In this text, Tara A. Bynum lays down her thoughts on the state of emergency against the revolt for Freddie Gray in 2015 Baltimore. She ponders on her city urban structure and shows in particular how the recurring militarization of the City is an undeniable product of slavery history and its racist legacy.
I’m annoyed because he doesn’t want to make the hour’s drive to Baltimore. He lives about 40 miles south of me in the country’s capital, Washington DC. I live — born and raised — in Baltimore, Maryland, a sizeable port city on the Patapsco River, just off the Chesapeake Bay. It’s one of the 10 biggest cities on the east coast of the United States. With a population of approximately 600,000 residents, it’s just a bit smaller than DC. Founded on a summer’s day in 1729, it’s an old city too that sits on land, colonized by English Catholic settlers, in one of the country’s original 13 colonies.
“It’s too hot up that way,” he says from his perch in DC. What he means has nothing to do with April’s spring-like weather, and everything to do with the City’s newly-imposed, weeklong curfew and the ever-present specter of the National Guard, intermittent aerial surveillance, and every kind of law enforcement. It’s the last week of April in 2015, and nothing is as it should be. I’ve been living in this occupied city for a few days, and I’m not sure what to do with myself, how to move, or where to go. I’ve been pretending everything is normal; I’ve assumed maybe it could be normal again, if I go about my usual business and choose not to pay attention to the passing by of occasional military vehicles or their armed soldiers. It’s true — Baltimore is “too hot” right now.
The city is too much of everything on this day: too far from his home in DC, too surveilled by the likes of every kind of local, state, federal and private law enforcement, and too quiet. There’s an excess of soldiers and police because the state’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has declared a “state of emergency;” the declaration allows him to enlist the help of the various federal and statewide resources: in particular, the National Guard and the Maryland State Police. There are now 3,000 National Guard soldiers and an extra 1,000 police to oversee the city and to support the policing efforts of the Baltimore Police Department. There are small planes — I’ve heard it’s the proverbial “Feds watching” — and helicopters too doing the work that ground patrols cannot; they watch, track, and record the City’s movements from above and convey their information, as it’s needed, to the law enforcement on the ground. On this night, I know I’m among the many who are being watched, and meanwhile, I’m watching the clock. It’s too close to 10pm, the start of the curfew. And because it’s almost 10pm, I stay home.
Where I live is a literal stone’s throw from the northern border of Baltimore City. On the other side of this boundary is Baltimore County. It seems confusing to those not from here, but the “City” and the “County” are not the same. Baltimore City is not a city within a county as is customary everywhere else in the U.S. (with exceptions made for St. Louis, Missouri; Carson City, Nevada; and various smaller municipalities in Virginia); it’s an independent city even though it’s surrounded on four sides by Baltimore County. It split from the “County” in 1851. Its “independence” means the “City” and “County” don’t share much of anything related to government. They don’t share votes, trash collection, tax monies, law enforcement, or any governance or budgetary structures. They don’t share politicians either or election dates. The County’s “executive” is not the City’s “mayor.” County residents can’t vote in the City’s elections, and City residents can’t vote in the County’s elections. It’s a relationship that assumes the city’s concerns are not the county’s problems. Even the local language makes sure this border is understood. The question, “Where are you from” doesn’t just have a directional answer — for example, “over east” or “over west.” It’s about a particular census-designated locality too, and your answer — “City” or “County” — matters a lot (to some).
That’s why there’s a bunch of Instagram and Twitter memes or social media posts, mocking the City’s curfew. There are many of these county-made memes actually. And their punchline is the same: a sad-faced somebody — a city dweller — with a caption that laments the curfew juxtaposed against the free-to-move, smiling county resident. Even though I’m amused by the jokes, this comic relief belies the region’s political tensions. For nearly half a century, the County’s lower property taxes and better schools have lured some of the City’s tax base to its suburban promises. County living is supposed to be a safer and more prosperous sort of living.
There are cul-de-sacs, far away from hazards or burdens of the urban-dweller. There are newer and bigger homes in well-planned communities that advertise green spaces, driveways, and access to big box retailers and nearby highways. The County is where former City residents go to prove they have come home to the “American dream,” at best and at worst, a precarious sense of security.
What’s funny, of course, is that the city-county line is often indiscernible. It’s hard to know where the city or county begins and ends. Streets usually keep their names as they move between jurisdictions. Similarly-styled houses, trees, and cars line those same streets. And, people easily and by necessity move across the boundary for all sorts of reasons: for work, for play, or just to say “hello” to a friend. But, the curfew firms up the importance and the materiality of this man-made line. I don’t live in the County, even though I wonder, some days, if it’s worth it to sneak, from my edge-of-town neighborhood, to the County. And, I’m certainly not the only person, right now, who has to know where this line is and where the County takes up its jurisdiction. Because I live in the City, to leave home is to risk the kinds of civil disobedience that would yield me a misdemeanor charge, and I’m not feeling risky.
