Reverend Annie Chambers marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King throughout the 60s. This month she took to the streets to demand an end to police brutality when Baltimore City joined the nationwide movement calling for justice for George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minnesota.
The lifelong organizer says that while history repeats itself, racism is even worse than in her youth. “In the 50s and 60s we were taught to suffer. We got beat and shot and attacked by dogs. And you heard what Donald Trump say—get the dogs out on them,” Chambers said in a phone interview with The Real News on June 3.
The President threatened to use dogs and weapons against protesters days before he tear gassed peaceful protesters to clear a path to pose with a bible outside St. John’s Church. On June 4, more than 80 House Democrats called for a special prosecutor to investigate the incident. If the investigation is opened, its scope will be determined by Attorney General William Barr, who published a misleading interpretation of the Mueller investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, erroneously claiming Mueller found Trump innocent of collusion.
“Racism has put on a new face. It can hide itself now. It has been hiding for decades and now we see it openly again. Now racism is here in a new way. In the 50s and 60s, America would not have allowed the president that we have now,” said Chambers. “Donald Trump does not believe that Black and poor people should have rights. And the poor people that vote for him, it’s because they have been taught these racist values.”
Chambers was born in 1942 in Richmond, Virginia. “I had a baby when I moved to Baltimore in May of 1955. I was a married child. That’s how it was for us back then,” she said. Chambers has 25 children and 387 grandchildren.
The reverend participated in a youth-led march against police brutality through Baltimore City on June 2. She joined the crowd of thousands who passed by her house in Douglass Homes on their way to demonstrate outside Baltimore City’s Central Bookings Correctional Facility and City Hall.
Baltimore City residents have participated in large-scale demonstrations every day since Floyd’s death on May 25.
“When that policeman [Chauvin] had that knee on that man’s throat [Floyd], he did not think this would happen across the country,” said Chambers.
The Real News spoke to Chambers outside the jail amidst a cacophony of protest songs, drums, and car horns, and followed up with her in a June 3 interview.
Q: What would meaningful reparations look like?
A: Reparations are needed. I don’t know if I will see them in my life. We continue to fight the oppression, the injustice, the murders in this city. I’m 78 years old, I want to see justice and freedom before I close my eyes. So I will continue to fight. We’re fighting a spiritual war.
Q: What policies and actions do you want to see from Baltimore City mayoral candidates right now?
A: Anyone who wants to be the mayor needs to understand that right now we are fighting racism to get education and housing. This time around, the working class, the poor people, will vote and fight.
Q: What did you see, hear, and feel while out protesting this week?
A: I see a tremendous amount of restraint. People are demonstrating very peacefully and being respectful. I see very young people, teenagers, and even children showing how they will come out of this march with respect for one and other.
In America, and in Baltimore City especially, we don’t have any decent representation. The mayor came out and he said very negative things. He said nothing positive that could uplift our young people. I must commend our young people for the restraint that they had.
More positive things came out of this demonstration and this crisis then I have seen in a long, long time.
I’ve seen young people coming together and having real conversations with each other and really helping each other. We know that there’s a whole lot of homeless youth. There are other youth helping them, talking to them so they know someone cares. I’ve seen the youth willing to give up basic things they need, food, masks, clothes, to share.
Everybody has been helping us [Douglass Homes] with food donations, so even the homeless people that have moved in—we have been able to help feed them.
When we demonstrate, folks have had really good conversations with their kids. I’ve seen a kid as young as five years old walk by and want to be a part of the demonstration. His mother, who was just walking by, turned around and joined us. He wanted to know what the signs mean, and she sounded out the words with him. She taught him to read the words and explained why we have to fight for ourselves.
This is people saying “We’re tired, we’ve had enough, but we won’t take it.” This was people saying “We’ll give you respect, and we want that respect back.” We are in spiritual warfare. There is a spiritual revolution now. Young people are ready for the battle. We want change. We demand change in this city, in this state, in this country. Black and brown and minorities and working class people—we want to say that it’s not just a few bad apples. While everyone who works for a police department isn’t a bad person, it’s an attitude they have here in this city. They come into our communities and they’re ready to kill us, but they go to Roland Park and they can talk you down and make a calm arrest when people are fighting. My message to Black and brown people is that you don’t have to prove yourself, that you’re a human. Black women have been abused in this country from the day we came here and disrespected so we have to fight three times as hard.
Q: What does life look like right now for you and the people you love?
A: If we look at what’s going on around us, it’s very dark. I fight for a future for the young people for them to have hope. Life in this city right now is very, very dark. The young people don’t think they have a future. They say all the time “I don’t think I’m going to get as old as you.” They don’t look forward to growing old, and that’s very sad. And none of these politicians talk about how to give them a future. They talk about how to lock us up, to keep us contained. We’ve been denied so long, too long now. It don’t look good for us right now but we can’t let that get us down. We have to keep on fighting.
Q: How does the additional stress of a pandemic shape this protest movement?
A: The homeless people don’t have anywhere to go. The children don’t look forward to the future. They can’t even function. This is a stressful time. I just talked to one of my grandchildren—I said to him, “I’m going to keep you with me, and pray for you,” because he doesn’t feel like he has anything to live for. He got sick [with COVID-19] already. He can’t work, there’s no job he can get. Schools are closed down. So we’re trying to keep him busy, giving out food and taking care of each other. This is what we got right now.
Q: How have you seen the police behave during the protests?
A: When they’re agitating, especially the young people, small things could just be overlooked, like the kids had fireworks and they ran out after them shoving through everyone like it was a bomb, but they knew they were fireworks.
The temperature is so high right now, what we need right now is for police officers to come in with compassion and peace for the young people. If they could come in and really talk to them, to handle the situation without it getting out of hand. But they bark orders like “Don’t stand over there!” “Don’t go near that store!” when there’s no reason for it and the kids learn that’s their attitude towards them.
Q: What would real justice for George Floyd look like?
A: There should be a murder conviction for the officers [Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng] just like there should be a conviction for father [Gregory McMichael] and son [Travis McMichaell] that killed a brother [Ahmaud Arbery] in Georgia.
I’m not advocating for the government murdering killers. They should go away for a long, long time and have a chance to repent and learn and be rehabilitated. That’s the kind of justice system we need for everyone in this country.
Q: What has changed since the civil rights movement of the 60s and what hasn’t changed?
A: Back then, racist people didn’t hide it. Now because of business interests it is hidden in many places. That’s what we’re fighting against. That’s the difference to me now.
Q: What is your message to people who don’t understand what’s going on in Baltimore City right now?
A: Unless the conditions get better the streets will get worse. We will not stand back anymore. We need to see action right now or it will get no better. The police department must respect us as human beings—Black and brown people and poor people—they must respect us the way they respect all the rich.