Anger in April: Baltimore's Forty-Seven Year Rough Ride

 /  May 5, 2015, 1:32 p.m.


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The sound of hammers fills the morning air in Baltimore. It’s a crisp, cool spring morning and the neighborhood is busy. A procession of city residents, friends and unfamiliar faces alike, stand in a line from the back of a pickup truck to the storefront. The sight of boarding up storefronts and houses is familiar to Baltimore residents; the context, in this case, is unusual: boards are lifted into shattered windows and nailed into place. Glass is swept away and doors are put back on hinges. They are not in front of one of Baltimore’s 16,000 vacant homes. They are in front of  a Rite Aid. The truck sits among a line of cars. Facebook events, community groups, and other organizations got out the word on Tuesday morning, helping to set up innumerable efforts like this throughout the city to undo the damage of Monday’s riots. This isn’t the first morning like this in Baltimore, but it’s been some time since the last one. Just over forty-seven years, in fact.

The Baltimore Riots of 1968 left an indelible mark on the city. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death sparked riots in 125 cities across America, but few were as shocking or as memorable as Baltimore’s. The riot was disastrous: seven hundred injured, five dead, and almost six thousand arrested. Thousands of businesses were looted. Many of the neighborhoods that were affected have yet to heal, struggling in the wake of losing homes and livelihoods. To this day, a walk down North Avenue, which cuts through the city’s center, reveals houses still boarded up and scorch marks still on walls. Many of the areas hit hardest by the riot are the best representations of Baltimore’s tragic decline: from a bustling seaport, a beacon of hope, to a city divided. There was a time when Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was the second busiest entry point of immigrants. Now, though it remains Mid Atlantic’s second largest port city, it is also home to one of the starkest racial divides in the nation, both physically and socioeconomically. It has one of the highest murder rates in the nation. Between 2011 and 2014, more than one hundred plaintiffs were awarded nearly $6 million in settlements related to police brutality.

The Rite Aid mentioned above inhabits a position similar to that occupied by the University of Chicago, straddling the border between an affluent neighborhood and the impoverished expanse of West Baltimore. The University frequently comes under fire for its effects on the surrounding communities, but on Monday, April 27, the Rite Aid came under a more literal attack: the doors were torn off and an angry crowd of rioters stormed in, smashed windows, and left with what they could carry.

Since they broke out on Monday, the riots have taken center stage in the media’s coverage of Baltimore. The thousands who have taken the streets peacefully, helped prevent further damage by rioters, and have done much of the cleanup in their wake have been largely ignored. The media’s sensationalism is not new; in an age of the twenty-four-hour media cycle, ratings direct programming. People like to read about what’s exciting and new.

In the excitement of fires, looting, and Governor Larry Hogan’s mobilization of the National Guard, community service seems trivial, but is not. Nothing could be more integral. The media has selectively and, at times, incorrectly portrayed the events that have taken place in Charm City over the past week. Live feeds of police and protesters clashing find their way into the corners of screens of talking heads as they try to come to terms with the sights they see. One viral video shows protesters confronting Fox News presenter Geraldo Rivera as he tries to interview state Senate majority leader Catherine Pugh. As host Sean Hannity asks Rivera to describe the scene, he responds, “It’s a very excited crowd,” a remark that draws shouts from the protesters surrounding him. “We’re not excited, we’ve been hurt,” one woman tells him. A man shouts at Rivera, telling him “We want you gone!” Rivera tells him, in no uncertain terms, to “stop making a fool of [himself].” “As Rivera angrily demands they stop blocking his camera, another protester shouts “We don’t need your false coverage!”

Rivera’s wanton attitude toward the protesters was a microcosm of the emotion and tumult experienced by the nation in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. Tensions ran high as protesters tried to disrupt the broadcast, which, following sensational, rhetorically-charged media coverage of similar protests against police brutality, seems almost as hostile as the National Guard in riot gear, charged with enforcing Baltimore’s brand new ten o’clock nighttime curfew. Rivera and Fox, like most other news outlets covering the protests, showed the protesters as objects of interest, not victims of oppression. Video streams of houses and cars burning and stores being looted ran in loops alongside pundits who refused to interact with the people on the streets, the ones trying to make their voices heard. The interview between Rivera and Pugh went on with the state senator saying, “We want our people to go home, but we also need the media to move back.” She spoke to an issue that is hard to approach: what is too much information? Too much information is what Rivera, Fox, and much of the news media has provided: intrusive coverage of angry, unsettled citizens who are eager for change. This coverage seeks to entertain, not to inform. Those rioting are not truly representative of the spirit of the protests; instead, they are symbols of the people’s discontent. They are rioting because they have not been heard. They are rioting because they are told to get out of camera shots and to make way for images of violence and burning buildings.

