Published in the Sunday Herald on May 31, 2015.
The night of the riot, if that’s the right word, the staff at Everyone’s Place stood outside on North Avenue, just to make sure nobody got the wrong idea. The soul food restaurant across the street was shuttered and untouched, but looters were ransacking the pharmacy next door. A boy said let’s burn it, and Ayyana Malik had to remind him that fire would spread and destroy the bookshop too.
Some in Baltimore call the events of April 27 an uprising. Others think the confrontation achieved little and damaged the community, but many more African-Americans in this segregated city say it was necessary and long overdue, and all agree that the media misrepresented what really happened.
Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer. I visited West Baltimore on the Sunday, May 24. At the intersection of North and Pennsylvania, hundreds of people had gathered near the subway station. Radios were turned up, the beats clashing and overlapping. Families without a yard lit their barbecues on the pavement. A few young men on the corner were selling drugs: “two for ten over here.” I was the only pink face in the crowd.
The looted businesses were boarded up. A third of the houses in the surrounding neighbourhoods are vacant too, many of them roofless and ruined. It was hot and sunny, a holiday, and in the poorest, blackest sections of Baltimore, people were being shot dead at an alarming rate: eighteen murders on a long weekend.
It had been almost a month since the protests against police brutality got out of hand and three weeks since the nightly curfew was lifted. Six officers had been charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was ruptured in a police van, but on the street, few people expected even the driver, Caesar Goodson, to be sent to jail. Cops never are.
In East Baltimore two years ago, Tyrone West was tasered, beaten and stamped on by ten officers, but none have been charged with killing him. The off-duty policeman who choked Christopher Brown to death after some teenagers threw a rock at his door was acquitted. Anthony Anderson’s spleen was ruptured during his arrest. Although the medical examiner ruled it a homicide, the state declined to press charges.
I met university student Bryan May browsing at Everyone’s Place, which sells African garments and reggae mixes as well as books. “I think for a lot of people it was just a matter of time,” he told me. “A lot of bottled-up feelings were released and it just coincided with the fact that Freddie Gray was killed.”
The Black Lives Matter movement that began in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, is founded on the principle that visible deaths, shared and amplified on social media, are harder to ignore. We have seen Eric Garner pleading for breath, ten-year-old Tamir Rice gunned down in the park, Walter Scott shot eight times in the back, and there will be another clip circulating soon, as surely as the weather follows the news.
“I’m hopeful,” May said. “I watched Eric Garner die from my bedroom, and it was heart-breaking. Whenever there’s police action, someone has a smartphone out. I think it has potential.”
We went down to the basement, where a meeting of the Baltimore Black Think Tank was in progress. David Anthony Wiggins, the group’s president, was doing most of the talking. Last year, when he ran for Sheriff, his flyers showed him in guerrilla fatigues and a keffiyah, holding a machine gun. He won 24,000 votes.
“I was a eight-year-old boy and I lived through the last riots,” he said. “I threw rocks and sticks and bottles at the National Guard in 1968. Nothing has changed economically: here in Baltimore blacks still own less than twenty percent of the real estate. The median income of blacks is still less than half that of whites. They told me that we would see change but it wouldn’t be overnight. That was forty-seven years ago.”
In nearby Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray grew up in a council flat coated with lead paint, unemployment runs at around fifty percent and fewer than half the children finish school. Life expectancy is lower than in North Korea. A study comparing teenagers in impoverished parts of Baltimore, Johannesburg, Shanghai and New Delhi found that the American kids were most likely to live in single-parent households, abuse drugs and suffer from poor mental health.
Wiggins held up the front page of the Baltimore Sun, which showed that the Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, had vetoed bills restoring the vote to ex-prisoners and decriminalising possession of small amounts of marijuana. Roughly the same percentage of whites and African-Americans in the city smoke grass, but blacks are five times as likely to be arrested for carrying it.
“We have been used and abused in this system, and the only thing we have to defend ourselves with is their law, other than a gun, and when their law does not protect us, we have a natural right to defend ourselves,” he said. “This is not about civil rights. We are being murdered under colour of law.”
“What you are experiencing now is a combination of years of injustices that’s been imposed on our community,” interjected Rosita Martin. “They say it was an uprising. They say it was riots. The reality is that it was people doing what they should have been doing throughout the entire process: defending themselves.”
Speaking after the disturbances in Baltimore, President Barack Obama reminded people with short memories that “this is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” There have been worse riots every decade, in Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC and many more besides. Other than the national wave of destruction occasioned by the killing of Martin Luther King in 1968, almost all have been triggered by episodes of police violence, in poor, black, mistreated communities, primed to explode.In 1967, in response to conflagrations in Detroit, Newark and New Brunswick, President Lyndon B. Johnson charged the Kerner Commission with discovering: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?” Its report remains the most unflinching official account of racial inequality ever published.
