Promise and Disappointment: Baltimore one year after the Uprising

See the original blog at Versobooks here

“All to say, last year’s uprising has created this space for my family to have this conversation. albeit painful, it’s also provided us with the choice to grow from these experiences that go way back beyond the uprising.” Daughter of a storeowner in West Baltimore, April 2016

From a meeting of Baltimore activists during the week of the curfew.

From a meeting of Baltimore activists during the week of the curfew.

It’s been one year since the uprising in Baltimore that followed the arrest, murder, and funeral of Freddie Gray. Mr. Gray died in police custody after a rough arrest and “rough ride”. It’s not the first time a rough ride — in which police leave a handcuffed or footcuffed person deliberately unsecured in the van, resulting in uncontrolled movement and potential injury — has accounted for the injury and death of a black man in Baltimore police custody. Following his arrest on April 12, 2015 and his death on April 19, peaceful protests occurred. After his funeral on April 27, residents of Sandtown-Winchester — Mr. Gray’s community — and others in West Baltimore affected by police brutality rose up in protest. Some protestors became violent, throwing bricks at windows, looting, and setting fire to property. The National Guard was called in, the city was placed under curfew, and tanks rolled around as if it was a war zone.

The tanks in Middle East Baltimore added to existing perceptions about the abandoned and boarded houses and businesses, the trash on the street and in the lots, the desolate look and feel at nighttime: “it’s like Beirut here.” After real estate segregation (both legal and illegal), redlining, deindustrialization, urban renewal, mass incarceration, and gentrification, Middle East Baltimore and other black sections of the city have been subject to disinvestment and left to survive on their own. While nearby universities and private institutions have exploited these same communities with the support of public dollars and public policy.

In the weeks following the night of violence, thousands rallied across the city to protest the legacy of this history. This uprising, and the eyes it focused on the death of yet another black body at the hands of the criminal justice system, brought attention to this long record of segregation and abandonment.

Many have compared it to the 1968 riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination, in which hundreds of businesses across the entire city were vandalized or looted to the tune of approximately $9 million. The people in power were afraid. The National Guard and state sheriffs patrolled the places in which wealth was concentrated or accumulated: Harbor East, Inner Harbor, Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, and the like. Those who sent them there feared that their holdings would be the next target if people felt compelled to correct years of unequal distribution of government favors. The anger of a few had overflowed after years of suppression and repeated injury, disrespect and neglect, and false promises. Indeed, rioting is the voice of those who have not been not listened to.

Like mosquitoes on horse dung, the media — local, national, and international — devoured the sensation of the unrest. Baltimore made news in Jamaica, Canada, Poland, China, Russia, Brazil, the UK, Australia, etc. We were world-famous, we were trending. One year later, what has changed? Did the government address the deeper causes underlying the unrest? That is: mass unemployment, underfunded schools, shuttered recreation centers, poor and inaccessible health care, “affordable housing” filled with rats, mold, and lead managed by slum landlords and speculators — unmonitored and un-reprimanded by government — food deserts, deteriorated infrastructure. Have any substantial changes been made to a criminal justice system that brings injury and death, repeatedly and disproportionately, to black bodies, like Mr. Gray? How have different communities in Baltimore contributed to the process of enacting necessary change at the local level since the killing of Mr. Gray?

Over the past 2 weeks, I spoke with thirty-six different people from various spaces and sectors in Baltimore, and asked: what sticks out to you since the uprising last year? Responses came from organizers on the ground, activists with and without non-profit organizations, academics, students, and residents in working-class black communities like Mr. Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester on the west side, and Middle East Baltimore and McElderry Park on the east side. 78 percent of responders were people of color, 58 percent male.

National Guard posted at Mondawmin Mall

National Guard posted at Mondawmin Mall

Neighborhoods

The overwhelming response from people in neglected neighborhoods (and from those who live elsewhere when asked about these neighborhoods), was that there has been little or no change. Some felt things were worse in these neighborhoods in regard to policing and drug trafficking and -use, unemployment, available stores, and safety:

Nothing changed, worse than before. The violence, the separation, people have become more selfish.

Worse, shooting still going on, problem in house, in the neighborhood, if you know what I mean…things happening right next door and nobody talking.

A shop owner in Sandtown-Winchester responded: “no change, drugs still here…some more foot patrol, since the CVS reopened.” We wondered together why the foot patrol started only after the CVS was reopened: “Who is being protected, corporations or residents”?

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