Targeted in Baltimore

Peaceful protesters have been pleading their case against police brutality for months in Baltimore. I kept hearing people say, “Baltimore is not Ferguson,” meaning, I suppose, that we do not repress our issues of wealth and racial disparity or deny them. Baltimore, after all, has been a city in recovery for half a century now. For my entire life, it has been trying to lift itself up from reeling blows — the loss of manufacturing jobs, the civil rights riots, and the forty years of white flight which followed.

In a unique arrangement, Baltimore is literally split into two cities, one rich and one poor, one white and affluent, the other primarily black and destitute. I’m not speaking metaphorically. It is a political arrangement, another racist legacy of the 19th century. Confusingly, Baltimore is divided into two counties: Baltimore County and Baltimore City. Wealthy Baltimore County does not share its tax revenue with poorer Baltimore City. City services — public schools in particular — languish, separate but unequal.

The marches broke into violence for the first time on April 25th. Though it’s unclear exactly what happened, we know that white people, reveling around Camden Yards stadium during an Orioles game, began resentfully baiting, heckling and even punching the protesters.

It is strange to me that no one to my knowledge has yet mentioned a bizarre historical coincidence: that the last riot that broke out on that street corner (Pratt and Camden Yards) turned into the first battle of the Civil War. It occurred on the same day Freddie Gray died in Baltimore police custody, April 19th. That’s also the anniversary of the first battles of the Revolutionary War, Lexington and Concord.

In 1861, President Lincoln had called in troops from the north to defend the District of Columbia. Southern states had just seceded, furious Lincoln might abolish slavery. As troops changed trains in Baltimore at Camden Yards, a riot broke out. Resentful, racist, pro-Confederate Baltimore citizens baited the Union soldiers, hurled bricks at them and killed a few. Their first target was the only black man they could find: a soldier with a Pennsylvania artillery company named Nicholas Biddle.

Some history books refer to Biddle as a “servant” because blacks couldn't serve in the army, though in all other senses he was a soldier; he was in uniform and had trained with his company for 20 years. Born a slave in the south, Biddle decided to return to defend the United States. He was the first man to shed blood in the civil war, though his name is largely forgotten.

Baltimore County has a beautiful public park called — I swear to god — “Robert E. Lee Park,” but no monuments or memorials to Biddle.

I suspect no one has noted this historical conjunction because Camden Yards isn't known for these extraordinary events. Rather, it’s famous as an early victory in urban renewal — part of a growing constellation of buildings and construction projects meant to reverse white flight and bring suburban money back into the urban areas abandoned by whites in the latter half of the 20th century. That is to say, it’s known as a success story for attracting white people.

Meanwhile, poor black areas to the west and east that make up the majority of the city still languish… as they have for half a century.

And indeed, the whites came, spent their money on beer and clashed with protesters, as though all of the history the city had failed to confront, its centuries long legacy of racial discrimination, were echoing back from obscurity. Forgotten events were repeating themselves — a variation in a familiar arrangement. The bricks came again on Monday, and then the federal troops poured in. The same tired themes. America’s bad dream, recurring until Baltimore and the nation confronts its past.

Standing outside Mondawmin mall last Monday afternoon, I saw with my own eyes, more or less what you saw on TV from the perspective of the helicopter: angry children hurling bricks at long lines of police officers in riot gear as they surrounded their neighborhood.

The police had blocked off both ends of the street and were standing in military formation — a black-clad phalanx. It was an absurdly disproportionate response to problems I deal with every day as a Baltimore City school teacher. It seemed to me like the city could have just called in a handful of teachers, school administrators and parents to deal with students shoplifting at the mall.

At one point, I got heckled by the upset and excited kids.

I looked up at them, trying to see if I recognized any of their faces.

Being a teacher feels like (in the words of John Updike) “shouting out to the flotilla of the young as they slide in the fatal morass of the world — its dwindling resources, its disappearing freedoms, its merciless advertisements.”

I am a daily witness to an endless procession of brilliant shining souls, who, like all of us, are “impaled live upon the pin of consciousness, fixed upon self-advancement and self-preservation.” But unlike most of us, they are given so little it’s hard for them to figure out even what’s missing.

It’s been my job to fix that, to teach them modes of expression, understanding, to give them a voice. But I have been failing because there are too many — hundred, thousands, a multitude — streaming past. All of them, who need so much you might as well call it everything.

The reason for this is not because their communities have failed them. Their communities are working much harder than I am.

I didn't recognize any of the boys who wanted to steal my bicycle. I felt stupid, naive for even looking. So many are not even in school at all.

It’s why they have no language to express their indignation. They don’t know about the books and words that describe their situation. The only reference points available — the only thing American society cares to want them to know — is consumerist popular culture.

Major news outlets reported the teens were inspired by a two star movie starring Ethan Hawke.

And indeed the idea for a “purge” did exist among the students, at least in the form of an Instagram flyer. The plan, if it was ever real, was for a sort of Saturnalia, I suppose, where the existing social order that pins them in their cramped little space briefly disappears. In a way, it was a beautifully naive fantasy, a child’s fantasy.

But I learned later from fellow teachers that the police had wanted to believe in it more than anyone else. In fact, they had made it come true. Panicking at the rumors, they caparisoned themselves in riot gear and marched on the teens just as they were leaving school.

“That neighborhood was doing so well. It just got that Target,” the news lady narrating the helicopter footage said. The footage showed teens streaming out of the Target store at Mondawmin mall to escape the police.

Ironically, Target had become just that for those whose lives were targets — targets for the police, but also targets of the Targets of the world — people who our society fails to educate and so traps in low income jobs and consumerism. How could she think what those kids needed in that neighborhood — a neighborhood that had been so gutted by the boom and bust of capital — was another Target?

There is a story my Baltimore high school teacher told me: A man is riding through a country estate and sees a number of arrows shot very precisely into the bulls-eye of targets all about the property.

“What an incredible marksman the lord of this estate must be!” the visitor remarks to the servant guiding him up to the manor house.

“That depends on when the lord make me paint the targets,” the servant replies, “before or after the shot.”

Now that the missiles have been flung in Baltimore, hopefully America will take the opportunity to redraw its targets.

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