Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore Disturbances

“The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it.  Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat.  It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The death of Freddie Gray (above), whose neck was broken while in police custody, has sparked peaceful protests and rioting in Baltimore, starting on the afternoon of his funeral and continuing overnight.  The 25 year-old African American evidently took off running after a police officer made eye contact with him in an area where drug transactions are common.  After chased down and tackled, Gray was arrested for possession of a switchblade.   Witnesses have claimed that an officer held Gray on the ground by placing his knee on Gray’s neck.  Gray complained that he could not breathe properly.  Rather than get him immediate medical help, he was put into a police van that made several stops before authorities responded to his needs.  Handcuffed but not belted in, he’d been subjected to a tactic of intimidation nicknamed a “rough ride.”  With his spine nearly severed, Gray lapsed into a coma and died a week after being arrested.  Police Commissioner Anthony Batts (below) admitted that the cops failed to get Gray medical aid in a timely manner and announced the suspension of six officers.

On Saturday protests turned violent as demonstrators threw rocks at police and set several cars aflame.  Patrons at a Baltimore Orioles game were asked to remain inside after the game.  Monday afternoon things got even worse following Gray’s funeral, with confrontations with the police and looting of several stores by, according to one report, mostly young people getting out from school.  When fireman arrived to deal with a burning CVS store, someone cut the hose to thwart their efforts.  Maryland governor Larry Hogan (the son and namesake of the House Judiciary Committee Republican who voted for Richard Nixon’s impeachment) authorized that the National Guard be deployed at Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s request.  A baseball contest at Camden Yards against the Chicago White Sox was postponed.  On Wednesday, it was announced, the two teams would play a day game without any fans present, unprecedented in major league history. 

At a press conference Mayor Rawlings-Blake claimed that Baltimore was being “destroyed by thugs who in a very senseless way are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.”  Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden, reiterated: “I want you all to get justice for my son, but don’t do it like this here.  Don’t tear up the whole city just for him.  That’s wrong.”

Rightwingers have pounced on comments by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC criticizing police who picked up rocks hurled at them and threw them back for appearing to be “a little out of control.”  In the days to come we can expect Rudy Giuliani and other scumbags of his ilk to blame what’s happening on the black community. It is reminiscent of protests in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City following incidents resulting in the deaths of black citizens Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Already the media is searching for scapegoats – scrutinizing the black police commissioner and mayor for not acting quickly enough.  The growing polarization is reminiscent of the 1968 Baltimore riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King.  A grad student at Maryland at the time living 20 miles down the road in College Park, I recall then-governor Spiro Agnew berating black leaders for not controlling “your people.”  That display of demagoguery led to Nixon tapping Agnew that summer to be his running mate. 

Earlier in the month, a North Charleston, South Carolina, policeman shot 50 year-old Walter Scott eight times as he was fleeing from him.  Because a bystander videotaped the incident, Officer Michael Slager has been charged with murder. 

“The Sage of Baltimore,” H.L. Mencken, once lamented that his hometown was a “wicked seaport” that smelled “like a billion pole cats,” but in his memoirs admitted: “It is as much a part of me as my two hands.  If I had to leave it, I’d be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg.”

Back from wintering in Florida, Dave Serynek asked me to find him a biography of President Warren G. Harding.  I selected Francis Russell’s “The Shadow of Blooming Grove” (1968), which I found lively and provocative despite a misleading title that referred to an unsubstantiated rumor that Harding’s great-great-grandfather was a mulatto.  Russell claimed Harding was remarkably similar to Dwight D. Eisenhower in temperament and included this fascinating Inauguration day anecdote: when Harding rode to the Capitol next to outgoing President Woodrow Wilson, he strove to break the tension by telling an anecdote about the bond between an elephant and its trainer only to see tears streaming down stroke victim Wilson’s cheeks.  The President-elect kept silent the rest of the ride.

Famous for butchering the English language with phrases like “Return to Normalcy,” Harding elicited this sarcasm from H.L. Mencken:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

Samuel A. Love posted a photo of Gary’s Midtown at twilight, calm and mostly deserted in contrast to 50 years ago when it was the bustling commercial mecca for the city’s African-American population, unable to live in other neighborhoods.  A scholar called to ask if I knew anything about Vee-Jay Records being financed from policy money. I hadn’t heard anything about that but suspected that Vivian Carter’s partner Jimmy Bracken might have connections to a Gary policy boss.  Sure enough, an impeccable source told me that he ran numbers.

In the Baltimore Sun college student Leah Eliza Butler wrote about “Baltimore’s real, untelevised revolution”:

For hours on Saturday, I marched with City Bloc, a student activist organization, and alongside hundreds of other justice-seeking Baltimoreans in an attempt to bring justice, not revenge, to Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death while in the custody of Baltimore City police. During the endless hours of nonviolent protesting in which I participated, I felt proud to fight against the deplorable powers that be — I felt that my voice had been empowered as a youth in Baltimore City speaking out against injustice.

As I began my job babysitting that Saturday night, after a long day of marching and chanting, my phone began buzzing, notifying me of the violence that had erupted in downtown Baltimore. At that moment, powerlessness overcame me. The voice that I had projected for the entire day and the dedication that so many Baltimore citizens had put into peaceful protests was crushed in an instant.

I was crushed not because the violence lasted longer than the peace, but because the revolution Baltimore worked hard to create was not televised for what it truly was or is. The revolution was televised as angry citizens burning flags, looting stores and breaking police car windows. This is a skewed portrayal of the protests; it is what the media chose to portray — the media that consumers bewilderingly seem to want.

The real revolution is thousands of people across America standing in solidarity against police brutality. The real revolution is youth activists using their voices and their fearlessness to fight for the future of their generation. The real revolution is people of different races walking through the streets of inner city Baltimore, arms locked, chanting "All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray."

The revolution is not violent or exclusionary. As a young white girl, I at first felt out of place, marching alongside people who endure struggles everyday that I will never understand because of the color of my skin. But as we neared City Hall, the leaders of the protest reminded everyone that it takes people of all races to make change. The revolution needs black people, white people, Asian people, Hispanic people — everyone. Approaching City Hall, the streets of Baltimore rang with passionate people chanting, "The people united will never be defeated."

Anne Balay is co-winner of the Lambda Literary “Emerging Writing Award along with Daisy Hernandez, author of “A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir.”   I encountered Anne’s old bugbear, who isn’t speaking to me, on the Hawthorn Hall elevator when it went from 1F to 1R.  He got in but positioned himself so far away from me that another passenger told him he’d have to move in for the door to close.
Daisy Hernandez and her memoir

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