The Forgotten Ones of North Baltimore

The Americans are alarmed over the violence in Baltimore, but there are explanations. As in similar city neighborhoods in the U.S., drugs are the only source of income.

This evening the nihilism in Baltimore is taking a break. Shortly after the beginning of the curfew at 10:00 p.m. there is a small skirmish on Pennsylvania Avenue, but the handful of demonstrators are easily driven off with a little pepper spray. Afterwards only a police phalanx of men in black riot gear remain, complete with helmets, vests and shields.

Not 24 hours earlier Pennsylvania Avenue flushed the furious hordes out of the ghettos and into the respectable neighborhoods, which they transformed into a corridor of devastation. Boarded up shops, burned out cars, and a charred pharmacy are the witnesses of the action. But ever since the National Guard of Maryland was deployed on Tuesday morning, a tense peace has settled here, temporarily at least. The anger that drove the youth on Monday to throw stones resides deep.

One only has to take a few steps away from Pennsylvania Avenue to find this anger, between the meager storefronts and auto parts dealers, down the narrow Primrose Avenue, which after 100 meters ends at the edge of a small patch of forest in front of a massive building. It may look like a warehouse, but it is in fact a megachurch for an audience of a good 1,000 people.

Gangs Declare Ceasefire

Jamal Bryant, a pastor of the community who also held the eulogy for Freddie G. (who died in police custody), was invited. It has to be demonstrated “that what we saw yesterday on the street is not our city,” Bryant imploringly exclaimed into the microphone.* Three hundred followers of all shades have arrived, people from all parts of the city, with all skin colors represented, the elderly, the youth, the rich, the poor. Fifty members of the feared gangs Crips and Bloods are also amont the crowd. They have temporarily set aside their eternal strife with one another and declared a ceasefire.

The high point of the evening is a communal mourning session, a sort of cleansing for the soul of the city. Bryant wants to give the citizens of Baltimore the opportunity to express their anger productively, to articulate their fury in front of the community, instead of smashing windows. The need is great, as the line of those wanting to raise their voices extends to the entrance.

There is Sandra, for example, a nearly 60-year-old native Jamaican. She got to observe her son being shot with nine bullets from police revolvers, simply because he held a box cutter in his hand. There was no investigation or indictment. “No one cares about it, no one is interested,” she laments in the hall.

Or the 16-year-old Jamira, whose brother was shot by the police and as a result she became traumatized and psychologically unstable, and therefore undesirable by any college as the school psychologist is unable to write her a good assessment. She desires nothing else but an education with which she can make something of herself, with which she can escape the destitution here. And she also uses the words that one has been hearing over and over again here this evening: “No one cares. No one is interested at all.”

Systematic War on the Lower Class

It is the appropriate feeling of the people of North Baltimore: being forgotten. For decades the neighborhoods that ring the central business district have been left to themselves and avoided like a swamp with foul water, provided only with the basic necessities. Whoever grows up here barely has a chance to escape the cycle of poverty and criminality. “It creates zones in which the drug trade is the only consistently available source of income,” as David Simon, creator of the cult show “The Wire,” has said.*

“The Wire” itself was based on Simon’s decades-long experience as a police reporter in Baltimore. Whoever is familiar with the show should hardly be surprised about the death of Freddie G. “The police,” says Simon, “lead a systematic war on the lower class.”* The ghettos that Simon describes and the very similar neighborhoods of North Baltimore, the south side of Chicago, and also Ferguson, act like prisons for a permanent underclass that is strictly patrolled by a highly armed, aggressive state power, according to Simon.

Therefore, many here in the empowerment temple of Pastor Bryant have sympathy for the riots, even if no one wants to openly approve of them. One woman of about 40, who introduces herself as a teacher, states something of sort. “I am not proud of how our youth behaved yesterday. But I am proud that they shook us awake.”

‘We Have Put Up with This for Too Long’

That is also something that one hears often this evening. “Us old folks,” admits one man of about 50 in agreement with the teacher from before, “have simply put up with the way things are for too long. The kids don’t let themselves get accustomed to it, they aren’t so jaded like us.”

On Tuesday at the intersection of West North Street and Pennsylvania, exactly where the youth burned down a pharmacy the day before, a festival atmosphere prevails. In the middle of the intersection two drummers and a saxophonist performed a spontaneous jazz session, the onlookers dance to it uninhibitedly. White students from Johns Hopkins University have come to show their solidarity as well. All throughout the place speakers with megaphones rail against police violence, poverty and corruption.

Volunteers from the area have committed themselves to cleaning up their own neighborhood. What could be gathered from the pharmacy is saved, the mess of fire extinguisher water and debris is swept together. The library on the corner opens as usual, demonstrating normalcy. Nothing indicates that the situation could turn sour again.

No one wants violence here. But no one wants to simply return to the daily routine either. “Something has to change,” says Christyn Wallace, a young woman, who came with her friend Latoya, “Because I couldn’t take it at home on the couch.”

Children Already Have Fear of the Police

Christyn and Latoya know the problems here all too well. They teach at the elementary school in the neighborhood. “We have 40 children in the class,” they explain, “and each year the means become more scarce.” Just in the past year two youth centers were closed, places where kids could go after school. To provide the children, who mostly come from difficult families, with a perspective is practically impossible. In the worst cases, Christyn and Latoya find that children of six, seven years already have fear of the police. “Each child has a father or a big brother who has been bullied or abused.” To dream of themselves becoming police officers wouldn’t occur to them.

When they contemplate all of the problems here, as both of the young women say, they almost bring themselves to desperation. “Our neighborhood and the people here have been systematically oppressed for many decades.” The fact that the chief of police and the mayor are now black has done about as much to change anything as Obama’s entering the White House. “The problems run too deep.”

Nevertheless they are not giving up hope. Allowing the neighborhood or even the entire city to give in to nihilism is not an option for them. “We have to believe that one can overcome, what else do we have otherwise?”

The peace is fragile in Baltimore, as the real conflict has not merely begun with the past weekend. And it will certainly not have passed by the next.

* Editor’s Note: This quote accurately translated, could not be verified.

** Editor’s Note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified. While Mr. Simon did speak recently about the drug war and Baltimore, the author may have paraphrased his words.

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