After their exchange, Sean Hannity took issue with Pugh’s claim that cameras were “inciting” people and playing a role in keeping people on the streets past curfew. He angrily insisted that “Cameras don’t incite people, cameras don’t throw rocks, cameras didn’t riot, cameras didn’t loot, and cameras didn’t burn. That happened in her city.” His frustration was surprising, especially considering the final comment, “her city,” which directs contempt at Pugh and the city of Baltimore. That has been the attitude of much of the nation: condemning the protesters for the violent acts of rioting that have been shown on television and leaving unmentioned the peaceful protests, demonstrations, and acts of community that Freddie Gray’s death has produced. Condemning protestors as “thugs,” as Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did in a press conference, is all it takes to buy in to the ever more pervasive culture of blaming those who are the most affected. (She has since apologized for her statement.) Pugh’s perceived failure to understand the true causes of the rioting angered Hannity. In his anger, he ignored the plight of the people of Baltimore. They are the ones who clean up their neighborhoods, board up their pharmacies, and get painted with the same broad brush as the rioters. The rioters’ anger is born of the same issues. When people try to clamber into Geraldo Rivera’s shot, they are not thugs interrupting his broadcast for their own benefit. Rather, they are desperately trying to make their voices heard. Rivera didn’t listen. Fox didn’t listen. And America doesn't seem to be listening either.

But even if the media changed their track—if they showed peaceful protesters along with  videos of the rioters, if they demonstrated the true scope of activism and outrage in Baltimore—would the public take notice? Would the debate focus on what caused the protests or would America continue to focus on the negative: the fires, the looting, the injured officers? The media has tried to shed a positive light on at least one element of the events that have occurred. Toya Graham, the so-called “hero mom” has received her fair share of press, finding her way onto CBS’s This Morning where she was interviewed about the now-famous footage of her accosting her son as he tries to go join the ranks of angry protesters. The hosts seem displeased with her answer when she tells them that she does not feel like a hero, that “she just wants to keep her son safe.” They largely ignored her regrets about her actions, focusing instead on their own joie de vivre at the idea of a mother taking action against one black-clad figure in the ranks of the rioters. “What’s remarkable for me is he clearly had the respect—and fear—of you,” Charlie Rose said encouragingly. He and the other presenters tried to steer the conversation away from the context, choosing instead to focus on the relatable image of a mother fused with the image of a protester being attacked. It was an image made comical, even heartwarming, by CBS’s presentation. Graham struggled to express the nature of her son’s, and many of Baltimore’s sons’, strained relationship with the police. The presenters would not hear it, asking her questions about the incident instead of allowing her to elaborate on the context in which it occurred.

Graham wanted to express that a broader issue exists, one that has been ignored. In the moment, she felt that the only way to keep her son safe from arrest or worse, was to prevent him from protesting, and, in losing her temper, the now-viral video was born. She had to keep him safe from a culture where police exist at odds with community members. Graham’s son was not someone who would feel as comfortable calling the police as Geraldo Rivera, Sean Hannity, or the This Morning team. That is a question that the media has not only not raised, but has, in some cases, actively ignored. This is exemplified by the uncomfortable lines of questioning posed by Charlie Rose and others, not asking Graham about what she said, but about what they wanted to hear. Turning a blind eye to the underlying issues is the reason Toya Graham’s son has the relationship he has with the police. It’s the reason Baltimore is in flames.

As a Baltimore native, I take great pride in my city, and my heart has broken seeing the destruction caused by looters and seeing the hurt of people whose voices still are not heard. Toya Graham sat before the nation and was still not given a chance to convey the message that she, her neighbors, many of Baltimore’s citizens, and urbanites across the nation have been trying to call attention to, that Baltimore needs more than firemen and the National Guard. Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on April 27, but the real emergency has existed for much longer.

Given the Mayor of Baltimore’s impolitic use of the term thugs, there has been discontent brewing amongst Baltimoreans about the lack of a more positive public voice on the protests and the issues that underlie them. The Baltimore Orioles have had members of the organization, both administrative and competitive, speak out urging people to understand that the protests are not something about which to complain or of which to idly watch news coverage. Chief Operations Officer John Angelos took to Twitter to try and focus America’s attention on what he felt was important (collated here from the original Tweets):

My greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle-class and working-class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importances of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the United States, and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.

Angelos was not the only member of the Orioles organization to speak out on the issue. Manager Buck Showalter, in the wake of a win over the Chicago White Sox that took place in front of forty-eight thousand empty seats because of the rioting, referred to by Angelos as “an incovenience at the ballgame,” was asked what advice he might have for “young black males in the city.” He responded candidly, “I’ve never been black.” He spoke about how he’s often frustrated by people talking about things they know nothing about, i.e. being a young black male in Baltimore. His response holds true for many Americans, of whom only 0.1 percent are currently black persons living in Baltimore. It is immensely difficult to comment on protests in which you don’t march, to champion causes of which you have yet to hear, and to react to injustices you have never felt. Instead of focusing on the riots and the rioters, Baltimore, Maryland, and America need to focus on what issues caused these protests.

There’s a reason visual evidence of the ‘68 riots can be seen to this day. In the wake of the riots, white flight came back into vogue for well-to do Baltimoreans and the shattered communities they left behind were not sent aid to rebuild; they sent in the National Guard instead. In forty-seven years, we seem to have learned little. Freddie Gray’s case stands as testament. The almost 24 percent of residents below the poverty line stand as testament. That almost $6 million in retribution for police brutality has been paid out by the city since 2011 stands as testament. Instead of only shining a light on a city in flames, we need to shed some on one falling to shambles. Only then will Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “thugs” heed her curfew, stop rioting, and allow Fox News to conduct their interviews in peace.

The image featured in this article was taken by Arash Azizzada and can be found here.


Ned Pollard


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