In the wake of the riots that have roiled Baltimore and sent National Guard troops into the city for the first time since 1968, I don’t have lots of answers. I have a few questions, and I have a series of observations — let’s borrow a legal term and call them requests for admission — just to help us get on the same page.
Here we go.
▪ Raise your hand if you knew that half the residents of Freddie Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood on the city’s west side were unemployed or that one-third of the homes were vacant. Raise your hand if you knew that the neighborhood has had toxic levels of lead, enough to “poison the children and leave them incapable of leading functional lives.” And if you knew that settlement payments to the residents were known as “lead checks.”
If that’s a standard you would accept for your own life or for that of your children, raise your hand.
▪ I once spoke to a women’s group in Baltimore. I don’t remember where. I only remember making a wrong turn into an alley, hitting my brights and screaming as so many rats ran in front of the car that it was like a scene from a horror movie.
I parked near a block of rowhouses with every other one boarded and scarred. A naked light bulb shined from a high industrial post. There was not a single tree. I gave my speech in a church. The group had agreed to pay me a small honorarium. I told them to keep it to help host an open house to give out baby clothes and diapers.
A short time later, I was part of a discussion on the book Mommy Wars, and I reflected on the psychic distance I’d traveled from Baltimore. On how some of the most privileged among us train our high-powered gazes inward only.
Raise your hand if you can imagine the kind of wars that Baltimore mommies fight.
▪ Have you ever heard of Michael Austin? This Baltimore man spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Eyewitnesses had said the gunman was 5 feet 8 and light-skinned. Michael Austin is 6-5 and dark. The time card proving he was at work just before the murder went missing. Later, so did other police evidence. After Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based nonprofit, took up the case, Austin’s conviction was overturned. He was pardoned in 2003 and awarded $1.4 million from the state.
Question: Do you think he’d rather have the money or half his life back?
▪ Question: Did you know Billie Holiday grew up in Sandtown? Raise your hand if you know that lady sang the blues. Wave ‘em ‘round if you understand that even black people find it hard to bear black people’s blues.
Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, a Spelman College professor, just wrote on Facebook that few jurisdictions have done “ANYTHING to signal that ‘law and order' applied to police officers, too. Now, some folks are just TIRED.”
And they have long been tired. Seventy years ago, Harper points out, Langston Hughes’s character Simple threw bricks through store windows during the 1943 Harlem riots — caused by a white policeman shooting a black soldier. When Simple was challenged about using violence, he explained: “That is the way the Allies got (justice) — breaking up Germany, breaking up Hiroshima, and everything in sight.”
Harper also pointed out that Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his book Violence: America in the Sixties, writes: “Violence, for better or worse, does settle some questions, and for the better. Violence secured American independence, freed the slaves, and stopped Hitler.”
Wrote Harper: “I am not recommending violence, but it is ludicrous for anyone familiar with American history to condemn violence as a justifiable means to achieve justice when the powers that rule are unwilling to listen to reason.”
The professor noted that Simple didn’t loot. “PLEASE recognize the difference between opportunistic looters and genuinely frustrated protesters and rioters,” Harper wrote.
▪ Raise your hand if you know what happened to the Wall Street types who broke into the American economy, exploited every financial loophole, melted down mortgages, made off with people’s retirement funds, leaving taxpayers to bail them out in 2008.
Question: Do those billions constitute opportunistic looting?
Follow-up question: Do you think people in the inner city don’t notice what some of those folks ran out of the store with?
Raise your hand if you think the people streaming through the streets of Baltimore are thugs.
▪ Raise your hand if you remember the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen to protest corrupt leaders, poverty, lack of jobs and systems that brutalize citizens, leaving them feeling unheard.
Nod if you understand that while we convene grand juries, open federal investigations and debate police rights and wrongs, sometimes the human condition spills beyond that debate. And if you understand, deeply, that at some point, every pressurized system demands a release. Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, South Carolina, Sanford and Baltimore. Keep nodding.
Raise your hand if you think some might just call this the Urban Spring.
Matter of fact, holler if you hear me.
Lonnae O'Neal is a columnist for The Washington Post.
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