Thursday, April 30, 2015

Baltimore: The Truth Isn't Black And White (Or Black Versus White)

In the past seven days, my home town has exploded, literally and figuratively, into the national consciousness.  We've all seen the same media coverage.  We've all watched the same footage of protests, peaceful and violent.  We've all experienced the same mix of emotions:  sadness, anger, frustration, despair.  We've already seen the process of understanding these events degenerate into an exercise in finger-pointing that is, in many cases, transparently and ridiculously self-serving. And, perhaps worst of all, we've failed in our national discussion to move beyond the simplistic description of this tragedy as though it were some sort of football game:  Black Protesters Versus Police In Riot Gear, and Who Scored The Most Today?  (I guess that's what we should expect from Fox, given all of the money they spend on sports coverage.)

But cities are complicated organisms, which is a major part of what has always made them so fascinating to me.  They are made up of individuals, each of whom is more than the sum total of their demographic mix.  They are deeply affected by individual events, good and bad (an employer leaving town, for example, or a new one showing up).  Over time, the people, the events, and the ways in which all of them interact with each other create the image of each city that visitors and outside observers have of them.  The bottom line:  We didn't get here overnight.  And all of us, for better or for worse, have a share in the blame for where things are now, as well as a stake in making them better.

When one is writing about the impact that individual people and events can have, one should disclose all aspects of one's personal stake in the discussion.  I have family members whose lives were nearly ruined as a result of the 1968 riots in Baltimore, as well as one family member who had adverse dealings with the current Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.  I do not believe that those facts will slant what I have to say here but, if you feel otherwise, I won't stop you from clicking elsewhere.  If you are willing to hear me out in spite of that disclosure, please read on.

Let's start with the bigger picture, and work from there.  Baltimore's problems did not begin with the Obama Administration or, for that matter, with the transformation of both Baltimore and Maryland into reliable bastions of Democratic voters over the past 50 years.  They began much, much earlier, over 100 years ago, with the deliberate use of land regulation to shove African-Americans into communities where they could be effectively "contained" by the then-white majority. This history, which still shapes the neighborhoods of Baltimore today, is documented here.

And here, you can find a discussion of other forces that have accelerated the downward spiral of the African-American community into poverty and despair.  Redlining, which began in the 1930s.  The subprime mortgage crisis, in the first decade of this century.  And, in between, the war on drugs--a war that drugs have won hands down, along with the private prisons that have gained a market for their services.  The article also mentions gentrification and urban renewal; I tend to think there's room for debate about the negativity of those trends, which have after all helped to maintain the tax base of cities otherwise desperate to pay for essential services.

There is no room for debate, however about the city's police department.  Its arrest record speaks for itself.  And I'm not talking about the police arresting civilians; I'm talking about police officers being arrested themselves.  As well as the city losing or settling over 100 police brutality cases over the past four years.  And the police themselves are clearly worried enough about their image to go after the press.  Directly.  Well, There is no perception problem here; Baltimore has a serious crisis within its police force, one that harms black and white residents.  And no small amount of the problem lies in the fact that.most of them don't even live there.  That gives them neither knowledge nor accountability when it comes to the residents of the city they are responsible for protecting.

Which takes me from the big picture to the immediate picture:  the violence of last Saturday and Monday night.  I hate violence.  All violence.  It begets nothing but itself.  And the role of outsiders in that violence cannot be discounted.  But here's an example of how journalism isn't happening when it comes to this story:  who's paying the bills of the outsiders?  Who's to say that they aren't on the payroll of forces who benefit from the politics of racial division?  Why assume that they're being sent here by Al Sharpton and not, let's say, Donald Trump?  And why are "reporters" not asking those questions, and getting answers?  Could it be that they don't want you to know?

And, if we then go from the immediate picture down to the individuals who form it, we don't find the us-versus-them portrait that the corporate press want to frame in your mind.  We find the director of a homeless center for youth, a homeless center burned down, who nevertheless finds the community anger to be "legitimate."  We find a baseball executive whose team's games were cancelled and then relocated as a result of the protests, who nevertheless defended the rights of the protesters.  And we find a mother wading into danger to pull her son out of a confrontation and discipline him.  And this doesn't even begin to get into the stories of thousands of protesters protesting peacefully, or cleaning up their communities after the violent nights.

Baltimore is not a monolith.  It is not a divide.  It is what every city is:  a collection of individual lives that, jointly and severally, strive to get beyond the weight of their personal and collective history to make their world, and our world, a better one.  And we can help them do so by giving a lot more than a damn about them, as our President has said.  We can, hopefully, at the same time develop a less two-faced attitude toward the subject of violence.

All of that said, there is one more thing to say.  Notwithstanding any of the foregoing, there must be accountability for the violence.  And that accountability must be as individual as the city itself. It must, of course, include the immediate perpetrators.  But it must also include the Mayor, who, throughout this entire horrible week, has demonstrated no understanding either of the feelings of the communities harmed by police brutality, nor a clear understanding of either the problems within her own police force or of how to address those problems.  It must also include the Police Commissioner, whose deployment of his own forces has raised serious questions about whether any of this needed to happen in the first place.

Both of them need to spend less time defending themselves, and more time learning about the problems that have festered on their watch, and to which their own actions and/or inactions may have contributed.  And, if that cannot or will not do that, they at least ought to have the decency to resign.

As for the rest of us?  Let's stop making assumptions about how and why things happen.  Regardless of where we live, or how light or dark our skin is, let's spend as much time listening as we do talking. It might be the only way to prevent more deaths like the one suffered by Freddie Gray, whose loss of life may not yet be in vain, if it becomes the turning point in our national conversation about race.

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