I’ve never lived in a militarized city with a curfew. That’s not to say it’s never happened in Baltimore before. I just can’t remember the riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April of 1968. There was a military occupation, then, too when Thomas D’Alesandro III., Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) older brother, was the City’s mayor. I’ve heard military tanks rode down my grandmother’s residential, West Baltimore street. 47 years later, I’m left wondering how we got here, even though I know in a literal sense. Just days ago, on Monday, April 27, 2015, 25-year-old Freddie Gray is funeralized at New Shiloh Baptist Church on N. Monroe St. and Clifton Ave; Gray died after sustaining serious injuries to his spine, three vertebrae, and his voice box while in the custody of six Baltimore City police.
Two weeks before, on the morning of April 12, police stopped and arrested Gray for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear. It’s said that Gray was carrying an illegal switchblade — days later, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby will say that Gray’s knife is, in fact, legal to carry. By the time he makes it to the police van, Gray is not able to walk or breathe properly. A bystander, one of Gray’s neighbors, records police as they drag him to the vehicle. He lapses into a coma at the hospital and dies a week later from his injuries.
His death has made news as yet another police-involved killing. Between 2010 and 2014, one-third of the police-involved shootings in Maryland happens in Baltimore City. Gray is now part of a ever-growing local and national list of women, men, and children who are killed or fatally injured while in police custody: Tyrone West in Baltimore City (2013), Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (2014), Tamir Rice (2014) and Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland, Ohio (2014). There are too many names to list; and, the list is long enough to have started yet another movement to end police brutality. This time, its moniker is #BlackLivesMatter.
Gray’s life and his death have brought a local and national crowd to stand and wait with the young man’s family: the state’s Congressional Representatives Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes, Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Trayvon Martin’s family, activist-writer-comedian Dick Gregory and many others. Rev. Jamal H. Bryant — well-known pastor of the Empowerment Temple — preaches Gray’s eulogy, and the news media, from near and far, are there to bear witness and to report on a family’s and a community’s mourning.
And on the same day — close to a mile away from the church and Gray’s home — the City, its residents mourn his death with all manner of protest, fire, and rage. It starts at Mondawmin Mall, a shopping center and a transportation hub for a number of the city’s bus routes. Most school days, it’s where students — from neighboring high schools — catch the bus to wherever they need to go.
But, this April day, the buses refuse the students, and instead the students are met with riot-gear wearing police, standing at attention. The police meet them there at Mondawmin Mall because they’ve heard that the students have planned some action. It’s said that the students have organized a “purge” — the name refers to a 2013 dystopian Hollywood movie in which crime is made legal for a night — and the police aim to stop it before it starts.
Though the police are geared up and ready for it, there is no, in fact, purge, and it’s not entirely clear who has started the rumor that there will be one. There are just teenagers without a way to leave, with no access to their rides home or elsewhere. What happens thereafter has many names: an “uprising,” a “rebellion,” or a “riot.” And it escalates quickly into a violent conflict and moves south along Pennsylvania Avenue towards North Avenue.
I don’t know what to call it then, and I don’t know what to call it now. But, I understand it to be all of these: a series of rebel actions, riotous behavior, and a rising up. I also understand that not everyone showed up with the same intentions or desired outcomes, and this is its power. What the people who’ve taken action have in common is a right to be here, in this city, and on this block, and to feel however they might feel. It may be anger that wants to rise up or frustration that hopes to rebel, riot or act out in response to consistent and pervasive police brutality, racism, sociopolitical inequality. I suspect it speaks to our very shared and individual humanity and that’s what makes it scary or, to paraphrase Baltimore’s mayor, thuggish, to some. This outpouring of anger — from residents of Baltimore City — is uncomfortable because it’s too “Black” and too “young;” it’s too certain, and it’s too willing to take up, to own, or to destroy whatever is in its way. This kind of rage can only make sense when it’s made easier to digest. So, it seems to me that we’ve settled on uprising because it’s a kind of feel-good and digestible word. “Uprising” suggests intention and anger, political activism and direct action whereas “riot” or “rebellion” intimate disorder and unbridled feelings, mayhem and misguided rage. What I know for sure is that this is, in fact, our city to feel in, to love on, and to do as we please. This is an uprising. It’s a riot and a rebellion; none of which we should fear, but instead we should take heed.
