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Last Night There Was a Riot in My Neighborhood — Today There’s Mostly Just Sadness

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: People helping to clean up debris caused by rioting yesterday after the funeral of Freddie Gray are seen in the reflection of a partially destroyed window on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
People helping to clean up debris caused by rioting yesterday after the funeral of Freddie Gray are seen in the reflection of a partially destroyed window on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

I live in a Baltimore neighborhood called Bolton Hill, on the border between the city’s downtown and its west side. It is a pretty, quiet, self-contained place — big 19th-century townhouses, an art school that makes the streets funkier than they otherwise might be. Because the neighborhood is mostly white and mostly professional in a city that is mostly not, you sometimes notice hard edges, left over from a more racially hostile city than the one we know. There is, for instance, a large fence along North Avenue — the northern edge of our neighborhood whose only plausible function is to keep outsiders out; each October kids from Bolton Hill trick-or-treat on the Sunday before Halloween, because on Halloween itself there are so many kids from outside the neighborhood who come in. But during the three years we’ve lived here, it has been a heartening position from which to view Baltimore. Because it butts up against several neighborhoods that have been more violent and poor, it has been possible to see some slow transformations: a little more prosperity moving out into the neighborhoods, a little more comity across boundaries, a little more ease. The North Avenue fence came to seem both profoundly offensive and entirely unnecessary.

Yesterday, just before 2 p.m., the Baltimore Police Department released a public advisory, saying that they had “credible evidence” that organized street gangs would be banding together that afternoon with plans to attack cops and businesses, and so the city began to shut down — the Mondawmin Mall, and the University of Maryland campus here, and many businesses, and our daughter’s day care. At the time, I thought this was excessive — the protests for a week had been heartening, mostly peaceful and well organized and precisely directed, and it seemed like the cops might be overreacting. I’d gotten a call from a cable television producer asking if I could come on the air to talk about what was happening in Baltimore, and so after I dropped my daughter off at home with my wife, I got in the car they sent and went back downtown to the studio. By this time, a little before four, the first outbreak of violence, at the Mondawmin Mall, had begun. On air, narrating over a helicopter feed, each time I tried to characterize what was happening I found myself almost immediately contradicted by events. I pointed out that the people throwing rocks at the cops at the Mondawmin Mall all looked very young; soon there were images of adults. I said that for the moment, things elsewhere seemed calm; almost immediately there was footage of looting on Pennsylvania Avenue. The city that I knew was receding even as I was describing it. At one point, as the helicopter camera lingered over the Mondawmin Mall, I said, “I shop at that Target.” What a ridiculous thing to say in public. What I meant was, Baltimore may be poor but don’t think of it as an unfathomable ghetto, don’t orientalize it. It’s an everyday place, full of everyday people doing everyday things. There was footage of a police car burning next to a CVS, which people were looting, and I thought, I know that CVS. It was about eight blocks from our house. 

Out on North Avenue — and this became clearer to me later, looking at social-media feeds at home, than it was in the chaos of the moment — it seemed that every African-American organization, large or small, was trying to interpose itself between the riot and the cops, to keep things from escalating further. Pastor Jamal Bryant, who’d given Freddie Gray’s eulogy that morning and is becoming a major figure in Baltimore, arrived from his church on Eutaw Street. Representative Elijah Cummings did too. The men of the 300 Man March, a movement for community change, deployed. Members of the Nation of Islam linked arms and physically separated the rioters from the police. Some of these were acts of remarkable heroism. Almost surely they helped to calm the situation on both sides. And yet they were not able to stop it. This has been the great sadness of the past two weeks in Baltimore. The city’s political and institutional leadership are all basically progressive and basically on the same side. And yet even this generally progressive city has not been able to stop horrifying acts of police brutality, nor to mediate between the cops and the communities where they are most active.

