On Monday night, I watched my city burn. As a lifelong Baltimorean, it was heartbreaking to watch as the city I love fell victim to violent chaos that threatened to undo in a day all the progress the city has made in rebounding from redlining, population loss, and the 1968 riots. While the nation has been quick to condemn the rioters, we must remember that events like these don’t happen in a vacuum. What happened yesterday in Baltimore was not random hooliganism but rather the inevitable result of decades of systematic oppression of the city’s – and the nation’s – black population. Undeniably, the violence, looting, and arson that swept across the city last night is reprehensible, but dismissing the rioters as “senseless animals,” as so many have done, is to willfully ignore the deep well of anger that has rightfully built up in this country, anger which many of us wish to conveniently ignore.
Many white Americans seem incapable of acknowledging the tremendous racial inequality in this country. Too many have dismissed race as a factor in the poverty and destitution of America’s black underclass, and by extension as a factor in the litany of recent police killings. When young black men are killed at a rate 21 times that of their white counterparts, such denial is not only ignorant and ridiculous but actively dangerous. Let me provide just a small sampling of the inequality and oppression that afflicts Baltimore’s black population: The citywide poverty rate is 25%, but in the parts of West Baltimore where the riots broke out it is almost 40%. The unemployment rate for young black men in the city is 37%; for young white men it is 10%. Baltimore city’s notoriously pathetic public schools have a high-school graduation rate of 58%, one of the worst in the country. 10% of the city’s Black adults have college degrees, while 50% of its White adults do. The infant mortality rate is 9 times higher for blacks than for whites. The median income for Blacks is about half that of whites. Wealthy white neighborhoods in the city have a life expectancy that is about 20 years longer than poor black neighborhoods. The youth of Baltimore face a graver social and economic situation than those of India or Nigeria. If you still aren’t convinced that systematic inequality and oppression has something to do with the anger and violence of the black community right now, you’re not only not paying attention, you’re not thinking. Take a walk around the abandoned, dilapidated, and impoverished streets of West Baltimore and tell me that you wouldn’t be filled with an overpowering rage at the political and socioeconomic systems of this country and this city if you had grown up there.
Let’s not forget how all of this started. As is so often the case with such violence, the spark was a police killing. Freddie Gray, a young black man of 25, had his spinal cord severed after a violent arrest at the hands of the Baltimore City Police Department (BCPD) and died a week later. The BCPD, which has a history of breaking spinal cords, is only one small part of a nationwide picture of police brutality that sees an average of three people killed at the hands of our protectors and servers every day. The violence last night – and the media’s sensationalized and fear-mongering reaction to it – has overshadowed the thousands who marched peacefully for justice in Gray’s name on Saturday. Nikita Evans, 26, a friend of Mr. Gray’s, described to me her own beating at the hands of the BCPD last year and talked of how she “cried [her]self to sleep” the night Gray was brutally arrested. The very fact that there is more outrage over broken windows than a broken spinal cord, more discussion of a CVS looted than a life ended, is in itself an example of the marginalization and subjugation of blacks in the United States.
How, then, did righteous anger and peaceful demonstrations descend into rioting? While other factors, not least juvenile idiocy, were certainly at play, the overbearing police response cannot be ignored as a trigger of the violence. Even before the streets descended into chaos, on Saturday night, peaceful marchers were met with riot police, journalists were beaten, and roads into the city were shut down à la Hosni Mubarak. Then, on Monday, an initially peaceful crowd of high-school students was met with riot police and armored vehicles near Mondawmin mall. Running battles – not always initiated by the students – ensued, and it was not long before the city had descended into chaos. While a more measured and proportionate police response to the past few days’ protests would not have necessarily staved off the unrest, it certainly might have.
Once the rioting actually got underway, however, police became conspicuously absent. Unfettered young men ran amok across the city’s West Side, looting and burning with almost no police intervention. While we decry the tragedy of the largely black rioters destroying their own community, we should not forget that the largely white police mostly stood by and let it happen while the largest contingent of forces were deployed downtown, where there was no rioting, to protect white businesses and corporate offices. For the city’s police administration, protecting wealthy whites from imaginary threats apparently takes precedence over protecting poor blacks from violence that is actually occurring.