In bullet points, it laid out the African-American community’s chief grievances: unemployment, poor housing, sub-standard schools, inadequate recreation facilities, lack of political influence and disrespectful white attitudes. Top of the list was police conduct, which had given rise to “a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection – one for Negroes and one for whites.”
The Baltimore Sun recently revealed that from 2011-2014, the city paid out $5.7 million to settle lawsuits brought my people claiming to have been hurt or abused by police. Victims included a pregnant accountant, an old lady shielding her grandson, a middle-aged woman selling church raffle tickets and several teenage boys. Four men died of their injuries. Others suffered failed kidneys, broken arms or legs, noses, collarbones or ribs.
These were, remember, the hundred odd victims with so much evidence backing their claims that the city’s lawyers, despite all their resources and connections, preferred not to go to trial. The violence exposed by the payouts is a fraction of the true toll. Between June 2012 and April 2015, staff at Baltimore’s city jail refused to admit almost 2,600 people into custody because they were too sick or too badly hurt. Whether or not police were responsible for their injuries, the statistic betrays a callous disregard for the people being arrested.
Outside St Vincent de Paul church, downtown, the men that I spoke to all had personal experience of police beatings. We were just a block on the wrong side of the highway, not far from the courthouse and the expensively redeveloped harbour and the blue tourist buses that drive in a loop around beautiful historic Baltimore. Homeless people, many of them from a tent city in the shade of the nearby overpass, had gathered for free fried chicken and hot dogs.
The men all went by nicknames. Charm City C, who had organised the meal, told me that two of his childhood friends from the Murphy Homes, a notorious complex of tower blocks torn down a decade ago, had been killed by police. “Nobody marched or anything. It’s like no life matter when there’s drugs involved,” he said. “They was in the streets, but still, don’t mean you’re supposed to kill ‘em.”
“Racism is blatant in the police department,” said Father Magnetic, a barber at the Gifted Hands salon, near Sandtown. “I was arrested in 2010 and they told me, out their mouths, ‘we the biggest gang in Baltimore.’”
Most thought that the riot, though spontaneous, had been effective. “We had so many protests. Nothing really happened. But when it was rocks thrown, that’s when things start to matter,” said C.
“They didn’t indict no police officers until they had a riot,” said Shorty, whose son was “killed by another black man” nine years ago for stealing a pair of trainers. “There’s power in non-violent protest, but you need to show that you’re capable of violence as well.”
Several of the men blamed crime in African-American neighbourhoods on the failure of fathers to take responsibility for their children – a favourite conservative talking point. “Dads got to teach the boys how to be good men. I know a lot of guys that don’t take care of their kids, and I only associate with guys that do,” said C. For every hundred black women of working age in the USA, there are only 83 black men. The missing men – 1.5 million of them nationwide – are mostly dead or in prison.
In the tourist shuttles, the map of Baltimore on display is grey and featureless outside the privileged loop. By and large, the same areas of the city that were black and poor a century ago are still black and poor today, thanks to decades of formal segregation, followed by “urban renewal” projects that replaced slums with concrete high-rises. The Mayor and the Chief of Police are African-American, but the ghetto persists, cut off from opportunity and starved of investment.
“People are tired,” said a man calling himself Master Born. “If you’re putting them in a position of neglect, kind of like a step-child, how do you expect people to react? They’re dealing with malnutrition, they’re dealing with harassment, lack of resources, lead paint, the list goes on. But the more you help the people, the more the people will help you.”
The history of civil rights in the United States is often presented as a comforting linear narrative that starts with slavery and ends with Obama in the White House, presiding over a supposedly post-racial society. The fact that the Kerner Commission’s report could be published tomorrow with only minor changes exposes this as a dangerous falsehood.
On Tuesday, the authorities in Cleveland, Ohio, announced that they had reached a deal with the Justice Department to address the “systemic” use of excessive force by the city’s police. Cops will no longer be allowed to pistol whip suspects, fire shots at moving cars or retaliate against people who disrespect them. They must document every stop and search. Racial profiling is banned. Baltimore’s Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has asked the feds to intervene in her city too.
Whatever reforms are introduced, they will be nowhere near enough. “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” observed the Kerner Commission, almost half a century ago. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Until that changes, West Baltimore and communities like it in every major American city will be dry grass, awaiting the spark of another Freddie Gray.