Lexington Market is in downtown Baltimore, a stone's throw from the financial district. The stalls sell soul food, east Asian cuisine and bread; there are also tobacconists, book stalls and jewellers. The covered market, which was established in 1782, will soon be razed and replaced. The developers have promised existing vendors will be able to relocate to the new building. The ostensible aim of the project is to ‘invite more diverse vendors and pull in a broader swath of Baltimore residents’. Most of the people who shop, eat and hang out there are working-class African Americans; it’s hard not to conclude that the ‘broader swath’ the developers hope to attract are affluent white people.
After looking around the market a few weeks ago, I went to see the activists who last year took over an abandoned rowhouse in the Gilmor Homes neighbourhood. The Tubman House, named for the Maryland-born abolitionist Harriet Tubman, is opposite a gigantic mural of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from ‘significant spinal injury’ after he was arrested and locked in a police van in April 2015. None of the officers involved was prosecuted. The incident led to mass protests across the city.
At the time of Gray's death, houses were being torn down in West Baltimore and the area was slated for gentrification. ‘We wanted to put our grab in,’ the activist Dominique Stevenson told me at the Tubman House, ‘because there’s going to be a land grab.’
The organisers have formed a board, with a president, other officials and bylaws, so they can be a legal entity to which the city can give the house, making it a permanent fixture of the community. At the moment, people from all walks of life stop by – from ‘hippy white folks’ to ‘corner boys’ (young men who sit on street corners, often suspected of involvement in drug dealing). The daughter of the assassinated Honduran activist Berta Cáceres has visited. At Halloween they turned it into a haunted house for local children. ‘We also ran a dance class and a video journalist class, a movie night, political education, and art classes,’ Eddie Conway told me. (He’s an executive producer for the Real News Network and former Black Panther who was imprisoned for nearly 44 years after being dubiously convicted of shooting a police officer).
The activists are growing food on the land next to the house. ‘The community produces something and it’s theirs,’ Conway said. ‘Until there was the Tubman House, all people experienced was police oppression. The house is an example that people can learn from and duplicate.’ Stevenson added: ‘It’s showing people what a socialist system could look like.’
The Algebra Project is based downtown, not far from Lexington Market. Children from three local schools go there to improve their maths, learning from older pupils who act as their tutors. They are also developing skills in political activism. The city has just decided that young people won’t be able to use their free bus passes after 6 p.m. (it used to be 8 p.m.), meaning that those who want to take part in after school activities will have to pay for their transport. The Algebra Project is planning walkouts and rallies to protest against the change.
‘When I first started working here, I never wanted to get arrested and I didn’t think racism was a thing,’ the Project’s 19-year-old social media manager, Kaylah Blake, told me. ‘Being at the Algebra Project made me realise things aren’t sugar sweet. And then Freddie Gray died and I was like, yup,’ she snapped her fingers, ‘this is a thing. And now I’m woke as hell!’
Through political activism, members of the Algebra Project have become more assertive about their place in the world. ‘You learn about who you are and where you come from,’ Blake said. ‘If you don’t know who you are, you don’t know what you stand for. If I’m black I know I’m black. I came from slavery. Black is not only a skin colour; it’s a lifestyle, a culture, a history.’
Some of the older people involved in the Algebra Project have also been organising with the Tubman House. Both projects are part of a political philosophy running through grassroots activism in Baltimore: that political change will come from the communities who suffer the most from current circumstances, and that they need to regain a belief that they have power. ‘People need something tangible,’ Stevenson said. ‘A win or two or three. People have got used to losing.’
In Baltimore, I saw a microcosm of what broad-based resistance to the Trump administration might look like. The organisers I met there believe that ordinary people already know how to change the world, but lack the tools and encouragement they need to do it. ‘Solutions to poverty will come from someone who had their water cut off last night,’ Blake said. ‘Ordinary people have the power to address ordinary problems because we’re already here and we know the solutions.’