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.
Article published in The Funambulist 29 (May-June 2020) States of Emergency. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
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).