Saturday, May 2, 2015

What You Won't See On the News

We spent the afternoon walking Baltimore.

I am more afraid of the consequences of my wife knowing that than I was that we would get hurt. And if you stop reading here, I hope that thought stays with you: the fact that there is no reason to be afraid.

We started in Harbor East - this is the upscale centerpiece of the downtown area, where my daughter works. For the past several days, National Guard troops have been lining these streets, carrying AR-15s, looking bored, and watching yuppies and hipsters scurry back and forth from Whole Foods and the wine shop to the ritzy hotels and apartment buildings.

First, we went west, towards the Inner Harbor. We waved at Mr. Trash Wheel (I'm a huge fan), and we headed over the bridge by the National Aquarium. There were probably close to 100 soldiers and cops lining Pratt Street, shoulder to shoulder, looking up the empty streets toward City Hall. To call their apparel "full riot gear" seems an understatement; there were half a dozen carrying gas guns and bandoleers of tear gas.

We said hello to some of the soldiers (and airmen!), and we were not afraid.

There were a lot of civilians, like us, roaming nervously along the water and eyeing the situation. We walked down past where the forces stood arrayed against what might come, and found a crosswalk. On the other side of Pratt, there were almost no cars, and very few people. There were a few young, 20-something black men, mostly in pairs, walking towards us, talking about the protest march.

We said hello to them, and we (and they) were not afraid.

At City Hall, there were a lot of people milling around. Most of them were either black and holding hand lettered signs, or they were with the press. There were a couple of groups on the side streets, that appeared to be part of different religious organizations, speaking to each other over portable microphones, but they were out of sight of the media.

The news vans were packed bumper to bumper around the square, and easy-up tents were erected over sound boards, lighting equipment, and scurrying techs. There were dozens and dozens of people there, but the mood was light; a lot of the folks had their kids with them. Two adorable twin girls were with their dad, and their schnauzer; they carried balloons that said "All Lives Matter," and they posed by the barricades in front of the lines of Guardsmen while their dad took their pictures. Then they turned and waved and blew kisses at the soldiers.

I told them that I liked their balloons, and none of us were afraid.

We followed the barricades up Gay Street, and under the Jones Falls overpass at Saratoga. Brent bought two "Black Lives Matter" shirts from a guy hanging out and selling them from his car. We live in the future, so of course his phone had the square thing for swiping credit cards. A black lady approached me and asked if the shirts came in any other colors, and I told her that I had only seen them in white. 

We kind of looked at each other, both thinking the same thing, and I think both of our mouths twitched a little bit, not quite sure enough of each other to laugh about it outright - but the point is, we weren't afraid.

Back up on President Street, we stood across from the police headquarters; Fayette was closed and barricaded, and there were a couple of Guards and a cop taking a break and eating some dinner - behind them, on the wall of the police headquarters was a huge recruitment banner.
A photo posted by Tad Callin (@tadmaster69) on
We roamed back toward the car, stopping for some impulse book shopping. (I bought a nifty edition of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and selected writings to include the Federalist Papers and Common Sense. I wish more of our leaders would read them.) We dropped the books off at the car, chatted with some soldiers and airmen who were getting some food, and headed eastward from Harbor East towards Fells Point.

The soldiers were less prevalent, but they were still there - Humvees were parked down side streets, and patrols of one or two Guards strolled around their assigned blocks along the cobbled brick streets, while cover bands blasted their versions of Bob Marley, 311, and Rusted Root songs. The patrons weren't numerous, but there was a kind of defiant cheerfulness about them.

My favorite was this guy, though (note the Hummer and soldiers in the background):
A video posted by lydiandude (@lydiandude) on

We weren't afraid.

Why not?

Partly because we're privileged. I have to acknowledge that - two white guys and a white girl walking the streets (two of them in "Black Lives Matter" t-shirts) aren't going to get looked at twice by any of the police or soldiers. The fact that we're veterans doesn't hurt - the Network Warfare guy and I hit it off in the Five Guys, and were instant buddies. And even before buying the shirts, none of the black people protesting gave us any reason to feel uncomfortable in our city - we were all neighbors, equally free to be in the public square, and equally exasperated with the media circus.

But the main reason we weren't afraid was because the people who are angry are not angry at us.

The national news has made much of our city's story this week, but for all of the hand wringing and race baiting in the national media, they have failed utterly to tell you the truth about Baltimore. And that truth is this:

Baltimore is full of angry black citizens who are fed up with having their friends, family, and neighbors killed in police custody. They're tired of the corruption of their police department, and the failures of city leaders - not just recently, but for a long time, now. (2013 example, 2012 example, another 2013 example, and many more from the Baltimore Sun files.) If you want to understand this situation, you must read David Simon's take, and Ta-Nehisi Coates's piece.

While the rioting is certainly a Bad Thing, and in no way justified, it isn't the main thing that has happened here this week. A lot of people behaved badly, but focusing on that violence is misleading. Reporting only that is an example of saying something that is factually true while still being dishonest - because as many have pointed out, the same people pouring out their derision on the rioters have said nothing at all about the 100 people who died in the custody of the Baltimore police since 2010. And here's the uncomfortable truth about the riots:

They were the smallest part of this week's events.

The rioting was limited to one night - and while I can't point you to a news source that says this, it seems to me from reading the Facebook and Twitter posts of friends and friends' friends that what happened at Mondawmin Mall - the spark that set off the violence and looting - was also due to actions taken by the police. There were hundreds of school kids who were trapped on the streets because the city suspended bus services, and they had no way to get home from school. The police - in full riot gear - started busting up groups of them, and to indulge in an understatement, things got way out of control.

As I heard it told, there were about 250 looters arrested - and most of them were released after 47 hours, because even with a special order extended the time allowed for submitting charges, there weren't enough commissioners to do the paperwork, and they were set free. That tells me that these "riots" that have been hyped and fretted over were not the central event here. And I only hope that as the charges against the six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray are taken to court, that the media attention will stay focused on that, instead of on the rash behavior of one or two nights.

Because the discussion that needs to happen is about repairing trust in the local government and law enforcement. I hope that the angry people I saw in the square outside city hall today will stay involved, and hold their local representatives accountable for making these changes. I hope that the rightfully outraged, and non-violent citizens of all ethnic backgrounds in the city will ignore their privileged, suburban critics and keep demanding that accountability.

And I don't expect it, but I hope all of my friends and neighbors in the surrounding county areas will stop foaming at the mouth about "Castle doctrine" while they stroke their guns. Fantasizing about getting the chance to take a shot at their fellow citizens and blowing racist dog-whistles on social media is not going to solve problems for anyone; I hope that instead, they'll remember that they're supposed to be models for good behavior - especially the Scout leaders - not pouring fuel on the fire that brought the National Guard to our streets.

Yes, of course we should support the hard working police - the three of us went out on the streets today in part to do just that - but those police are working hard for us...and "us" should include everyone who lives here. That isn't the case, yet, and the protesters are out there on the streets to make sure that happens. Maybe you are one of the people who finds their anger and their protesting scary, but you're only getting a taste of the fear they live with all the time.

Yes, it's #NotAllPolice that are the problem, but it only takes one (or sometimes six) to do irreparable damage, and it's clear that more needs to be done to weed out those "bad apples".

When that happens, none of us will need to be afraid.

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