In writing about what is happening here in Baltimore over the past few days, I have been trying to humanize an event that many find baffling and frightening. I am also trying to respond to those for whom Freddie Gray has become an “issue” or a “cause”: #FreddieGray. In doing so, I’ve found it ironic, and perhaps some of you do as well, that I have not actually discussed Freddie Gray, or what happened to him.
Well, I didn’t know Freddie Gray. I am also not sure what happened to him, though I certainly have strong suspicions. Here’s what I am sure of. I am sure that he was just as complicated and as loved and as flawed as any of us. I am sure that he did not deserve to die. I am sure that the police officers involved in his arrest and that fateful ride in police transport did not intend to kill him, even though I am also positive that these officers did intend to hurt him. I am also pretty sure that they– or some of them, anyway–did not see Freddie Gray as fully human.
Part of my reluctance to speak about Freddie Gray, ironically, comes from a deep-seated recognition that I can never “know” him. And to add another layer of irony, to me, this is a recognition of his humanity. We like to think that we can sympathize, even empathize, with other people. This is what makes human beings social creatures. But sometimes it is also important to recognize what we cannot know about another person, even if that person is your neighbor.
One of my friends and colleagues at Loyola aptly described my neighborhood, Bolton Hill, as “radically adjacent” to the events of recent days. I mentioned in an earlier post that while Bolton Hill is on the west side of town, it is not West Baltimore. But West Baltimore begins a block or two as the crow flies from my house. Geographically, we are neighbors. But many things separate us in ways that make it seem disingenuous or simply presumptuous to attempt to speak for him, or even speak on his behalf.
Another Loyola colleague, Elizabeth Kennedy, also lives in Bolton Hill, and in a letter she wrote to her students the morning after violence broke out here on Monday, she expressed better than I ever could what separates us from many of our neighbors:
Though physically proximate, there is an incomprehensible chasm between the life I lead, and the relationship I have with Baltimore City, from those in Sandtown, Penn-North, and all of West (and many other parts of) Baltimore.
Like many of you I am sure, I received many notes from family and friends yesterday to “stay safe.” However, what that means for me and what that means for my neighbors just blocks away are so different. Violence in these neighborhoods is a constant. Harassment by the police is constant. Being treated not worthy of protection by police is constant. A lack of jobs and adequate housing is constant. Fear is constant. Uncertainty is constant. Crumbling schools are constant.
I cannot begin to truly understand what life is like for my “radically adjacent” neighbors. But I can try. I must try.
Yes, we must try. That trying, of course, also means recognizing our own position to our neighbors. Many of my neighbors from West Baltimore regard people from Bolton Hill with well-deserved suspicion. We enjoy the benefits of white privilege (I am just as much a beneficiary here as my white neighbors), benefits that are systematically denied to most African Americans. Our radical adjacency throws this difference in their faces.
Many of my white (and Asian, for that matter) neighbors understand this, but respond to it with fear. When we moved into our house, it had bars on all of the first-floor windows, and we got lots of advice about how to “stay safe.” To add to what Elizabeth said about that phrase, part of what makes it so rankling, especially when it comes from someone who lives outside of Baltimore, is that it responds to and exacerbates that fear. By saying “stay safe,” one is implying, “be afraid.” One stays safe from danger; danger is something to be feared. And this is exactly the wrong response to what is happening right now. I know people mean well when they tell me to stay safe. Or maybe they just don’t know what else to say. But we cannot live in fear if we are going to mend this city–or our country.
Until we removed the bars from our windows, I felt like I was confined to a prison where I was also the jailer. I was serving as the source of my own terror.
Part of what troubles me so much about the things I’ve been hearing and seeing in the media, and among my co-workers and friends and family, is how afraid everyone is. This fear increasingly colors everything Americans do and say. Where we live. Whom we talk to. What we eat, even. This fear is poisonous.
