Five Days That Changed a City

Wes Moore recalls lessons from the Baltimore riots at the Midwinter Opening Session

January 24, 2020

Author Wes Moore at Opening Session of the ALA 2020 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits
Author Wes Moore at Opening Session of the ALA 2020 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits. Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

On April 27, 2015, Baltimore erupted into riots protesting the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old unarmed black man who was killed by city police on the west side. Just hours before the melée began, Gray had been laid to rest, his funeral attended by family, friends, and community. Wes Moore was right there with them.

Moore—author, social entrepreneur, and US Army combat veteran—detailed the events of that day, the subsequent five days of rioting, and the circumstances that led to it in his Opening Session talk at the American Library Association’s 2020 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Philadelphia on Friday. It’s a story that he chronicles in his forthcoming book, Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City (One World, 2020), coauthored with Erica L. Green, a member of the Pulitzer-winning team that covered the protests for the Baltimore Sun. Moore and Green’s book follows the events surrounding the riots through the eyes of seven different people, ranging from police officers and city leaders to community members from the neighborhood where Gray lived.

“I wanted to look at how, in the course of five days, a major American city exploded,” Moore said. “We should have seen it coming.”

Moore read a passage from his book that contains a timeline of Gray’s life up to his death, with harrowing details that include a premature birth to a mother addicted to heroin, brain damage from spending his first six years in a house with endemic levels of lead paint, living in homes without running water and electricity, and arrests and prison stints for drug possession with intent to distribute. The timeline concludes with his arrest on April 12, 2015, which culminated in Gray slipping into a coma with three broken vertebrae and an injured voice box. He died seven days later.

“As heartbreaking as the death of Freddie Gray was, more heartbreaking was his life,” Moore said. “The week he was in a coma was probably the most peaceful of his life.”

Moore blamed socioeconomic inequities for Gray’s death. “When you look at the life of Freddie Gray, the man never had a chance,” Moore said. The subjects in Five Days agree, he said.

Despite having differing perspectives on the riots, “we all found ourselves coming together over a singular issue: poverty,” Moore said. “This isn’t a story about Freddie; this is about poverty. It’s about who gets a shot and who doesn’t.

“I understand why those kids are so angry,” Moore said. “The reality that we see every day—in schools, in libraries, the people, and the children. How much pain are we willing to tolerate when we know we don’t have to?”

Moore stressed the importance of libraries in combating poverty and the ills that plague struggling neighborhoods. They’re more than just book repositories; they are places of respect that keep communities together, he said. To drive his point home, he noted that one of the buildings that remained untouched at the fire-ravaged corner of North and Pennsylvania in West Baltimore was the Enoch Pratt Library.

“The library was central to repairing our community,” he said. “No one understands the community better, where we are, and where we’re going than you.”

Moore urged the librarians to be proactive and take action. “You are the community organizers, the community lifters,” he said. “Your job and responsibility is to do something about it” by providing open access to information and knowledge to those who need it most.

“More than anything, you provide freedom for kids who’ve never had freedom,” he said.

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