Thinking of Baltimore

You can read my ramblings below, or not, I don’t care. They don’t amount to much. But do please read this: Nonviolence as Compliance , a well-argued and much needed piece, written by someone much closer to Baltimore than this ex-Maryland girl.


It really wasn’t that long ago that not many people outside of Maryland had any kind of opinion or knowledge of the city of Baltimore itself, much less its long legacy of racial tension (something common to most major cities in the U.S., sadly, but also something that has its own unique dimensions and flavor depending on where you go).

Then “The Wire” happened, and now some people have a vague awareness of Baltimore, that place from the TV show where a majority of residents are black and poor, a sad, gritty little port city soaked in corruption and drugs.

Of course, this isn’t all Baltimore is–of course, it’s more complex than that. But what the show portrayed isn’t untrue either.

It is true that a lot of the city is pretty rough, that middle-class-and-up white people mostly go to only a few areas, and even then mostly for work or entertainment. Because if you have the means, you live in the suburbs, for better schools and safer neighborhoods. John’s Hopkins, a goddamn world class university, is a rather disturbing little enclave of shining wealth–when I took a tour there as a potential applicant, the front gates of campus faced buildings that were quite literally falling apart. Even long time residents of the city often aspire to move out of it, when they have a little more money–at the very least, out to the nearest surrounding areas, the rest of Baltimore county. (This is what characters on “The Wire” frequently spoke of as moving to “the county”.)

But even though I grew up so close to Baltimore–you could literally see the lights of the city across the bay from my Grandparents’ backyard–as a middle class white kid in the suburbs, it wasn’t really my city, not really a place I knew. When Baltimore comes up in conversation, again, usually because of The Wire, I explain it to people this way: you know all that stuff you see on that show? That was my local news growing up. It was right fucking there, but it was also background noise.

The dark side of the city touched my life so lightly, just around the edges. A few times after a heavy storm, we found a needle or two washed up on the beach in our backyard. When I applied to a few selective private high schools in the city my father insisted on teaching me self defense techniques, just because I would be in the city every day (I didn’t end up going, but that’s a different story). When I had an internship in the city one summer in college, my parents worried about me walking the few blocks to the train station after dark, since only half of those blocks were part of the nicer area surrounding the University of Maryland medical center where I worked.

I went into the city plenty–mostly for field trips or family outings to one of the museums or shopping malls around the Inner Harbor. Occasionally I saw a baseball game at Camden Yards, and for some reason I took a school field trip to the Raven’s stadium before it opened, when the purple seats were still shiny and new. And I had a love for it, an affinity for it, that was real. But we also always went home at the end of the day. I’d say that the Chesapeake Bay, the body of water on which Baltimore has its harbor, is in my blood, despite all my time away from it, but I cannot claim that its city is.

And now this city that I hold such an odd, tenuous connection to is on fire, burning up with anger that has spilled over into rioting. And I feel as if I should have something to say about it, something that goes beyond the sharing of worthy articles by thoughtful people that I have done around similar uprising in other cities in the last year. Something that acknowledges the many times the child version of me watched Baltimore… Camden Yards, the old Bethlehem Steel Building, the Domino Sugar sign…stream by the windows of our family car. Something that accounts for the fact that learning the history of the Star Spangled Banner while looking across the water at the bridge that bears its author’s name is one of my most treasured childhood memories, and that stories of drug-related violence on the news did more to make me fear drugs than any DARE program ever could.

But really, there isn’t anything. Baltimore is just a city near where I grew up. I have no special insight here, except maybe this: as I mentioned before, this is not the first U.S. city to experience very similar uprisings in response to police brutality against black men. But it hit me just a tiny bit harder, for the in-the-grand-scheme-of-things-quite-silly reason that I have a tiny amount of personal connection to the place where it is happening.

And the thing is, the issues that have brought this chaos to Baltimore are really issues across the U.S.–it’s just that it’s Baltimore that happens to be burning tonight. So maybe, tonight, imagine that a place that is in some way or another dear to your heart, is the community tearing itself apart. Because it isn’t logical that we need to have a personal connection to really care about injustice the way we should, but it is a reality of how humans work. I think it’s worth putting in this tiny bit of mental effort to try and counteract that shortcoming of ours as a species, if only in the smallest of ways, don’t you think?

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