While the toll from Monday’s rioting – 144 vehicles and 15 buildings burned, dozens of businesses looted, and 235 arrested – is certainly tragic, the reaction in the white community here bears little relation to reality. If we pause and take a step back it’s clear that what occurred over last night was relatively minor civil unrest, punctuated by opportunistic looting. As is clear to anyone walking North Avenue or Monument Street today, things could have been much, much worse. And the reason they weren’t wasn’t fate, and it wasn’t the police. It was hundreds of right-minded Baltimore residents who took to the streets to defuse the situation and prevent destruction amidst the worst of the unrest. As the wealthy white suburbs I inhabit hunker down for war, it was largely business as usual as I walked around the East and West sides today: businesses were open, shopping streets were busy, and residents were going about their lives. As people decry the effect the riots will have on Baltimore’s vaunted comeback, we would do well to remember that this effect is based on hysteria rather than reality. As a skinny white kid from the suburbs I’ve spent countless hours wandering the streets of Baltimore, and never encountered anything but kindness even in the “worst” neighborhoods, and today was no different. And yet I hear my peers saying they fear for their lives at the Inner Harbor, the wealthy tourist playground now secured by AK-wielding National Guardsmen.
The wealthy whites who form most of my social circle are genuinely worried that their homes in the suburbs will be engulfed in flame, and yet the very same oppressive segregation that contributed to the rioting in the city ensures that this is impossible. Baltimore really is a divided city, and whites – especially wealthy whites – live in their own world totally divorced from the impoverished masses of the city’s poor neighborhoods. And yet the image of the black man as a hooligan and criminal is so ingrained in so many people’s minds that they see the oppressed as a threat and the oppressors as protectors. The media is of course complicit in the ignorant and racist paranoia that pervades white Baltimore. A local news station – whose anchors had trouble identifying the location of black neighborhoods in the city – warned its audience yesterday to “avoid the city of Baltimore.” White suburbanites whose only knowledge of Baltimore city comes from “The Wire,” and who have never even been to Penn-North or any other location that witnessed rioting yesterday and yet announce their concern for “their city” are part of the problem. Because it’s not their city. Their city – my city – is one of comfort, opulence and opportunity while right down the road is the city that many consistently ignore, the city of poverty, ghettoization, and oppression.
The fact that it takes a riot to draw attention to the plight of Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods is saddening. The fact that this is the only time anyone will pay any attention to these neighborhoods is disgraceful. Many white residents – myself included – flocked to Penn-North today to assist in the cleanup from the riots. And yet Penn-North has been devastated continuously for decades without so much as a passing thought from much of the city’s population. Many blocks on the East and West sides appear bombed-out and fully abandoned. The 15 buildings that burned last night have received worldwide media attention, while the 30,000 existing burned-out and vacant houses in the city barely catch the attention of our own city.
I spent most of this afternoon walking around the hardest-hit neighborhoods on both sides of town, and the overwhelming response of residents that was on view today is more than enough to restore faith in Charm City. Thousands of people turned up to help clean up the mess and restore businesses, at one point spontaneously breaking out in the kindergarten song “clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.” The West Side today was one part clean-up effort, one part peaceful protest, and one part enormous block party. Music was blaring, speeches were being made, and a meditation circle was underway at the intersection that saw the worst violence last night. After a few misguided hours of violence, the overwhelming reaction of the city has been positive, demonstrating a cohesiveness and community spirit that will go far in helping these neighborhoods rebound from the violence.
As Baltimore rebuilds and moves forward, two things above all are worth remembering. First, while the spark wasn’t lit until Monday evening, the match had been at the ready since Freddie Gray’s death a week ago and the tinderbox of racial oppression and inequality had been smoldering and ready to burn for decades, not just in Baltimore but throughout the country. Secondly, Baltimore’s people are just as resilient – and its neighborhoods just as safe – as ever. Divestment and population loss may occur, and racially-tinged fear will spread, but all that is needed to prove this unnecessary is a quick walk around the streets of Charm City.