How To Rebuild in Baltimore When You Don’t Even Recognize What’s Broken
By: Julie D. Hackett
A day after the smoke cleared, a pocket of Baltimore residents that had been mostly invisible, suddenly became the talk of the town. Before Freddie Gray, no one seemed to care about the impoverished neighborhoods of Charm City or their residents, well, at least not since The Wire became a popular water cooler topic.
Late Monday night, on into the early morning hours, these forgotten inner city dwellers somehow managed to riot themselves onto the front page of national newspapers and even made international news. And finally, people took notice of the reality of a city that has long been broken, a victim of various social scourges including drug addiction, gun violence, unemployment, high incarceration rates and failing school systems.
The violence was condemned from all sides, but in hindsight, this eruption may have been exactly what was needed for the disenfranchised to finally become visible to a city and a society that would rather pretend they did not exist. Overnight, the dialogue began, the debate was put into place and people started talking about rebuilding. How though, does one begin the process of rebuilding, when there is no recognition of what is broken in the first place?
There wasn’t much that I actually found shocking about the events that unfolded in my hometown of Baltimore over the past week.
· Another young black male had succumbed to the brutality of yet another urban police force. That seems to be a common occurrence these days.
· The initial reaction of the community, demanding answers as to why a man who made eye contact with a policeman, ran and was apprehended with a knife in his hand, ended up dead with 80% of his vertebrae severed and his voice box smashed. The demand for answers was to be expected, right?
· The delayed reaction of the police department and those who could shed some light about the details of Freddie Gray’s death. A quick admission of guilt is rare, if it ever happens at all.
· The final straw — a violent eruption that exploded in Charm City on Monday night following Gray’s funeral.
It was this last event on the Freddie Gray timeline that seemed to throw everyone into a state of shock. But why?
To me, none of it was surprising, from the catalyst to the most extreme response. The murder of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Missouri, set in force a trend of recorded and publicized killings of young black men at the hands of police across the nation. However, these murders were nothing new. The unwarranted deaths of young black males at the hands of the current authority, whether that be law enforcement or terrorists in white hoods, has actually been going on since the days when wholesale lynching of black men was acceptable and carried out with complete impunity.
Waves of protest, starting in 2014, had swept the nation in response to the deaths of multiple young black men, including a 12 year old, shot by police for carrying a pellet gun in Cleveland. This was fresh in the conscious of the nation and had almost reached a point, where the news of the next unjustified killing was expected. I don’t think there was any surprise about Gray’s actual death or the police handling of the incident. Nor was it shocking to me, the reaction of the people who have struggled in a city that for so long has failed them socially and economically. What was shocking was the ensuing expression of shame and disbelief at the “irrational” reaction of some of Baltimore’s citizenry as events unfolded.
I wasn’t in Baltimore when the riots went down. I watched the city explode from overseas and was reminded about the last time I was at home in Baltimore in December of last year. I took my boyfriend who had grown up in Angola, in southwestern Africa, for a drive from the west to the east side of Baltimore’s city. He was in utter disbelief at the blight and urban decay that had ravaged block after block. He joked that he wasn’t sure if he was actually in the United States or whether we were driving through some wasteland in a war torn zone of a developing nation. My boyfriend, although not from the US, was under no illusions about the façade of the American dream, but I could see his shock as we rode past blocks and blocks of vacant houses with brick boarded up windows, caving in at the foundation. Beyond the visual decay, he didn’t have to dig too deep to understand the devastating poverty that has ravished parts of the city and allowed a vicious cycle to spin out of control.
After the riots had been contained and the National Guard was ordered in, the judgment of God began to come down from all directions. Facebook was alight with posts about the thuggery going on and how criminals and degenerates had set out to turn a situation that had been peaceful into pandemonium. My shock returned. Was the situation at hand actually ever peaceful? Wasn’t a man murdered by the police? Is murder ever a peaceful situation? Did peace all of a sudden erupt into violence out of absolutely nowhere? How do people continue to live in such denial about what goes on in so many American urban centers?
