Editor’s Note: This week’s guest contributor is a friend and my first mentor in community organizing in Baltimore. Dave Cramer is a life-long Baltimorean and shares his experience confronting racism and finding ways to use his many talents to work for racial justice.
The 2015 Freddie Gray uprising had a profound impact on me. I reacted, as many of my fellow Baltimoreans, in wanting to do something – not just something but something more substantial. My instinct led me to want to better understand the underlying conditions and ultimately how institutional racism plays an essential part and my role as a European-American in fostering it. My instinct also made me realize how ill-equipped I was as an individual to address this. When an opportunity surfaced to join a training course sponsored by Baltimore Racial Justice Action, I, along with my wife, Ruth, took this intensive eight-week four-hour sessions course which helped me to better understand white privilege and that I personally had to take action in whatever way I could.
After this intensive training course with Baltimore Racial Justice Action on white supremacy and institutional racism, I looked for a way to take some action. I stumbled into a meeting sponsored by SURJ Baltimore (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and realized that this newly formed organization might have potential. The gathering I attended had around 200 mostly young and white participants who listened to several Baltimore Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) leaders explain their anti-racism legislative agenda for that year, then break up into groups by legislative district to discuss how we as European Americans could use our influence to support the BIPOC leaders’ agenda. .
I was attracted to the energy of those involved and the commitment to mobilize white people to support BIPOC led and controlled organizations that we refer to as “accountability partners”.
After offering to help, I was assigned to do research that one of SURJ’s accountability partners requested. Research is not my forte, but I saw an opportunity to add value by reading through forty or so applications by teams of experts in various fields of police reform who desired to act as monitors on behalf of the City of Baltimore, Baltimore Police Department (BPD) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The BPD and the DOJ just entered a consent decree to address years of racial bias and unconstitutional practices carried out by the Baltimore City Police Department against Blacks and other People of Color. The city and a coalition spearheading the reform effort, called the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, used these assessments to narrow down the choices and eventually selected one team to advise the police department and monitor the results sent to the court appointed judge overseeing the multiyear effort.
By the second year I found I could use my past organizing skills to increase and strengthen the legislative district teams starting with my own. Later I assisted in organizing a city district that was mostly white and underrepresented in SURJ. This new team got established just as one of its delegates became the chair of the Judiciary Committee which most of legislation SURJ was supporting had to go through. It also helped that the Senator from that district became president of the Senate.
Over time all legislative districts in the city had teams for the state legislature. Next, we started to focus on teams for the City councilmanic districts.
Along the way, to better understand how the BPD operated, I participated in a Citizen Training Academy, an opportunity for citizens to learn about the workings of the Police Department. After the training, I joined the BPD’s training committee reviewing the many new policies and trainings required to make the changes required by the Department of Justice consent decree process. Eventually I was selected to serve as one of the two citizens on a newly formed BPD Trial Board, a mostly peer review accountability board of other police officers which required even more training for me.
Working at the city legislative district level, I recruited individuals on SURJ’s extensive contact list to join teams that would identify specific pieces of legislation that our accountability partners wanted our support for, and then work with individual legislators whose committees the legislation went through. Sometimes our accountability partners would target particular legislators they needed to persuade. SURJ participants were invited to take part in various activities and play various roles in the team. In several crucial campaigns, SURJ members reached out to potential allies such as their community associations, while I recruited several Catholic parishes where I had contacts.
My journey started with looking at the work I had to do as an individual to better understand my own part in institutional racism. That led to my reflection on what value I could contribute which led me to doing what I do best – being part of an organization bringing people together for change. SURJ gave me a way as a white organizer to follow the lead of Black and other People of Color Leaders. As I reflect on my journey, I feel grounded in a statement made by a Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle leader that I recall often and is like a rudder for me: “Real change happens locally.”