I’ve been in Baltimore for going on three months. It’s hardly any time at all. There’s a part of me that doesn’t feel entitled to what I am feeling tonight. I’ve fallen in love with this city pretty quickly. It has been a refuge for me, a place to start over. As a Steelers fan, I am predisposed to wanting to hate this city, but there is so much more to life than sportsball and the people of this city are pretty lovable. Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods. Baltimore is more so. I work in three neighborhoods separated by mere blocks. They each have a distinct flavor to them despite their proximity and overlapping concerns. Baltimore is about twice the size of Pittsburgh. It has all of the amenities you would want in a major metropolis while feeling interconnected enough that you could easily find yourself running into the same crowds of people all over the city. “Smalltimore” is what some of the locals call that effect.
The “locals” are good people. They care about their communities. I talk to them every day. The same blue collar mentality that I find and love in Pittsburgh exists here. Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but there is a civic-mindedness that pervades this city. They believe in hard work, helping your neighbor, and enhancing the quality of life in their communities. The mentality cuts across race and class. People seem to genuinely believe that they can make a difference in their city and they are hopeful.
What doesn’t cut across race and class is opportunity. I’ve heard police commissioner Anthony Batts speak on several occasions and he consistently mentions that Baltimore has a race problem. It is sadly another way that Baltimore and Pittsburgh are alike; there are completely different experiences of the city based on your race. There is, in essence, a Black Baltimore and a White Baltimore.
I spend most of my time in Black Baltimore. I work in neighborhoods where one in every three houses seems to be vacant. Or seems like it should be. I work in the neighborhoods where the schools are being closed. I work in the neighborhoods where underemployment creates major obstacles. I work in neighborhoods where the old fear the young and the young seem to fear nothing. I work in traumatized communities. Not just communities with traumatized individuals, but traumatized communities that are over-policed and underserved. I work in communities where drug deals happen out in the open. If I know where the drug dealers are after two and half months, I’m pretty sure the police do as well. I work in communities where violence happens on streets, but also in homes and interpersonal relationships. I work in communities that have unbroken patterns of abuse and trauma.
Violence is what happens when grief has nowhere else to go and black Baltimore is tired of grieving its young men. That is not a justification for violence. At my core, I believe that violence is the ultimate dehumanizing act and yet when individuals and communities have been on the receiving ends of all sorts of violence – physical violence, economic violence, racial violence, psychological violence – those individuals and communities assert their own humanity by declaring they will no longer be trampled. That is what you are seeing in the streets of Baltimore tonight.
I’ve been watching the Baltimore Police Departments Facebook feed all night. They consistently refer to those out in the streets as “criminals”, once referring to them as “people without regard for life”. This is labeling that is incredibly unhelpful. These are citizens of a major city and they are angry. To call them criminals and thugs dehumanizes them and gives the police blank check to use violence against them. The “supporters” on the Facebook feed reinforce this notion. “Animals!” “Thugs!” “Terrorists!” “Turn the hoses on them!” “Run them over!” “It’s time for deadly force!” People from the safety of their computers, who truly do have no regard for human life, are egging the police on in this tense moment. Not helpful. It would be more helpful if the police understood themselves as part of a system that has helped to negatively impact the esteem of people in these communities. It would be helpful if police understood their own traumas that they may be acting out on other people. It’s not helpful for police to perpetuate “us and them” narratives.
Almost every meeting I attend has a police presence. They aren’t there for security, they are there to introduce themselves to the community and try to build some positive in-roads with neighbors. They know that there is an image problem. They know that there are trust issues. I do genuinely believe that most of them are good people. One or two that I’ve met have grown up in Baltimore city and they want to make their city better. I applaud that. I think of the story of the centurion in Luke 7. He was a good man despite being a part of the most violent of police states. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was a centurion, an occupier. In many cities, the police forces do not feel like fellow citizens caring for communities. They feel like occupying forces there to stamp down insurrection. Jesus was amazed by the faith of the centurion. Sometimes I’m amazed by good cops. I have to remind myself that they are people too.
I’m sad tonight. The air in Baltimore is heavy. The tension is palpable. In a few hours I will go into work. I feel a renewed sense of purpose around my work. My job is to enhance the ability of these neighborhoods to respond in positive ways to the traumas of their communities. There will be much work to do. I may help clean up in some of the riot areas. I may touch up the paint on the playground equipment we had volunteers work on this past weekend. I’ll probably just sit with some neighbors and ask them how they are doing. I’ll listen because first and foremost, traumatized people need to be heard. And then we’ll talk about gardens. Or youth activities. Or farmers’ markets. Or anything that reminds them and me that tomorrow is going to happen. Because that’s also what traumatized people need… hope.