Baltimore is Burning—Not Just in Flames, But With a Righteous Anger
Baltimore is my home town — the birth place of Jonah House, a Christian nonviolent resistance community founded by my parents, Phil Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister. Those places that the whole world is seeing “going crazy” on the news? They are my geography, my history, who I am. Baltimore is many things to many people and I feel like I am right there even though I am far away right now.
North and Pennsylvania, where police cars burned, is the site of one of my many bike accidents. Going too fast on wet pavement, my bicycle skidded out from under me and I fell in front of a crowd of people waiting for the bus. Someone laughed dramatically; I waved, bowed and got back on my bike, skinned knees stinging.
The shopping center on McMechen Street — where people broke windows and thieved as neighbors photographed license plates and called for peace — was on my way home from school. My brother and I went there all the time to buy eggs and milk for our mom, or Pall Mall cigarette’s for a neighbor. If we had money left over, we’d order wings at the fried chicken shop and the owner would throw in a fourth so that we could each have two for our one dollar.
Mondawmin Mall — where police shot tear gas at kids to protect Target, Shoppers and Marshalls — was part of my route home in high school. My friend Sonni and I would go into the mall, pool our coins for an order of Western Fries and wait for each other’s buses.
New Shiloh Baptist Church — where Freddie Gray was eulogized and mourned, where police violence and murder was condemned, and where justice was demanded in voices wracked with tears — is just a few blocks from Saint Peter’s Cemetery. This odd and beautiful expanse of green grass, white marble headstones and furrowed garden rows is where my mom and the Jonah House community call home. These are the streets my mom travels every day, often pushing her one-and-a-half-year-old friend Eli in a stroller, and saying “hello” to everyone she meets. She has never seen another white person walking in her community.
Baltimore is diverse, in all the meanings of that word — enough to be home to film auteur John Waters and the late rap icon Tupac Shakur, prolific novelist Anne Tyler and jazz great Billie Holiday. All these different strands came together at the intersection of Monroe Street and North Avenue on Monday, when — in the midst of tense standoffs between grieving community members and riot police armed to the teeth — a shirtless black man in a studded leather jacket moonwalked in the middle of the street to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
Baltimore is a funny place. They call it Charm City. They tried “The City That Reads,” but it was at the height of our run as the city with the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation. So, people guerrilla-edited the signs to read “The City That Breeds,” which promptly ended that rebranding campaign (while also highlighting our collective illiteracy because the signs all said “The City That Breads”).
Baltimore is also the kind of place where an ex-nun can convince the local Catholic hierarchy to hand over an abandoned cemetery to a resistance community so they can raise guinea fowl and goats, while mentoring a new generation of nonviolent activists and developing deep and mutual relationships with a battered, impoverished neighborhood. It’s a place where an educational program — designed to help young black children learn math — can become a radical institution of youth teaching youth and transforming their communities.
Of course, it saddens and grieves me to see my city burning and raging. But, what does it mean? It means there is power, energy. Where there is rage, there is hope. Where there is anger, there is the passion to make the future different, better, more equitable, more just. Where things have been torn down, they can be built up again.
The eyes of the world are on Baltimore. They are seeing cars on fire, kids throwing rocks, police behaving badly, and baseball being played to an empty stadium. But they are also seeing classical music concerts in the streets, football players joshing with kids, a thousand brooms and 10,000 good ideas for what needs to change to make Baltimore a livable city for its poorest and most marginalized members.
The question after the brutal death of Freddie Gray in police custody shouldn’t be “Why are people rioting?” but rather, “Why doesn’t this happen every single day? And why are we (white America) surprised, shocked, and tantalized, by what we see?”
An analysis of Gray’s neighborhood by the Justice Policy Institute found that just over half the community is unemployed and just under half is chronically absent from school. A third of the houses are vacant. And Baltimore taxpayers spent nearly $17 million last year incarcerating 458 people from that community — that is money that could be spent on jobs creation, shoring up failing schools and ensuring that residents live in safe homes.
Robert Wilson, a college student who went to high school in Baltimore told a New York Times reporter near the burned out CVS on North Avenue, that he had seen someone on television say, “This doesn’t feel like America.” In response to them, he said, “This is America … They just don’t want you to know!”
