I'm writing this because my heart and my mind are telling me with vigorous force that I have to. Because I've been on and off nauseous and crying for two days. Because lots of news reports and things people have been saying on social media just make my heart break over and over again. Because as little as a blog post of mine will do, I can't bear the thought that people will just think that what's been happening in Baltimore City this week is just a group of senseless “animals” acting out about one incident. These violent riots (and the peaceful protests) are about so much more than Freddie Gray.
When I was a kid, I wasn't wealthy. We didn't have nice cars, and they often broke down. We had crippled and struggling window air conditioner units. At one point our computer got repossessed. We had debts. I worried for a long time that we would lose our house. (We didn't.)
I knew what it was like to not be able to have what I wanted, whether it was the new trendy shoes everyone else seemed to have, a Sega Genesis, or something slightly more utilitarian. But, I always had food. I always had clean clothes. I always had school supplies. We had Christmas and birthday presents. We got another computer. I had all the things I needed, and many that I just wanted. Nonetheless, I thought of myself as poor.
I went to Baltimore City Public Schools for 13 years (though I should say at the outset of this that I did go to some of the best city public schools). As poor as I thought I was, I did have a sense that I was better off financially than some of my peers. But, I never got it, really got it until I was a junior in high school. There were some peers of mine that in my opinion did not care about school, and frankly, I looked down on them for it. These were the kids who didn't routinely do homework, who rarely knew the answers to questions, and who didn't always show up. I suppose I thought of them as losers. If I could study, do my homework, and come to school why couldn't they?
I think I should have gotten it sooner, but it's hard to see the world of experience outside ourselves. It is easy to think that everyone is just like us—that everyone will make the same choices that we have made.
The moment I finally got it was in a Saturday morning tutoring session. I was one of a group of students paid to tutor other students on Saturday mornings at my school. I should have applauded these students for coming on Saturday to try to prevent themselves from failing classes. They weren't getting paid $10 an hour and getting a free lunch to come in and do relatively little work like I was. I was sitting in on a module called “Personal Development” where we were discussing how the students could improve study habits. Things got real. These 14 and 15 year old girls were opening up about how they just didn't have time. They had to make dinner for their families. They had to take care of their little brothers and sisters. They didn't have reliable or safe transportation home, or if they did, it amounted to three different bus transfers. By the time they were home and ready to study, they needed to try to get some sleep.
These are by far not the worst stories from Baltimore City. In fact, these are some of the best and most inspiring. These kids were coming to school on Saturday to try to help themselves. They were trying to find a way to make it work because they wanted to have good lives. They had worked hard to be at a magnet school and wanted to stay there. I respect these girls to no end. I didn't need worse or grittier stories for my entire perception to change as it did that morning. I got rides to school almost everyday, and they only took twenty minutes. My biggest problem was being forced by my dad to listen to the 98 Rock morning show. I didn't have to cook for anybody. I didn't have to take care of anybody. My biggest obstacle to getting my homework done was turning off the TV or getting out of an AOL chat room.
After that morning I had my eyes open much wider. I saw the other hardships some of my peers were facing. All of us trying to get through the same day, but as emo as I was about my own middle class life, some of these kids had far more adult lives than I had. Some were dealing with the loss of family members to violence. Some were hungrier than the sustenance the crappy $1.25 school lunch could provide.
And as I refer to this subset of my peers, I should also say that while my school was majority African American, I do not refer only to African American peers. These social cycles are about poverty. I call them social cycles because it can be very hard to break free—especially when you consider what you see around you to be normal. When you don't know what life could be like. When you can't even dream of what it could be like. And as I said before, I went to a damn good city school. I am proud and inspired by so many of the girls I went to school with, but even there I saw some individuals with no real futures. And not because they would be impossible to attain, but because they didn't believe that futures were possible. I vividly remember girls saying to me that there was just no point in applying to college. I'm not saying everyone needs to go to college, but to not even think of it as a potential reality for yourself?
On some level, we must realize that we all have things like this. For years I thought the way men in my life treated me was acceptable and the best it could be. Now, I know what unconditional love is like from a significant other, and let me tell you, I still have trouble accepting it. It's strange and different, and I'd never even imagined it to be like this. Sometimes a simple act of caring is enough to make me burst into tears because it's so unexpected.
