Baltimore After Freddie Gray

In the flurry of articles about the widely televised violence after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, most television outlets and several pundits focused on the violence. Like WBALTV’s reporting staff and my former coblogger Ramona, most decried any sort of violence, but a few invoked the Boston Tea Party as an example of resorting to violence when other measures were exhausted. One pundit excoriated any outsider that would call for violence, but in the manner of Chris Rock, “understood” why frustrated black residents might go there.

David Simon, the Wire creator who still lives in Charm City, heard the devil call his name and told Bill Keller of The Marshall Project that the violence has been simmering for decades:

Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did. …

And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way.

Simon talks about the class aspect of black officers from the counties humbling city blacks. A Gawker article looks at the clueless elite class, quoting some unwary Maryland Hunt Club denizens:

“You want to know what I think,” said the one in the Black Dog Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirt. “The cops have the hardest job in the world besides our troops in Afghanistan. You know, and I tell my kids this, if a cop tells you to stop, you stop. It’s sad what happened to this guy, but let the police do their job. I feel these people protesting, I really do. But if the police really did something wrong, it’s going to come out.”

“Baltimore is a shithole,” said the man with the cigar. He wore a navy blazer with a pocket square. His eyes were ice blue and close together.

“This guy,” said the man in the gray sweatshirt. “His spine was broken before the cops picked him up. I talked to doctors at Johns Hopkins. But his spine was already broken.”

I had already heard the ‘Freddie Gray was already injured’ meme, but it has been debunked. I had already heard the shithole meme, too. I was telling a more conservative friend about David Simon’s opinion piece, and he came back with, “Baltimore’s done, it’s finished. They show the Inner Harbor on TV, but the rest of it is a shithole.” He had asked his wife if she would have come to Baltimore knowing what she knows now. Nope.

Now that the curfew has been lifted, and the national guard has left, WBAL is featuring reports of people cleaning up and businesses trying to make money again. The Horseshoe Casino is open again. Presumably the Orioles will host the Blue Jays on Monday, and Pimlico racetrack is running ads for Black-Eyed Susan Day, in which ladies with hats will watch a race on the Friday before Sunday’s Preakness Stakes – a leg of the Triple Crown and a claim to national attention. I bike through mostly black neighborhoods and around Pimlico every day. I tell worried friends that no one bothers me and that poorer people seem less territorial about sharing the road with bikes than more affluent drivers on the East side of I-83.

Over the last week I looked to see if things had changed along my route home. Since early Spring there has been a traffic beggar at Russell and Hamburg Streets, and one at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Pratt Street. He likes my bike. On Friday I saw other beggars resting on blankets in the shade of a building. One guy was walking up take a pee between a pair of piers. Two piers and pee-er. And the beggars – equipped with small brown, cardboard signs – seemed to be stationed every two blocks along MLK Blvd. Some had partners on blankets. And they were all scraggly white people.

Further along is a four or five tent encampment under Route 40 where it passes over MLK. The folk in the tents are black, but there are white street beggars on the corners. On Friday loose brick pavers were laying in the sidepath I use. A coworker mentioned that he sees tents at various spots along the I-495 rights of way, and is sure there are others that are better hidden. As I turn onto Eutaw Street and ride up to Druid Hill Park, I stop seeing beggars of any color. I’m not sure what the demographics are, but apparently the people driving these roads aren’t giving it away.

Personally I don’t think my friends would have found things much better anywhere else. Baltimore has more black people than most cities, but despite the positive spin of employment numbers, there seem to be plenty of poor people everywhere. Skin color just brings the conflicts that result from a declining economy into sharper relief.

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