The tension in the neighborhoods was palpable when reporter Yvonne Wenger began her shift at The Baltimore Sun on Saturday, April 25. It was two days before the explosive riots that would shake the city and the nation, and as Wenger began writing about the eighth day of nonviolent protests following Freddie Gray’s death, the newsroom’s police scanner started squawking.
That Saturday saw an estimated 1,200 people take to the streets in the largest protest to date. Demonstrators remained peaceful despite growing anger as details emerged about allegations of police mistreatment causing Gray’s injury and death. That is, until just before the Orioles’ early evening baseball game at Camden Yards, near Baltimore’s famous Inner Harbor.
“I marched four miles across the city from West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was arrested, to the Harbor and there were points where people were obviously tense,” Wenger says. “That night, I went back to the newsroom and was writing the mainbar when we started hearing on the scanner that windows were breaking around the Harbor area.”
A line of police in riot gear formed around Camden Yards, and protesters outside the baseball park quickly dispersed. As The Sun reported, “the brief flare-up was
an anomaly during an otherwise peaceful march.”
There was little warning of what was to come.
‘Using language to feel emotion and connect’
Wenger, The Baltimore Sun’s city hall reporter since summer 2014, says the written word has always held an attraction for her. Growing up in southern Lancaster County, where her father worked for a printing company, she recalls being fascinated by the authors the company published.
“I like the way you can use language to make people feel emotion and to connect with another human experience,” Wenger says. “I like to capture that in writing. I think in print journalism we often have a greater ability to explore issues in depth.”
Wenger, who graduated from Bloomsburg in 2002 with a double major in mass communications and political science, says she visited BU in the fall of ’97 and was hooked. She initially pursued broadcast journalism, but her love of the written word drew her to print journalism. She became an editor of BU’s student newspaper, The Voice, and remembers making tough decisions on how to cover devastating stories, such as a fraternity house fire in which three students died and the death of a young man who collapsed as he played flag football.
After graduating from Bloomsburg, Wenger worked as a reporter at The Reading Eagle and The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C. The Sun was a “goal paper” for her — a goal achieved after she applied for the third time in 2012 and was hired. One thing she learned along the way is that she would stack her Bloomsburg training against any other school.
“No matter what newsroom I’ve been in — and I’ve sat in newsrooms with people with Ivy League degrees — my Bloomsburg degree has served me well,” she says. “I’ve said to my cousins, ‘You can go to a big name university and get the debt that comes with it’ — and yes, there are certain advantages that come with networking — but I would put my Bloomsburg degree against anyone else’s.”
The Baltimore riot and lingering questions
On Monday, April 27, one of the first warning signs of the riot came when the newspaper’s education reporter mentioned teens were talking about The Purge. The term describes a society that allows a 12-hour period in which all crime is legalized.
“We started hearing that the kids were talking about this on social media and we started getting reports that businesses were planning to close early,” Wenger says. Rioting began around 3 p.m. and Wenger was sent to check out the central business district and the touristy Inner Harbor area, both close to The Sun offices. Initially, she went out alone, and Wenger says she didn’t feel scared.
“I saw broken windows and looted shops,” says Wenger, who also shot some video. “I went into an African hair braiding shop and the owner was so upset: her TV, all of her chemicals and her weaves had been stolen, and the weaves are very expensive.”
She also witnessed acts of good. “An Italian deli had been hit. Windows were broken and people had stolen liquor. Some construction workers came by and boarded up the owner’s windows for him.”
Wenger says she felt afraid only once. A group of young people looting a store threatened her when they saw her shooting video. “I started walking quickly in the opposite direction,” she says. “I suppose I may have been naïve because these young kids were maybe 12 or 13, and I didn’t expect they could frighten me. It was a large group and I’m just surprised that they were as aggressive as they were because they were so young.”
In the wake of the riots unanswered questions remain. Were the rioters egged on by agitators from outside Baltimore? (The Sun is investigating but, so far, the majority of those arrested are from the city.)
Did Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake make the rioting worse by not ordering police to take a stronger approach to breaking up the riots?
Wenger says the mayor strongly refutes claims that she intended to let the rioters go unchallenged and says her comments about the city giving space “to those who wished to destroy” have been misrepresented. But, Wenger says, many believe the mayor’s decision not to take a more combative approach prevented any rioters or other citizens from being killed.
In some ways it’s not surprising that Baltimore became a powder keg, she says. Before the Gray incident, her newspaper’s investigative series on police brutality revealed that the city paid out claims of almost $6 million over four years. At the same time, however, she has no ready answer to the question, “Why Baltimore?”
“These are issues that black America has been dealing with for decades and I don’t know what made Baltimore the flash point,” Wenger says. “During the unrest, I received a call every day from Jesse Jackson. His focus was on the cameras and the fact that people have smartphones and are videotaping, allowing what happened to Freddie Gray to go viral.”
She says Baltimore these days is safe and feels back to normal, but there are concerns over what may happen as the criminal cases against the officers charged in Gray’s death move forward. Elected officials, religious leaders, academics and nonprofit groups are coming together to figure out how to address the systemic issues — structural racism, poverty, drugs and a lack of jobs — that contributed to the unrest.
As far as what comes next, Wenger says, “It’s just impossible to know. These are unpredictable times.”
Editor’s note: See Yvonne Wenger’s Baltimore Sun reporting by searching her name at baltimoresun.com. •
Jack Sherzer is a professional writer and principal partner with Message Prose, a communications and public relations firm in Harrisburg.
How It Began
The April 12, 2015, arrest of 25-year-old Freddie Gray should have been simple. Instead, it touched off the Baltimore riots and focused the nation on the issue of police brutality.
According to Baltimore police, Gray acted suspiciously as he ran from officers on bicycles, who found what was described as an illegal knife clipped to the inside of his front pants pocket.
Gray repeatedly asked for medical care as he was taken to the Western District police station, but prosecutors say he was ignored. From the police station, he was transported to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, where he was treated for severe spinal injuries and fell into a coma. He died on April 19.
Shortly after the arrest, video taken by bystanders went viral showing a limp, screaming and obviously in pain Gray being dragged to a police transport van by officers. The video raised official questions about the arrest and fueled community outrage.
On April 18 — the day before Gray’s death — the first of what would be daily protests occurred. Until Saturday, April 25, the protests in front of the Western District police station, City Hall and police headquarters were nonviolent. On April 25, however, a small group of protesters damaged police vehicles and area businesses and approached Camden Yards during an Orioles baseball game. They were quickly dispersed by police.
The following Monday, the riot began, with news stations capturing scenes of protesters looting, setting fires, and throwing rocks and other items at police, who retreated from the crowd. Control was restored by Monday night and a 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew was imposed.
While the city didn’t see another riot, the next day’s Orioles game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards was closed to the public because of safety concerns — the first time a major league game was held without a crowd in the ballpark.
In the aftermath of Gray’s arrest and death, six officers were charged, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the firing of the city’s police chief and the U.S. Department of Justice initiated an investigation.