They’ve been talking about the riots in Baltimore for a long, long time. The last big riots, that is.
I moved to Baltimore, my wife’s hometown, from Colorado in the mid-aughts, and lucked into a job as a writer for a local magazine. Every city in America was fighting to be the “greenest” at the time, and while I knew next to nothing about cities, and nothing whatsoever about Baltimore, I knew green, so the editor took a chance on me.
One of the first stories I wrote was about a neighborhood called Oliver, which had been laid to waste by waves of white flight, disinvestment, drug addiction, and the drug war — the most recent chapter of which had ended with a local “corner boy” setting fire to the house of a woman who had reported drug activity to the police, killing her, her husband, and five of her children. I remember sitting in a community center with a group of old-timers who were trying to wrest back control of the neighborhood, when Lawrence Pully, a 70-year-old former firefighter, commented that things had only gotten worse since the riots.
“I’m sorry, what riots?” I asked.
Pully looked at me like I’d just landed from another planet, which of course I basically had. “1968,” Pully said. “When they killed Dr. King.”
It had been 40 years since James Earl Ray shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Memphis motel, sending African Americans raging through the streets of urban America. In Baltimore, protesters smashed windows and set businesses ablaze. National Guard troops marched into the city to calm the unrest.
It was, in a very real sense, the beginning of the end for neighborhoods like Oliver. Those who could afford to leave, did so. Homes fell into the hands of speculators and slumlords. Derelict houses became havens for the crack cocaine epidemic, as well as lead, roaches, and rats that sickened neighborhood children. Young people, especially young men, cycled in and out of the criminal justice system.
Working on that story, I got a personal education on urban America, how far it had fallen, and the forces that were still holding it down, decades after Baltimore burned.
I’ve spent much of the past 24 hours reading news accounts of a new round of violent protests in the streets of the city I came to love — protests that come two weeks after a young man named Freddie Gray died while in police custody, his spinal cord severed, apparently during a “rough ride” in the back of a paddy wagon. Police say he was arrested for doing nothing more than running when he saw the cops.
The story has echoes of Michael Brown, who was accosted by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last summer for walking in the street, an encounter that ended with Brown being shot and killed. This, in the same 12-month period when we’ve watched a New York City cop strangle Eric Garner and an officer in South Carolina shoot Walter Scott in the back as he fled the officer after a traffic stop.
And of course, these are just glimpses at an epidemic of police violence against African Americans (a Baltimore Sun special report found that the city paid out $5.7 million from 2011 to 2014 over lawsuits claiming that officers had brutalized citizens), and a system that holds down people of color, turning inner cities into repressive police states. They’ve blown up in the national consciousness because they’ve been caught on video — and because our cities are tinderboxes of pent-up anger and frustration, like logged-over forests just waiting to ignite.
If there’s a silver lining to the recent publicity it is this: It has forced us to reckon with the damage we’ve done. As my friend (and Grist contributor) Jim Meyer wrote on Facebook during the protests in Ferguson last fall:
What matters now is that we are aware, or at least we have the opportunity to be. We are aware of the increasingly militarized nature of our police forces and the system that separates us from them and, more starkly, the wall between disenfranchised and marginalized communities and the police forces that essentially occupy their communities. We are aware of the vast economic, educational and opportunity gulf between people in this country. We’re aware of the legacy of slavery and the institution of racism that is still everywhere in America that makes all of us, no matter what constructed racial identity we have chosen or had thrust upon us, unable to trust or communicate with each other.
Unless you’re living in a bunker, or believe the shit you get spoon-fed on Fox News, or both, you can’t claim that the recent protests were unprovoked. Whatever you think of the violence that has flared up amid the peaceful marches, you cannot deny that we live in a society that is sickened by massiveinequity and soul-killing injustice. MORE
By Greg Hanscom
Photo courtesey of Reuters/Shannon Stapleton