Some of us are lucky enough to have a mentor or an experience where we discover how good things can be and what we should hope for. Many of the girls I went to school with who had it much rougher than I did worked impossibly hard and made wonderful lives for themselves, but the citizens in many areas of Baltimore are not so lucky, or shall I say “able.” I remember arguing with a guy freshman year of college who believed that everyone can just pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. The fact is, they can't. How can you climb a steep and rough rope, when you don't even know it's there? When there's no one there to throw it down to you?
I'm 30. I've had to work since I was 17. I can't afford to buy a car and have massive debts of my own. But, no matter how poor I felt, or still feel, my entire worldview is fundamentally different than many people in my city. I don't believe I'll ever be wealthy, but I do believe I'll own an okay house with a small yard and have a car one day. I have a graduate degree and often consider returning to school. I believe that if I want things like these, I can work towards them and eventually have them. I do not live in constant fear of neighborhood violence. In fact, those that know me know that a close family member of mine was shot in 2013, but I do not have reason to expect something like that will happen again.
Why am I saying all of this? I am saying all of this because last night I sat there and watched the mayor of Baltimore, my mayor, simplify the situation by calling the rioters “thugs” over and over again. There is so much more complexity to this situation and the life of our city than “thugs.” There is a reason this is happening, and it isn't just because of “senseless violence.” Senseless means something else. Senseless means “done or happening for no reason.” All of this is absolutely happening for a reason.
The news keeps saying that the riot areas look like a war zone. I talked to a friend about this today, and she said it just looked like Baltimore to her. I couldn't help but wonder what outside news may have reported before the riots if they had visited certain Baltimore areas. Baltimore is filled with vacants. Filled with blocks that have almost no businesses. Anyone who has just taken the cheap bus to NYC knows what much of the east side of North Avenue is like. It's funny how in reference to a car fire on Monday night a news anchor said, "We wouldn't normally see this in Baltimore." Funny because on Saturday night the same station said, "Any other night we wouldn't worry about a car on fire in Baltimore."
For things to change, we have to be able to talk about the roots of the problems. Explaining why someone may react a certain way is not the same as condoning it. We cannot solve the deep seated problems of Baltimore City by minimizing it all to the word “thugs.” We have to try to understand the motivations of the rioters. Racial tensions, stark socioeconomic discrepancies, a lack of trust in the police and in government agencies—these are things that have been present in Baltimore and are still present in Baltimore. And even that sentence is a gross oversimplification. I can't help but point us to the 1968 MLK quote that has been circulating around the internet:
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
Or to this editorial article “Why Freddie Gray ran” that encapsulates the tragic side of life in Sandtown-Winchester.
We all play hands with the cards we are dealt. Sometimes we are in a position to get more cards. Sometimes we have them taken away. We all act based on the sum of our childhoods, the people we've encountered, and the experiences we've had. We may not be all guilty or all innocent of anything, but we are a product of where we came from—or still are—one way or another. You don't have to condone rioting. You can be angry at the rioters. I'm not saying you shouldn't be. But, I don't believe you should judge them. They can be judged legally for criminal acts if they have committed them, but can any of us really judge another person? Can any of us truly understand another human being? We can try, and we damn well should try, but we are doing everyone a disservice to put people in boxes of “good” and “evil.” If we do that, we put them in other boxes: “hopeless” and “future-less.” We are packing these individuals into boxes that are convenient for us. We are putting them away in a storage unit and hoping that they stay in those boxes.
We are forgetting that just like you and me (and Freddie Gray) we are all human beings. We all should have the right to life, and to go even further, dare I suggest a right to live a decent life.
In the end, I'm just as guilty as any other middle class couch dweller. Maybe I can't buy a car right now, but I could go out for wine and cheese tonight if I so desired or I could buy those craft supplies I've been drooling over. I've worked far less enjoyable jobs in the past, but yesterday I spent an entire afternoon at work looking at beautiful and rare images of 9th century art. Sometimes I forget just how much I do have.
I am saddened and angered by the rhetoric describing these rioters, but, perhaps, more ashamed of myself for knowing all of this and for doing virtually nothing to help. I've spent most of my adult life invested in myself and spending my worry time on my own existential crises or reflecting on my own intellectual and artistic path. Occasionally, I feel guilty for not doing more. Then, I sit back down on that couch with one of the many devices I own and watch BBC shows on Netflix.
If nothing else, I can do better.