An open letter to Baltimore

baltimore_riot Dear Baltimore,

I'm feeling sick about you tonight, city of my birth and my home for over two decades. It's late, I'm exhausted, and I will probably not be very eloquent about this—but I hope you will give me a listen anyway.

I believe—and I think you should consider—that it is possible to find one's own narrative amid the mass/social media noise, a narrative that acknowledges the messiness of real life and rejects the easy, simplistic explanations (because they are usually bullshit anyway). A narrative that isn't spoonfed via your TV newscasters or your loudmouthed friends.

I suggest, as Timothy Leary once recommended, that you think for yourself. 

Consider what I think are some incontrovertible facts:

1. Police brutality exists and it is a day-to-day reality for many people in Baltimore and other cities. And it is almost entirely aimed at black and brown people. I've seen it, I've heard it from the mouths of abusive cops, and I've been subjected to it myself (admittedly at a very minor level because, well, I'm a white, blue-eyed, middle-class guy). I dealt with cops in Anne Arundel County who were quite upfront about their racism in the late 80s—so not much has changed. If anything, it has gotten worse.

2. An entire group of people has been written off and left to rot, with shitty schools, blighted, violent neighborhoods, and very little hope of a way out of abject poverty. Those who believe these people are somehow living the good life should consider trading places for a day and living off those "generous" government benefits. If you're middle class, do you have it easy? Got a nice savings socked away? No? Then imagine making $30k less than you're pulling in today. Sound like a fun time? I didn't think so.

3. The drug war has decimated our inner city communities. With little chance of making a living within the law, it's no surprise that people make money the only way they can. The drug war—which is a war on brown-skinned people, plain and simple, because white people are the major users of drugs while their crimes are disproportionately ignored—has destroyed black communities and left an enormous number of broken families. Prison is the de facto finishing school for an enormous number of kids.

I think we can agree that is a very shitty situation.

So... maybe we can understand why there is a seething rage in our cities. Because when you feel like you have nothing to lose, you act like it.

4. We can also perhaps agree that when people riot it hurts their cause and their communities much more than it sends any sort of effective message to the powers-that-be. It solidifies the stereotypes of people who want to slander the opportunistic rioters en masse. And for every person you see rioting, there are hundreds of people in those same communities cowering in fear, huddling with their children, watching with anger and despair as their neighborhoods fall to pieces.

5. We can also agree that not all cops are bad, and many of them actually care about the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. And while some cops—hell, I'd say plenty—relish scenes of chaos like we've seen tonight, most do not. The ones that do get off on this chaos are likely the same ones who use unnecessary violence, and they should lose their badges and their livelihoods. The others are in pain like the rest of us. If you say ALL cops are racist abusers, you are part of the problem.

6. We can perhaps also agree that violence is a poor tactic if you want to change things. Violence in opposition to violence just amps up the violence exponentially. And busting into a store and stealing shit is playing into the hands of those who want nothing but to keep you down. Because you've just handed them more ammo for their racism. And they will vote, and the people they elect will serve your interests or those of your community.

Anger is justified, criminality is not—and that goes for cops and kids in the streets.

So don't buy into the narrative that this awful episode is a good thing, that it needed to happen to foment some sort of violent revolution. Don't buy into the racist narrative, either, or join the idiots cheering and chanting "Burn, baby, burn!" on that ugly side of the debate.

Because it isn't a debate. We're all in this together, all decent people who want nothing more than to live in peace with our neighbors. There should be no debate on the following common sense issues:

  • Violence is a poor tactic and always counterproductive, whether it comes at the end of a police club, a bullet, or a brick. It's a losing strategy.
  • Justice must be blind and fair and not relegated to those of a particular skin color or those who can afford it.
  • We should respect our fellow citizens and their property because they are our neighbors, and neighbors shouldn't hurt each other.

Nothing controversial there, I hope.

I just pray we can agree that this is a terrible night for an otherwise vibrant, diverse city, and not cheer on lazy narratives that glorify or excuse racism, police brutality, violence against people and property, and just plain stupid, wanton criminality of any stripe. Instead, maybe we can stop blaming each other and figure out how to fix this awful conflation of anger and ugliness and build something out of the emotional and physical ruins.

Reach out, speak out, and stand up for the common things that make us strong. Talk to your neighbors. Be a neighbor.

Peace, Baltimore.