I’m no longer a news reporter, but I am a storyteller. That’s why I drove to Baltimore on Tuesday, pulled by an inexplicable force to capture what I saw and heard.
The constant barrage of stories in the wake of Monday’s riots left me navigating a strange mix of anger and sadness. Long fascinated by American history, especially the unrest during the era in which I was born, I could not help but feel we’ve taken a huge step backward.
What I saw confirmed a long-gestating belief that we’ve not come as far as I naively hoped and thought 10 years ago. As a society, we keep making the same mistakes over and over, doomed to repeat them with each passing generation because things don't fundamentally change.
I’ve long had a fascination with Baltimore, located about an hour from where we live. The city is a study in racial and economic contrasts, from the beauty of the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards area to the rampant poverty, unemployment and crime in the western part of the city.
On Tuesday, I drove past the stadium where we took our kids to their first major-league baseball game. No games were being played; when the Orioles took the field again the next afternoon, the stadium was empty.
I parked on Franklin Street and started walking, almost by reflex, toward the theatre where Ben has performed in two national tours over the past three years. But I was pulled, camera in hand, toward Pennsylvania Avenue.
I started taking pictures, all the while aware of my surroundings on this beautiful spring day. I smiled when someone told me to be careful, nodded at the two kids who asked if I was going "down there" to take pictures, and watched the helicopters circling overhead. As I walked past the small shops and buildings, many boarded up or closed, I did my best to ignore the occasional person who yelled at me to take their picture. Instead, I took random photos of what I saw as I moved through the Upton-Druid Heights neighborhood and toward the CVS Pharmacy at the intersection of West North and Pennsylvania.
The CVS, as we all know by now, was one of the businesses burned during Monday’s riots in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American man whose spine was severed while in police custody. It follows similar incidents in several U.S. cities following controversial actions by police, most notably in Ferguson, Mo., last fall.
African-Americans in Baltimore have long had a difficult relationship with police. In Maryland, one-third of the state’s residents who are imprisoned come from Baltimore, costing taxpayers an estimated $220 million annually. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun reported that the city has paid $5.7 million over four years to settle lawsuits that accused the police of using excessive force.
Walking through Upton-Druid Heights on Tuesday afternoon, several hours before the 10 p.m. curfew imposed on the city, I passed groups of people standing on street corners and in front of small markets and mom-and-pop stores. Many buildings and abandoned row houses, once a symbol of stability for African-American families in the city, are crumbling.
At one point, I overheard a conversation between two women, probably in their late 20s. One was almost yelling about her former boyfriend, saying that he didn’t have work, wouldn’t find work, and was stealing all of her cigarettes. She said she wouldn’t take him back again, no matter “how good he is,” because he tried to stash items stolen during the looting at her apartment.
Her friend just nodded.
Baltimore is the largest city in Maryland, the nation’s most affluent state. Since riots in the late 1960s, the city has lost one-third of its population, and manufacturing jobs have dropped by 90 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for African-Americans is $33,610, compared to $60,550 for white households in Baltimore. Almost one-fourth of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, and unemployment among African-Americans ages 20 to 24 is an amazing 37 percent.
This is difficult to reconcile when touring the Inner Harbor area and parts of downtown. But it’s not hard to see when you walk through Upton-Druid Heights, where half of the people live in poverty and 64 percent of black males are unemployed, according to the New York Times.
Driving into Baltimore, radio reports noted that the National Guard had been sent to Baltimore. But despite a strong police presence at the intersection of West North and Pennsylvania, where camera crews were set up outside the CVS and a large crowd held up signs and chanted their protests, law enforcement was largely scattered. A gaggle of helicopters flew overhead, circling above in the clear sky.
The National Guard was protecting the Inner Harbor, several miles away. The police department, who some would say caused the situation in the first place, was stationed in Upton-Druid Heights.
Just before I reached the drug store, I saw a group of adults and kids painting a mural on an old building. The group is part of Jubilee Arts Baltimore, an organization that provides arts classes to the residents of Upton and Sandtown-Winchester. Part of the Newborn Holistic Ministries, Jubilee Arts is responsible for many of the murals that dot Pennsylvania Avenue, most of them celebrating African-American history and exhorting residents to find community unity.
One of the Jubilee Arts volunteers told me the adults felt lucky to be working on the mural that day. Their places of business were closed in the wake of Monday’s riots, and schools weren’t open.
While I understand why many businesses were closed and the Orioles game was cancelled, I have trouble reconciling the fact that schools were not open on Tuesday or Wednesday. For kids living in entrenched poverty, schools offer stability and, often, an opportunity to get a healthy meal. I can see why school leaders decided not to hold classes, given the unrest and tension in the city, but I can’t help but feel the kids were done a disservice.
“It was good for the kids,” the volunteer told me. “They needed some place to go.”
Over the past several days, I’ve been reading about Baltimore obsessively. It has affected me in the same way Hurricane Katrina did for many of the same reasons. I can’t help but shake my head and wonder what it will take for things to change.
What will it take for police abuse to stop? What will it take for people to stop taking advantage of others, capitalizing on legitimate protests and twisting them into moments of violence and destruction? Will we recede back into our pre-established positions and comfortable lives until the next time something like this happens?
As I drove home, I could not help but wonder: What will it take?
For more photos, go to my Facebook page here.