Putting the Baltimore Riots in Context

Posted by Marc Skvirsky on April 30, 2015

Violent riots and protests erupted in Baltimore, Maryland, this week, following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray after his arrest by police. As has happened much too often in the past year, current events are having an impact on the hearts and minds of our students (and ourselves), as they enter the classroom confused, upset, and angry. How can you support your students or the young people in your life as they try to make sense of these disturbing events?

In the wake of Michael Brown's tragic death in Ferguson, we wrote the following post to help educators create a safe and reflective space in which students could process their feelings and try to understand these events, which included a framework for initiating thoughtful dialogue about difficult subject matter:

  1. Give students a safe outlet for expressing their thoughts without arguing about the incident.
  2. Have students imagine the best possible outcome.
  3. Avoid further perpetuation of the fear and hatred of law enforcement that these incidents encourage.
  4. Help students to consider the tools for civil protest that are in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the spirit of brotherhood.
  5. Help students to examine the role that race, class, privilege, and stereotyping plays not just in this incident, but in our society.
  6. Bring historical context to the conversation.

After the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, we sadly returned to this topic, and shared the experience of one New York school and how students, teachers, and administrators there came together after the death as well as the decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Michael Brown. They called the dialogue a "courageous conversation." Their approach is both instructive and inspiring.

It is important, with any current events, to avoid facile comparisons, while also considering the broader context. The goal is to deepen our understanding of the historical background and the nuance of each unique case. We want to point out what feels the same and what is clearly different.

The New York Times recently published an editorial outlining some of the context behind Freddie Gray's death and the subsequent riots in Baltimore. The piece can be used in the classroom to help students understand the long history of "race" in the United States and the lingering legacies of prejudicial laws, beliefs, and practices. There is compelling evidence that we have progressed in our race relations since the 1950s. There is equally compelling evidence that we have a long way to go. It is important to take the time to explore and understand "race" today in the context of this history.

Have you discussed Baltimore with your students or do you plan to do so? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Topics: Classrooms, Safe Schools, Race and Membership, Teaching Resources, Raising Ethical Children, Civil Rights

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.


Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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