empowered and don't have the power that other people in society do to hold political officials and police officers accountable."

Has any one particular experience really stuck out?

"Last Saturday I went to a protest. There were about 2,000 people there marching. It was really powerful and really beautiful. On the sidewalk, I saw people with red and blue bandanas on so I asked them what organization they were with and they said they were from a break-off of the Crips. I was just so shocked by how powerful it was. For people from other communities to see these young boys — who are generally written off as very violent offenders — marching and saying that this is something that we believe in, this is something that we need to fight for, was very powerful.

“That really empowered me and made me feel like if that’s what they’re doing, then I need to fight that much harder. So, ever since I’ve been organizing. We had a Listen Up Baltimore rally, we planned it in an hour and we had about 65 people come out. It was amazing. The youngest kid [there] was in third grade and the oldest person was about 90 years old. We had these intergenerational, interracial, intergender conversations with people who were from different classes and different educational backgrounds. That made all of the difference."

Have you experienced any trouble with the police or dealt with any harassment or issues like that?
“One day, I was on my way home from my after-school program and I was going into my church, and a police officer stopped me and said, 'Come here.' And, my grandmother was rushing me so I said, 'I’m sorry, I can’t stop right now, I have to go.' So, he starts yelling at me and I’m like 'I’m sorry, sir, I have to go.' He follows me into my church, interrupts my church service which I found really disrespectful, and he says, 'Who is this child’s mother? She’s really disrespectful. She’s been blatantly disrespectful.'

"He eventually ends up leaving, we call the police on a police officer — very ironic — but the lieutenant for that district was amazing at handling it and making sure that everything got resolved.

"But, I think that’s a difference between me and some other people: I feel empowered and engaged enough in my city that I believe it’s the responsibility of the lieutenant to take care of that situation. I don’t feel like a lot of people feel empowered enough to feel that way."

Do you think that’s going to change now?
"I feel like it takes awhile. I’ve been doing the work that I do for about four and a half years now. But, I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life and I was reading this article that says for every trauma, you need three strong presences in your life to erase that trauma, or at least to make it not as forceful.

"And, I think that’s true in Baltimore city. A lot of the students here are from high levels of trauma every day, dealing with the effects of poverty, dealing with the effects of a bad school system, dealing with the lack of mental and emotional support, dealing with overcrowded and underfunded schools, dealing with all these issues, dealing with the foster care system which is really awful here in Baltimore and looking at those things and feeling those things. So, I feel like this is not the magic bullet; there is no magic bullet. Students need the presence of loving adults to come out on the other side."
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