When the media tries to listen, it blames the local response on poverty, economic disparities, and systematic oppression. It’s easy to read Baltimore City and its many rowhouses in this way (just watch all five seasons of HBO’s hit series, The Wire). Reporters tell their audiences that Baltimore is about 92 square miles (239 square kilometers) and a city of hyper-segregated neighborhoods. The media says it’s a “rust belt” city, and like many “rust belt” cities, Baltimore grieves de-industrialization and the loss of steady blue-collar work. The city’s housing stock seems to prove it. Its many vacant and boarded-up rowhomes can remember a time when, just after World War II, the population was nearly one million people, when manufacturing jobs — at the likes of Bethlehem Steel Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Domino Sugar — are more plentiful. Where there are jobs, there are new homeowners, new housing developments in the City and County and newer ways to determine who can live where and for how much. What’s left of the city’s signature style of house betray the city’s storied history of redlining, blockbusting and racial covenants; all of which work to create its hyper-segregated communities. It’s a trifecta of racist and misguided public policies — hyper-segregation, deindustrialization, and community disinvestment — that inspire this uprising (or rebellion or riot).
Truth be told, I suspect and know there’s a lot more to this story. Sure, a century and a half later hyper-segregation, de-industrialization and community disinvestment have something do with what’s happened in Baltimore City before and certainly after the murder of Freddie Gray. But, what the media doesn’t do well is speak to or even wonder at the city’s contradictory spirit and its origins. Where there is poverty, there is also great wealth. Maryland — not California or New York — is the wealthiest state in the country, at present, and Baltimore City and its metropolitan area are among the 20th wealthiest cities in the U.S. This City has long wrestled with its contradictions throughout its storied history; there’s its wealth and its poverty, its sociopolitical activism and its loyalty to those in power, or its commitment to slaveholding and to freedom.
Take for example 19th-century Baltimore City. Before 1864, it’s a slave city in a slave state. It’s a popular transshipment point for the domestic slave trade, and its famous clipper ships navigate riverways better and faster than most. Despite the state’s commitment to slaveholding, the city was home to the country’s largest number of free Black persons (only New Orleans comes close). And, when the Maryland legislature in 1834 — out of fear of what a large, free and Black population might inspire among the enslaved — tries to send them to their new state-sponsored colony in Liberia, many refuse to be displaced or better put, removed. To protect themselves, their families and property, Black men decide to purchase gun licenses at the courthouse; they take up arms and take seriously their right to bear arms, their right to belong and to build communities, even if no one else does.
I see what’s happened in 2015 as part of this local history; it helps make Baltimore so very much its own kind of city and so very Baltimore. One protester calls it an “attitude.” It may very well be an “attitude,” but it’s for sure a sort of ownership of this place. See, what the media doesn’t tell us is that what we’ve witnessed and shared in this week is as much about residents’ ownership of this city as it is about the city’s lack of sociopolitical equity and equality. The choice to rebel, to rally this collective anger seems, to me, to tell a story the right to claim what belongs to this community, to one’s self and to the city-at-large because even poverty, racism and its accompanying -isms can’t take this — our personhood, our community, our belonging — away from us. The protests, the property damage, the anger seem to me proof of a decidedly American way of citizenship, much like the Boston Tea Party or the Civil War. It’s a version of what Justice Bushrod Washington explains in his 1823 Corfield v. Coryell federal circuit court decision; the decision requires Washington to clarify the “privileges and immunities” clause of the U.S. Constitution and applies it to the states. He lists those “privileges and immunities” a U.S. citizen can and should enjoy as part of this united group of states, and his list is lengthy. But there’s one that strikes me as particularly prescient: “the right […] to take, hold and dispose of property, either real or personal” (emphasis mine). This is what has happened here. This is a collective exercise of the right to be angry — as citizens, as taxpayers, as people who live here — and to demonstrate this anger by choosing to take, hold, and dispose of property. This is why the City burns; because, it’s ours. It belongs to us.
The curfew lasts until Sunday, May 3rd and by the next day, the National Guard leaves the City. Life seems to return to another version of normal. And, I’m surprised that what I can remember best of April’s last week in 2015 is the stuff of everyday living. I go to work at a university in the “County,” and I teach my classes to undergraduate students. I laugh when necessary. I’m preparing to buy a house and to lose my job. I seem to handle my daily activities as needed in spite of the reality of perpetual government surveillance. It’s easier than I’d guess to live this way, and it’s no doubt troubling too to search the sky for low-flying aircrafts that in no way resemble commercial planes. When the curfew lifts, the Mayor thanks the City for its patience. But, it hasn’t made for sure the officers will be indicted and convicted. It hasn’t, in any real or practical sense, solved Baltimore’s woes, and it doesn’t make the City’s grief or sense of mourning any less. Five years is still not enough time, and the consequences of Freddie Gray’s death, the ensuing uprising (or rebellion or riot), and curfew are ever more present today. ■