Baltimore is America — gross disparity between black and white, rich and poor, ring suburb and inner city. It is filled with decades of economic policy and promises of growth based on playgrounds for the wealthy — Camden Yards for the Orioles, M&T Bank Stadium for the Ravens, the Inner Harbor complex of upscale shops, restaurants, festivals for tall ships, the Baltimore Aquarium, and now horse racing and gaming. Besides all this entertainment-based economy, any other economic activity in Baltimore is now “Eds, Meds and Feds” — meaning educational institutions like the University of Maryland, medical facilities like Johns Hopkins Hospital, and federal government outposts meant to extend the District of Columbia’s reach deep into Maryland.
It was not always like this. When I was little, we would smell vanilla, cinnamon and black pepper wafting up from McCormick Spices’ warehouses and processing facilities downtown. People worked there. Bethlehem Steel sat on the other side of the harbor, employed upwards of 15,000 people at its height. Beth Steel was the draw that brought many black families to Baltimore, where even the dirty, dangerous work was better than living under Jim Crow in the South. Stieff Silver perched above the Jones Falls Expressway and anchored the neighborhood that became Hampden.
Those industries are all gone. Baltimore is a third world city in a first world nation and the kids throwing rocks at police cocooned in riot gear know that intuitively, even if they aren’t putting it into words. They see the glistening towers of Johns Hopkins Hospital looming above the moldering blocks of brick rowhouses; the boarded up vacant homes outnumbering those that are inhabited on block after block. They see workers bused in from the suburbs, protected by armed security guards. They see white sports fans getting rowdy and drunk before the big games downtown — some of whom chanted “we don’t care” at the protesters marching by the row of bars near the stadium last weekend.
These young people see their friends and family members getting murdered by police — and not just Freddie Gray. In a survey of “justifiable homicides” by police, the FBI found that “Baltimore police officers killed 127 people over two decades ending in 2012. In other similar cities that reported to the survey each year, including Oklahoma City, Memphis and Seattle — where the Justice Department found a “pattern and practice of excessive force” in 2011 — none reported more than half the number of “justifiable homicides” as Baltimore.
I am heartbroken. It is all so wrong: that Freddie Gray is dead, that another family and community mourns, that angry kids are met by police hidden inside thousands of dollars of Kevlar and Plexiglas gear, and that destruction even seems like a viable form of resistance.
The mainstream media has decided to focus on the rioting, violence and wounding of police officers. This is the kind of spectacle that TV was invented to cover: the breathless brush with danger, the shaky zoom in on the fire down the street, the silent satellite images of people running through deserted streets. I watched all this in horror too, of course.
White America looked because of the violence, but now that Baltimore has our attention, we cannot look away. We must look through the flames, through the broken glass, to see a righteous anger that we have ignored for too long — even though we have seen it all too often as of late in New York, Cleveland, Ferguson and so many communities.
What are we going to do? Build, rebuild and build again. Connect, reconnect, heal, and repair, and do it again.
Mahatma Gandhi’s contribution to thought and action on nonviolence was resistance to empire, noncooperation with the occupying power and constructive programming to supplant and subvert what the imperial power requires the occupied, oppressed population to endure. Constructive programming — that is the next step in Baltimore. And it is already well under way. There are a host of groups and organizations that have been doing that work for years. Groups like BUILD, which is assembling community power for broad-based social and political change and The No Boundaries Coalition which, among other efforts, is trying to broaden the definition of public safety and ensure that the community has a strong voice in policing. The aptly named Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, is a Baltimore-based people’s think tank, writing on race, power and politics and putting forward concrete changes to Maryland law that will make policing more accountable.
The “riots” are not the last word on Baltimore. In fact, they are barely the first, thanks to these and other organizations that have been doing constructive programming for decades. There is so much to celebrate in the streets of Baltimore: the discipline and leadership coming from black churches and the Nation of Islam; the brave and creative people who turned the media spotlight from the outbreaks of violence to the true heart of Baltimore; the many community members who stood up to looters and opportunists. There’s also the brave broom brigades who are helping to clean up in the aftermath of destruction, as well as all of the people who are building for a better tomorrow in Baltimore — one where justice for police murder is swift and transparent, the benefits of economic development are manifest throughout the city, people take care of one another in their communities, and young people of all races can learn, play and thrive in a city that values and respects them.