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Lessons from Baltimore

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“Why am I being arrested? I haven’t done anything wrong. Why am I being treated this way? I live here. The curfew law is stupid. I live here. The law’s stupid. Why are they arresting me? This is so wrong!”

Those were the words of a young woman in Baltimore about 10:30 on a recent Friday night as police were hustling her off to a waiting prisoner transport van. I’d guess she was in her early 20’s – well dressed – good makeup – nice looking young lady – probably a college student. Oh, and she was white. It was a small moment in the nights of rioting and police baiting. But it was a microcosm of the week in all the noise and activity.

There is so much wrong with what she was shouting to the TV camera as she was being hauled away. So much.

First, the curfew was not a law. It was an executive order of the mayor approved by the Baltimore City Council. Second, the order had been widely published and had been enforced two previous nights. Third, the time of her arrest was 30 minutes past the curfew limit which was being broadcast from helicopters and police vehicles on the ground and which thousands of others had obeyed. Fourth, she obviously did not live in this section of the city – maybe some other Baltimore neighborhood – not this one. Fifth, just because she thought the order “stupid” gave her no legal standing not to abide by it.

Finally, she had no idea why she was there. My guess is it was to be “seen” – to be where the action was. Or because some of her friends were there. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. Suppose she was a young, bleeding-heart who wanted to stand beside her oppressed “brothers and sisters.” Suppose her motives for being in a place she didn’t live with people she didn’t know – and with many black citizens who likely wouldn’t have welcomed her misguided participation – were pure as snow. Christian, as it were.

The facts were these. It was well-past the curfew limit – the well-publicized curfew limit – which made her a violator whether she agreed with the “law” or not. Her white face sent a clear message she didn’t live in the neighborhood and she was there during a curfew applied to all of Baltimore – not just the west end – though it was being enforced primarily in the west end. Police had lawful orders to close streets and arrest anyone out past a certain time. It won’t take Clarence Darrow to prosecute her appearance in court.

The young lady was in the wrong place at the wrong time learning nothing. Plus being wrong at the top of her lungs.

The place to be for nearly all of us to learn was in front of the TV. There was a lot to see and learn. You could learn, that is, if you ignored the often broadcast grandstanding, self-promotion and some of its deviant journalistic behavior. Especially Faux Nues which promoted the cops at all times in spite of what may have been going on.

At our house, we were surprised to learn how many black public officials – Congress on down – have had ”the talk” with their teen sons about how to deal with cops on the street. Media types and clergy. too. Few of us have had to do that. We learned of – and watched – the individual heroism of retired USAF M/Sgt Robert Valentine who put himself alone between police lines and young demonstrators to keep the two sides from clashing. He did it several nights running.

We watched a black minister live his faith when someone torched his church’s nearly completed multi-million-dollar senior community center. “We’ll begin again,” when asked how he felt. No condemnation for the arsonist. No self-pity. Just “begin again.”

We learned courage and tough love from a scared black mother who charged into the street to pull her teenage son out of the rioting crowd. Yes, she hit him in the head with her hand. Yes, more than once. She yanked off his black ski mask. She pummeled his head, arms and back with her fists. She got him back. And, 24-hours later on national television, the kid said “Thank you.” I wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d hit him with a 2×4 in her terrified act of love. Mother love.

We watched some of the crowd offer bottled of water to the heavily-dressed officers on the line. We heard many officers say “Thank you.” We watched citizens put themselves in the smoke-filled space between crowds and police lines amid flying debris to carry signs saying to the crowd “Go Home.” For several nights. And most did.

We saw dozens and dozens of clergy, business people and just plain folks walk into the fray to plead with both sides to “stand down” and avoid confrontation. We learned courage could come from people who had probably never thought of themselves as “courageous” people. But there they were. Being courageous.

We, who do not live in Baltimore’s west end – or any other large city’s depressed community – had no business being there those nights. Never – never – could we understand what so many innocent people were saying to authority out there on the asphalt. We could not know or understand the indigenous frustrations and fear caused by simply facing another day or month or year living under those conditions. Even after nights of watching, we still don’t know how to feel it. We do know a little more about it.

These days, the streets of Baltimore’s west end are no place for white 20-something’s who live comfortably somewhere else and who have no use for or understanding of “laws” they believe are “dumb.” There’s simply too much work to be done by people who are charged with the many and varied tasks of community rebuilding. We need to sympathize – to understand – but to stay out of the way.

The young prosecutor who brought charges against six cops will likely not get convictions – at least at the level of those charges. What the reaction will be then – several months if not years down the line – will have to wait. Right now – now while most west end residents seem to want to work for better days – now is the time to put some flesh on those desires. I hope those who are leading will get to work. Now.

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