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 massive inequity and soul-killing injustice.
The Sun said it well in an editorial titled “Why Freddie Gray ran”:
Why did Gray run? He had been arrested a number of times in the past on relatively minor drug charges and other piddling offenses, like having “gaming cards, dice.” Did that make him a bad person, a shady character? His friends and neighbors say no. What it makes him is all too typical in a neighborhood where generations of crushing poverty and the war on drugs combine to rob countless young people like him of meaningful opportunities.
The neighborhood where he lived, Sandtown-Winchester, recently made news as the census tract that is home to more inmates in the Maryland correctional system than any other. But that is not the only way in which it is exceptional. Four years ago, the Baltimore Health Department issued a community profile of that neighborhood and even in a city where poverty is widespread, it stands out. The unemployment rate there is about double the citywide average, and so is the poverty rate. Similarly, there are about twice as many liquor stores and tobacco outlets per capita in Sandtown-Winchester as in the city as a whole. Fully a quarter of juveniles in that neighborhood had been arrested between 2005 and 2009. It had the worst domestic violence rate of any of the neighborhoods the health department analyzed and among the worst rates for non-fatal shootings and homicides. A quarter of the buildings are vacant, and the lead paint violation rate is triple the city average. (Gray and his sisters suffered from lead paint poisoning as children.) The only metric the health department analyzed in which Sandtown-Winchester was the best in the city was in the density of fast food restaurants. Perhaps it’s too poor to have any.
John Angelos, executive vice president of the Baltimore Orioles, tried to put things into perspective for fans who were upset that the baseball team’s stadium, Camden Yards, had been locked down during the protests. Here he is in a series of tweets strung together by The Washington Post:
[M]y greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
Hell, even Fox News viewers got a little real talk, care of Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby:
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But real talk, however satisfying, is not enough. As my friend Lionel Foster, who grew up in East Baltimore, says, we spend a lot of time and resources studying these problems — “measuring the gap,” he calls it, that separates black from white. And we spend far too little time and resources actually closing it.
My years in Baltimore convinced me that there is a real and powerful grassroots movement growing to fight the injustice there — former convicts working to defuse violent conflicts among young people, high school students rising up against a system that all too often pushes young people from school to prison, an arts community that has embraced the city core and its long-time inhabitants. And from a distance now, I see that there is a broader recognition that we need to address the roots of these problems by creating better schools, providing a safety net for kids from cradle to college, reforming the police and the criminal justice system, beating down institutional racism, and building a future that is both sustainable and equitable.
On the federal level, however, support for this type of reform has been weak at best. President Obama has pushed many of these principles via programs such as Promise Neighborhoods and the Sustainable Communities Initiative. But these programs have gone underfunded or simply unfunded by Congress, thanks largely to a Grand Old Party that would rather see massive failure than allow anything that might look like success for the opposing party.
And so far, at least, Obama has been reticent to speak out strongly for urban America, for black America, perhaps for fear that he’ll be painted into a corner, seen as serving “his” people rather than the nation as a whole.
But here’s where I come back to my background with all things green. In the past few years, we’ve seen Obama step out, and step out strong, on fighting climate change. He has released a sweeping national climate action plan and called for billions to enact it. He has pushed forward numerous regulatory changes that will aid in the climate fight, most notably a plan by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions from power plants. And he has lambasted Congress for its failure to address the issue that, as he said in his State of the Union address this year, “poses a greater threat to future generations” than any other challenge.
It is time to do the same for our inner cities.
Obama spent much of his first term in office bailing out Wall Street banks that had driven the world economy into the ditch, but were, in the words of government regulators, “too big to fail.” Thanks to the light that recent videos have shed on police violence, we can no longer ignore the fact that America’s inner cities, too, are in desperate need of a bailout.
Forty years from now, I’d like to look back on the riots this week, and the protests of the past year, and remember them not as the beginning of another slide into chaos, but as a turning point, when the president and the American public decided that our inner cities were too big to fail, and acted accordingly.