In Baltimore

What is unequal and horrendous in this country seems more so in Baltimore.1 I live in Philadelphia, where poverty is hardly unknown, but in Baltimore it feels unavoidable, as plain as your face, and it is extraordinary that a city in such destitution should produce a political class so feckless and contented. Driving yesterday in a desperate mood through Guilford, a neighborhood next to Roland Park, where high-ranked private schools and some of the more expensive property in the city can be found, I came across Sherwood Gardens, a park filled with picnicking families; not far from bowers of thick-blooming cherry trees, a white man of the pastier variety was sunning himself. Guilford is separated by a literal brick wall from the deep poverty of Pen Lucy—a more recognizable image of the city, with treeless streets of row houses and boarded up brick homes—and yesterday, as if it were any other day, the hedge perched on top the wall was duly being trimmed.

Later, in East Baltimore, a line of lightly occupied houses stared across the grassy hill that lay cater-corner of Chester and Gray, where the East Baltimore senior center once stood, and in the early afternoon was still smoldering. Dale Curbeam, a gaunt man with hooded eyes who shuffled in a deliberate manner older than his 50-odd years, had come by to look at the location of a convenience store where he once worked, now occupied by the remains of the unfinished center. He had been out the night before, watching the fire. “It’s stupid,” he said. “They spent $16 million on this place, and now they got to burn it down?” I asked him what he thought of what happened to Freddie Gray. “It’s an isolated incident. The police that did it shouldn’t had done what he did, but he did do it. It was totally unnecessary. He didn’t have to do that.” But then when I asked him about police in the neighborhood, Curbeam seemed to feel that it wasn’t an isolated incident at all:

It does happen a lot. There’s a lot of police brutality going on in this city. Y’all don’t see it. We might see it, because we’re from the area. We traveled these streets. There’s a lot of police brutally and they need to tone it down. And they be doing a lot of stuff that’s totally unnecessary. Picking up old men and slamming them on their head, just because they bought some drugs. Let’s say I bought two pills from [a dealer]. And you see me cap it. And I try to run away, you know, and you catch me, and you pick me up and you slam me on my head like I’m a pro-wrestler or something and you kill me because I’m a heroin addict. You should have tried to get me in a program or something. Or if you want to lock me up, go ahead and lock me up. But don’t slam me on my head like I committed murder or something. You’re murdering me! What makes you any better than me? And that’s what they be doing. I saw a guy with handcuffs behind his back. Police said the man tried to grab his gun. How am I going to grab your gun when I got handcuffs on and I’m on my stomach? And you shoot me in the back? How the hell am I going to grab your gun, when your gun’s at my head?

Behind us was the skeleton of a burned-out bus in a lot full of media vans. Puffed TV reporters in bright white collared shirts, choked by full Windsor knots, were trailed by crews of boom mikes and enormous digital cameras. The city seemed to be under occupation, and in every way it was: around the neoclassical city hall (and Mondawmin Mall, and the Inner Harbor, and downtown) was the National Guard, some of them in khaki and full brimmed hats, thin, slouching, looking like park rangers; others in thick riot gear, lifting their helmets to clean spots off their sunglasses, handing their goofily long rifles to others as they headed to the bathroom. Behind them were the omnipresent armored vehicles, some trucked in from the surrounding counties, others marked with the improbable words, “Rescue Vehicle.” (Only twice before in the city’s history had the Guard been called out: during the Great Railway Strike of 1877, and in 1968 following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

At City Hall, too, the balcony from which the royals—I mean, the mayor—might come out to wave to the masses, was curiously guarded by a motionless group of police. The whole quadrangle was ringed by media crews, and by people ready for an opportunity to hold forth. I obliged one of them—J. Howard Henderson, of the Urban League, an old organization trying to improve employment in black neighborhoods (among its donors are Coors and Walmart). He was portly, with snowy hair, wearing a dark wool suit and transition lenses in the late afternoon sun. In practiced tones he reminded me that though people chant “no justice, no peace,” “we could have both justice and peace. We’re hoping that we can keep the peace, and in the future we’ll get justice. Most folks don’t understand it’s not going to come immediately . . . . Hopefully justice will come, and we got to have peace in the meantime.” But in recent cases, I countered, people felt justice hadn’t been served. “No question about that, but you still have got to go through the process. We are a nation of laws. If we’re going to be a nation, we’ve got to honor that tradition and honor that process.”

