Peaceful protests turned into a night of full-on rioting in Baltimore after the funeral of Freddie Gray Monday afternoon. The 25-year-old black man was arrested on April 12, but died days later from a fatal spine injury he suffered while in police custody. There have been reports of widespread chaos throughout the city, including more than 150 fires, nearly 200 arrests, and 19 officers injured. The national guard has been deployed and the city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has been thrust into the national spotlight. Here are five things to know about the 45-year-old wife, mother and Baltimore-native who faces the daunting task of leading the city out of turmoil.
1. She’s no stranger to controversy
Rawlings-Blake was sworn into office after her predecessor Sheila Dixon was convicted for using gift cards donated for the poor for her own personal purchases. Last month, Rawlings-Blake was accused of unfairly criticizing African-American men in comments she made about black-on-black crime. “While many of us are willing to march and protest and become active in the face of police misconduct, many of us turn a blind eye when it’s us killing us,” Rawlings-Blake said during her State of the City address in March. Some said her message was on-point while others accused the mayor of throwing black men “under the bus.”
She also came under fire on Monday from critics who took issue with a remark she made during a speech over the weekend, before the violence and looting erupted. “It’s a very delicate balancing act because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well, and we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate,” she was quoted as having said. Some accused her of inciting a riot, and she clarified the comment with a statement on her Facebook page, saying, “Taken in context, I explained that, in giving peaceful demonstrators room to share their message, unfortunately, those who were seeking to incite violence also had space to operate.”
2. She’s been outspoken about police brutality and is a proponent of transparency and reform
In February, the mayor sought legislation that would make assaults committed by police officers felonies instead of misdemeanors, resulting in harsher punishments for those convicted. The mayor even spoke in front of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing to ask for additional funds for body cameras, added training, and to cover the cost of supervisors to investigate misconduct. “Having grant funding to pay for those positions would expedite the process, ” said Rawlings-Blake.
3. She’s not swayed by celebrity
When actress and fellow Baltimore-native Jada Pinkett Smith used her star power to call for action on elephant care for a circus event taking place in Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake made her priorities clear in her sharp retort to the actress. “We’ve reached out about homelessness, school issues,” she said in response to Pinkett Smith. “I would have loved to have gotten some feedback and some support or concern about those issues that are very pressing.”
4. She’s participated in the arts
Proving she’s multi-talented, and not shy about stepping out of her comfort zone to supporting the arts in Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake made a cameo onstage in a revival of the famed musical Chicago.
5. She’s spoken up for women’s rights and inequality
In a brief opinion piece published last July by CBS News, Rawlings-Blake shared her experience of realizing there was a long way to go before reaching race and gender equality in the U.S. “The decision of a woman’s reproductive health should be between her and her doctor. Her employer’s beliefs — particularly religious beliefs — should have no business on it,” she wrote in the piece.