James lanning joey badass 3
Photo: James Lanning
Photo: James Lanning

Joey Bada$$ Is Freddie Gray: Thousands March For Baltimore In The Streets Of NYC [Photos + Recap]

Reacting to the massive protests and clashes with the police in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray, thousands of people of all backgrounds and races poured through the streets of Manhattan Wednesday night, protesting police brutality and and racial injustice in direct solidarity with the citizens of Maryland. Brooklyn MC Joey Bada$$ was only one of many in the Okayplayer family who walked amongst them, maintaining an air of cool focus as he carried a sign that read "I Am Freddie Gray."

Beginning as a large, stationary gathering in Union Square, the Millions March NYC-organized protest met strong NYPD resistance as it attempted to take over a busy nearby avenue. Dozens of violent arrests took place as the police swept through pockets of peaceful demonstrators stranded and unable to reach a sidewalk.

This early tactic by the NYPD of stopping a unified march before it started revealed itself to be a crippling blow. At no point during the Baltimore solidarity march did demonstrators fully regroup and realize their full collective strength. Groups walking through stopped traffic and chanting "Black Lives Matter!" barely approached the intensity that New York saw following the non-indictment of the police officer that killed Eric Garner.

Chants of "I can't breathe" and "Hands Up / Don't Shoot" were additionally scarce amongst protesters, who often dithered, starting one chant only to give up and wait for another.

As the evening wore on, the #Baltimore2NYC protest carried on with waxing and waning enthusiasm levels, despite being fractured. Marchers approached Manhattan's Holland tunnel only to find it blocked by police, while another group congregated in the center of Times Square, leading chants while bemused tourists looked on and snapped photographs. Another contingent, roughly 200 strong, marched down the center lanes of Broadway through much of the southern half, waving a large banner bearing solely the words "BLACK LIVES MATTER."

Numerous MCs, including Wale have voiced their outrage at Gray's death, which came on April 19th, seven days after the 25 year-old man's spine was severed while in Baltimore Police custody. But last night Joey Bada$$ was the most visible hip-hop figure to be seen marching and leading chants (we have since been informed that Joey's involvement was initiated by XXL Mag, who documented it on video).

Photographer James Lanning was near Joey Bada$$ for much of the protest Tuesday night. "His facial expression held a lot of seriousness and passion," Lanning told Okayplayer. "It was really refreshing to see someone with his level of influence partaking in something he has recently addressed increasingly more frequently in his music."

"It was dope to see someone with Joey's status not only come out and march with everyone but to walk in the front of the crowd and lead them down Broadway. He was holding a neon sign reading 'I am Freddie Gray' almost the entire march and didn't show any hesitance even when cops started swarming in on everyone. At one point he even started and led a chant."

In spite of recognizable or charismatic figures like Bada$$ playing an organic leadership role, no central control or communication was evident across the multiple groups of protesters, and as one contingent snaked through streets in the Financial District, news of other groups near the Holland Tunnel, in Times Square, and various other parts of Midtown reached the protesters via texts and social media posts.

Paris Williams, 23, noted the march's thin numbers as she walked down the middle Broadway. "I think we need more people out here," she said. "I'm hoping for a movement, I hope that we're doing something about this, but I'm not seeing anything real happen."

Later in the evening, as the south Manhattan pocket of protesters turned and began walking North, protesters tapped on car windows and waved signs as they walked through oncoming traffic. "Welcome to New York, this is New York on the regular!" one marcher yelled at a double decker sightseeing bus at Canal Street.

As one group made its way north on Broadway, nearing Union Square, NYPD officers quickly surrounded those carrying the large "BLACK LIVES MATTER" banner and tackled each one to the ground. Another protester who had been seen actively live streaming the protest, was pushed to the ground and surrounded by numerous officers before being zip-tied and taken into custody despite no clear offense or police altercation on either party's part.

Arrests such as these took place intermittently throughout the evening, always drawing an enraged reaction from protesting bystanders. However, no mass confrontation between police and organized protesters materialized.

As the same group made its way briskly north toward Times Square, the street march fell silent numerous times. Chants of "I can't breathe" and "Hands Up Don't Shoot"--words that galvanized past protests in the wake of police brutality--rarely got off the ground. In many moments, the Wednesday's protest was a quiet one.

"I have friends in Baltimore. They said it was really bad, as far as all the violence and protesting," Chris Lylez, 29, of Brooklyn said. Last night was Lylez first time attending a local march since the Black Lives Matter movement coalesced around the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. "I didn't support any other protests thus far, but I figured I'd come out for this one and show support for my friends. It was more of a personal thing."