Even more disheartening is how we continue to dehumanize the people living in these conditions, assuming that they are just used to it and that the tragedy of poverty that people face everyday, could not possibly boil over into such anger and frustration. How short our memories are! Did we forget about the riots that rocked the nation when Marin Luther King was assassinated, or the LA riots or Katrina? Why is it so hard to understand the underlying desperation that can lead to an explosion of emotions that quickly spirals out of control? And why was no one ready for the possibility that Baltimore might just fall off the rails?
Instead it is much easier to label them as animals the day after (I heard that word used several times yesterday) who were waiting and plotting to steal and loot at the first opportunity of a city wide crisis. As Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called it one of Baltimore’s darkest days and condemned those who were tearing down the things that people had worked so hard to build, I agreed with her. I felt for those who lost homes, cars and jobs and had been deeply and personally affected. I don’t believe that rioting and violence are the answer and think that Obama characterized it correctly when he labeled them as “counterproductive”.. However, I did not hear the mayor say one word or even give a mention of recognition of the pain, frustration and anger that many of her residents experience on a daily basis steeped in poverty and inequality. Would it have hurt for her to say, I understand what you may be feeling, but this is not the way?
As a long time Baltimore resident and mayor, did she not know about what goes on in her city? Didn’t she see the failing education system, the violence that consumes the streets of Baltimore on any ordinary day, or the tens of thousands of drug addicted residents? Isn’t she aware of the number of children who reportedly suffer from post traumatic syndrome as a result of witnessing violence that no child should be exposed to? She must know and for that reason, she should have been able to forecast that this reaction was a strong possibility. That she didn’t — now that is shocking.
Being far away from home, I felt the need to connect with family and friends from my city. I spent time talking to my grandmother and mother who were at one time residents of the Gilmore Projects, in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested. They were, as to be expected, horrified by what was happening. My grandmother expressed her total disdain at the behavior and found it hard to have empathy for the dire situation that I tried to convince her may have led to the violent reaction. My mother was in the middle of the road. Having been a teacher and guidance counselor in the Baltimore City and County Systems, she understood much of the social ills that plagued Baltimore’s children. However, watching the decline in Baltimore City from when she was a little girl to now, left her feeling conflicted about those who seemed to want to contribute to more decline.
They both reminisced about a time when the police were friendly to them. They talked about how policemen knew their names and would speak to them like human beings and not criminals. They remembered a time when every black boy was not labeled a potential drug dealer to be thrown up against a brick wall and patted down just for standing on the street. They felt nostalgia for the time when the black community was stronger, more united and had more respect for their surroundings. Both women knew full well what it was to grow up in a city, where they were considered less of a person. They experienced segregation and remember well the Jim Crow laws and the farce of “separate but equal”. They knew discrimination and racism, but they both maintained that they didn’t remember things being as bad as they are now.
Later in the day, I talked to members of my extended family, twin sisters, who had grown up poor in Baltimore right in the epicenter of the destruction, and had been personally affected by the drug epidemic that literally erases so many families. They had both posted eloquent and heartfelt posts on Facebook about feeling empathy for those who had been driven to such a point of frustration and the many failings of the city to improve life for its poor. Their sentiments were some of the few expressions of understanding and compassion that I saw about the ongoing despair in Baltimore.
Ultimately, what happened in Baltimore was not shocking. The death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing violence, should not have come as a surprise to anyone in a city that has so much pain. In the aftermath, everyone is talking about rebuilding. Now that does not surprise me either — it is always the ‘day after reaction’ that brings about redemptive words spilling out of political mouths once the smoke has cleared. I am left to wonder though. How will the people who failed to predict the crisis at hand or to show any understanding of the conditions of so many Baltimore residents, start to rebuild when they don’t appear to know what is broken in the first place?