Another expression of this fear, one that works hand-in-hand with that “stay safe” expression, is people’s insistence on calling the events taking place here “the Baltimore riots.” While I certainly do think that there were some rioters on Monday night, and also can attest to the fact that rioting took place, I would not say that Baltimore experienced a “riot.” Much less, “riots.” This word is a dehumanizing one, reducing individual rioters into a faceless mob of … well, black people. Note that the word “riot” is almost never applied to groups of white people wreaking havoc, as Chris Hayes has satirically shown on MSNBC’s All In.
Jeb Lund’s incendiary but insightful piece published in Rolling Stone on Tuesday explores the relationship between riots and fear, referring to Martin Luther King’s condemnation of riots as being something that “merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.” This evocation, Lund points out, usually ignores what MLK goes on to say– that “it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.” These conditions, Lund writes, produce all kinds of fears:
… endless things intensify the fears of the white community, and endless things relieve its guilt. Legal immigration intensifies its fears. Illegal immigration intensifies its fears. Gay marriage, mixed neighborhoods, higher college admission competition, Affirmative Action, welfare, banning assault rifles, UN environmental regulations, Muslims, saying “Happy Holidays,” unisex bathrooms, hashtags on coffee cups, a black kid with Skittles, a black kid with a toy gun, a black man with a toy gun in a store that sold toy guns, a black man with a broken taillight. And it doesn’t need help relieving its guilt. It will find a way. It will always find a way. That black kid with Skittles? He fought the armed domestic-abusing psychopath who stalked him for no reason. Those other black people? They didn’t obey.
I’m not asking people to feel guilty; but I do wish we could be less afraid. And if people do feel guilty, it sure would be nice if they could find ways to expiate their guilt without blaming the victim.
Some of you may find it puzzling or ironic that while I have documented the demonstrations and gatherings over recent days, I have not marched anywhere or demonstrated anything. (Well, I did participate in a march around campus at Loyola a few weeks ago, but that’s all.) I am not a demonstrator; I’m frankly not much of an activist. While I certainly recognize the role that organized (and disorganized, for that matter) protest has played in shaping history, I rarely feel compelled to participate.
In this case, for whatever reason, it bothers me that a person has become a cause. Of course it is important to understand that what happened to Freddie Gray is not an isolated instance, but one of many examples of police brutality– and racism, generally– that is also a poison in our society. #BlackLivesMatter. But I wonder if these protests, by drawing parallels between Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and all the other black men who have been killed by policemen without cause, also erase their individuality, as well as the historical and geographical particularities of each instance.
To me, Freddie Gray is a human being. He was a neighbor. I may have been in line with him at the post office, or parked next to him at Mondawmin Mall. He may have driven down my street. Every time I think of him and the way he died, I feel the pain of grief. But I did not and could not have actually known him. That’s what’s making it hard for me to know what to do. In some ways, it’s simply been too painful for me to see people espousing the cause of Freddie Gray when I still can’t see him as anything but a person. I’m not exactly sure what I even mean by that last sentence, but these are the feelings I am trying to work out at the moment.
At Freddie Gray’s funeral, our much-beloved Representative Elijah Cummings asked, “Did anybody recognize Freddie when he was alive? Did you see him?” I did not recognize him. But I hope I did see him.
I’ve tried at least to present a human response to what may seem very alien and frightening. This response, like all things human, is contradictory and probably flawed in many ways. But I think we have to be honest about who we are and where we’re at– individually and as a society– before we can march forward. We must try.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to articulate a complete or coherent response to Freddie Gray’s death. The factors are complicated, and the issues (maddeningly) unresolved. There are also many much better equipped to provide this analysis, and who are already doing so: I’m linking to many of these sources in my Twitter feed, which I’ve included in the right sidebar of this blog (you can access the entire feed by clicking on the “Tweets” link, even if you’re not on Twitter). There, I have been passing along images and commentary that I think can help provide nuance or contrast to the prevailing script being rehearsed and performed by the media.
Here, I’ll continue to focus primarily on my own experiences, which I also hope are providing nuance and contrast to media accounts of the so-called “Baltimore riots.” Thanks to everyone for the positive feedback on Facebook and in email. More soon.