Some of our neighbors left, to stay in hotels or with friends elsewhere, but most stayed. There were reports of violence along Eutaw Street downtown, where windows were smashed and a deli looted, and we were more or less between the two sites of violence. We could hear sirens and explosions on North Avenue; there were helicopters constantly overhead. But it was still calm where we were. At one point, surreally, two people jogged through the park outside our window. Our 2-year-old daughter, perceiving the stress, was acting up, and so we caved and let her watch Annie and tried to figure out if we should do anything differently. We figured it was as a matter of principle to stay put and as a matter of tactics difficult to figure out how to get out, given the blocked-off streets and the crowds around us. We made dinner and put our daughter and our infant son to bed.

At about eight o’clock, there was looting in Bolton Hill. It was strangely precise, acquisitive. There is a small strip of shops two blocks from our house — a supermarket, a Rite-Aid, a hardware store, and a liquor store around the corner. I called a neighbor, who had gone there earlier, and while we were on the phone, he watched people pulling up in cars, running into the liquor store and the Rite-Aid, loading up their trunks, and driving off. Someone had smashed the pharmacy’s security gate. Outside the hardware store stood its owners, and a few neighbors, in a confrontation with a group of kids who had come to loot it. One of the neighbors sprayed Mace at the kids, and they left. A Baltimore Sun education reporter, on the scene, later wrote that one of the kids had shouted, “We’ll be back.” Who knows what that meant. People say all kinds of crazy things in moments like this. Soon the hardware store had boards up on its windows, which seemed a small victory; the neighborhood had held. Within an hour, there was an incredible sequence of sirens on North Avenue. The police and fire departments were shifting much of their operations to East Baltimore, where a massive fire had consumed a building under construction that had been intended to serve as housing for low-income senior citizens. In our neighborhood, as we looked around, we noticed that despite some early reports, nothing besides the stores had been touched. There had not been break-ins; no one had smashed the windows of the cars. We had the guilty feeling you often have in a nice neighborhood in a poor city, of having experienced only a momentary, slight version of the stress that exists permanently all around you, of having gotten off easy. Eventually we went to bed.

Last night Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic wrote a widely circulated essay arguing that there was something disingenuous about all of the official calls for nonviolence in Baltimore yesterday. “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse,” he wrote. Things don’t look like that to me. Those calling for nonviolence yesterday weren’t exactly the aggressors (which is to say, the police) but a third party, the city’s political leadership. To some of us who live here, Baltimore can feel like the site of a great project, not yet mature but begun, to correct its own politics and policies, to reduce the divergence between its richest and poorest parts, to redeem itself. The points on this arc can seem minute, but still they feel like real progress: bulldozing vacants, planting trees in the poorest neighborhoods, a pretty quickly expanding list of places where it is nice to walk and where you can bring your family, how flat-out friendly people are here. The call for nonviolence was a plea for more time for this project, not from cynics but from hopeful people. A little bit of the city’s progress was visible yesterday, in figures like Pastor Bryant and Councilman Brandon Scott. But there hasn’t been enough, and change hasn’t come quickly enough, and to survey the city this morning is to see that project endangered. Maybe it was naïve to think it was a project at all, and not just the ordinary political background noise. We are where we are.

When I drove around Baltimore this morning, I found that fewer neighborhoods had been destroyed than I expected. But the city — even my own, intimate city — still looks terrible. There’s a burned-out Rite-Aid right by my daughter’s day care. There are Humvees on the west side, and National Guardsmen in camouflage. My wife’s hospital is still in a kind of lockdown. You see signs posted saying, “Black-Owned Business,” left over from a night of warding off rioters. The streets are still pretty empty. The sirens and helicopters are still going. The cops are still all geared up.

The story of race and policing in Baltimore is not a story of micro-aggressions but just aggressions, plain and simple, mostly from the cops toward the citizens. This morning the social ruptures that follow those kind of aggressions are everywhere, so that neighborhoods once again feel walled off. Part of what you feel this morning is a kind of 10 a.m. optimism, that no one died yesterday, that today looks like a day for teach-ins and cleanups, that perhaps things will get better rather than worse. The rest is just sadness.

Last Night There Was a Riot in My Neighborhood