When I mentioned, countering platitude with platitude, that many people felt the system was broken, Henderson responded, “It may be broken! But that’s the system. Until we change it, that’s the system we have to go by. There are means to make adjustments to the system. Like the police bill of rights—we made an attempt this year at the legislature to get that changed somewhat. We failed, but that doesn’t mean you don’t go back again and make an attempt to get it passed. That’s part of the American democracy. That’s the democratic process. And we have to live by that. That’s what makes us different from a lot of other nations.” What makes us different from other nations, too, I countered, was the high number of cases of police brutality, and Henderson said, “Well, no question, there has been a large number of cases that they have been highlighted recently in terms of police misconduct—I don’t like to call it brutality, I like to call it misconduct. We don’t know how brutal it was, we know it was misconduct.” Regarding Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s response to the situation, he testified to her youth and the toughness of the job and concluded, “I support Stephanie.”

This tone of paternalism and elite chumminess, at once weary and smug, so prevalent among the political caste of the city, lingered with me as I passed through West Baltimore. It felt especially despicable here, not because of the decades-long devastation of the neighborhood, which was real, but because of the atmosphere of articulate anger and self-respecting rebellion fomenting in the streets. The corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue was where the CVS stood—one of the few supposedly “looted” buildings that was genuinely destroyed. (So many others reported to be looted, in the media’s mania for covering this side of the story, seemed to have suffered little more than broken windows or doors). It was open: the ceiling black, the aisles still standing, smelling of burnt plastic. “It’s like a fucking exhibit,” someone said, walking in past a sign held up by strips up tape that read, “This HAPPENED because of The Police, not US!”

Outside, a mostly black crowd of maybe a thousand or so—students, men and women from the neighborhood, silent and bow-tied Nation of Islam folk, Hopkins graduate students walking with their bicycles, men from both old and New Black Panther groups—stood or circulated alongside a line of riot police, themselves backed by buses commandeered for mass arrests, and yet more National Guardsmen and their armored vehicles. Again, there was the scrum of media vans. Geraldo Rivera parachuted in, waltzing around, telling a Hispanic couple that we had to “luchar contra violencia.” He was waiting for his connection to the studio. “Hello New York!” he shouted into a Fox News microphone.

Occasionally a group would coalesce around a man with megaphone—there was one supporting the hashtag #YMC (YMC Community Coalition) and another from the New Black Panther Party—who would lead marches around the surrounding blocks to the low-rise projects where Freddie Gray grew up, and where speeches were made in favor of reparations. A man draped with a keffiyeh, who I was later told belonged to the Bloods or the Crips (both were out in the Gilmor Homes), handed out books to the many children in tow—one of them a story of the slave-owning men and women of American history: of Martha Washington, of the string quartet that played at her home. Occasionally news crews would insinuate themselves into the crowds and pretend to understand what was happening. “I’m hearing lots of cries for freedom and justice here, not rioting” one newscaster said, authoritatively, while someone next to him continually interrupted: “This is about racism, not rioting. Say the word. This is about state-sponsored murder! Say it!”

In the late afternoon, in the long shadow of the police line, I stumbled into fierce arguments over the meaning of the protests. A man who identified himself as Nigerian cried, “I’ve dealt with more police brutality than anyone here! The problem is in the community. The problem is black-on-black crime.” “Black-on-black crime is not a thing,” a young woman responded. “People commit crimes in their community; they don’t leave them because they don’t have the resources; they don’t go to Canada to commit crimes.” “The problem,” another young woman continued, “is that we allow white people to have discussions about policy—after the Boston bombing, after every crime they commit—and they make us have discussions about black-on-black crime.” Suddenly a buzzing swarm of reporters coalesced around a taller white man. It was Martin O’Malley, former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. As he strolled slowly along the sidewalk south on Pennsylvania Avenue, a group of hecklers followed on the street. “He’s the one who locked up all the black people!” screamed a man in a Washington Bullets jacket, riding along on a red scooter, referring to O’Malley’s firm endorsement of zero-tolerance policing and stop-and-frisk. “Thank your boy O’Malley!” another, dressed in all black, followed-up. “We get to personally thank him right now!” A black Escalade rolled up to the corner of Cumberland and Pennsylvania Avenue. “Your ride is here, white boy!”

A friend and I followed a crowd past a disciplined line of riot police guarding an empty parking lot to a nearby park and basketball court, where speeches were being made asking people to respect the coming curfew and children were drawing messages on the sidewalk (“Black Lives Matter,” and “Don’t destroy Bmore please”). A boy of about 7 collided with us, and, clutching a packet of mini sugar donuts, exclaimed, wide-eyed, “I can’t believe they destroyed Baltimore!” We said that it wasn’t destroyed, it was just a few buildings, that Baltimore was OK. “Who did it? Were they from another country?” We said that they weren’t. “Will they kill me?” he asked, genuinely, arms akimbo, pointing at his chest. We reassured him that “they” wouldn’t, but as the sun went down behind the line of riot police and we got in our cars to beat the curfew, I wondered whether I had given it my most convincing tone.

  1. I want to thank Daniel Schlozman for his great assistance in reporting this story. 

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