Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.
The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.
During a break, I offered Freddie’s twin sister, Fredericka, a cup of water, which she refused, perhaps wary of the strangers now expressing concern, the same people who would have ignored her waiting for a bus in the rain on North Avenue. After court reconvened, Freddie’s mother, Gloria, balled up a tissue and dropped it on the floor, where it rolled under her seat. She didn’t know that in his morning testimony Officer Porter had presented himself as a light of reform, telling the jury how public littering was one of the few offenses for which he issued citations on his beat at the Gilmor Street public-housing buildings, where residents like the Grays regularly gathered to interrogate the police during arrests. When the prosecutor asked Porter whether he had protected public life, he said yes. Gray’s stepfather snorted sarcastically.
While court was in session, Freddie’s Uncle Odabe clambered over my knees into the pew behind the other family members. He wore a three-quarter-length black jacket, blue jeans, sneakers, black skullcap. A tall, lean man with close-cropped gray hair, he reminded me of the eighteenth-century Marylander Yarrow Mamout, a Muslim man born in West Africa. Odabe wore his facial hair in a style reminiscent of Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of Mamout, which now hangs in a museum in Pennsylvania — clean-shaven save for a thicket of hair underneath his bottom lip — though he was two shades darker than the figure in the painting.
Brother Odabe was slyly and amusedly animated. He announced his presence by touching the shoulders of his nieces and his sister. In lieu of a greeting, he began a kind of banter, but the response of his bunched kin suggested that they were warding off a blow; maybe there had been a recent disagreement or they were embarrassed by his presence. Talking in the courtroom was also prohibited. He introduced himself to me by repeating a rhetorical question: “It’s all right for a man to cry? It’s all right for a man to cry?” Odabe spoke in Baltimore’s vernacular, in a low, garbled register, as if his vocal chords were recovering from a shouting bout. He seemed not unaware of courtroom decorum and protocol, merely disinclined to submit to a force so similar to the one that had claimed his nephew. He picked up the balled tissue from the floor, and his pointed, guttural conversation quickened.
“Is it about the money?” he cried to his family, who had recently received a multimillion-dollar settlement from the city. He had seized a white-noise moment — Judge Barry Williams, who dominated the courtroom like a witty powerlifter, had the attorneys at his bench for a discussion, and the clerks had filled the courtroom with the sound of television snow. No matter. The sheriff’s deputies swiftly arrived at the pew. “No noise allowed, sir,” commanded the same officer who had earlier reprimanded me when I asked for directions to the courtroom for the “Freddie Gray trial,” the inaccurate handle that the television networks were using. The officer beckoned for Odabe, who refused to leave and asserted his right to be in the courtroom. The tension was eased by another deputy, bald-headed and bearded like most of the African-American men over thirty who were in the courtroom. He knew Odabe, and he touched his hand soothingly, assuring him that he would be all right. But a third officer, tall and powerfully built, reversed the redemptive gesture and commanded Odabe out. The deputy entered the pew and reached for his slumped prey. They were joined by the shift supervisor, a jacketed female sheriff; and the four officers yoked Odabe by the shoulders and feet as he argued his citizenship rights, folding his arms like a mummy, and cast him out.
The family seemed to respond to Odabe’s outburst with chagrin, but I was moved by his words and wondered whether he had not sacrificed himself to reveal a greater truth. Because it turned out that the powerful officer was Warren Smith, who had been my section leader in band during middle school. Another of the deputies, all of whom were African-American, had saved me from being beaten by a gang of older boys when we were in high school. His name was Troy Jackson. Both of the men had served part of their careers as uniformed patrol officers in the Western District, where Freddie Gray lived and died. In the back of the courtroom the next afternoon, I reunited with the men, who were togged out in brown shirts and ties and Glocks. We laughed at the chance meeting, the old times, and called our town Smalltimore. What united us was the same thing that tied us to Freddie, whom other friends of mine had coached in football, to Porter, who grew up in West Baltimore, down the street from my closest friend. Odabe’s symbolic theater embodied the point: a living tissue connecting the litter, the litterers, and the cleaners.
Freddie Gray’s fatal treatment in police custody happened partly on camera, during a national mobilization of young people who have awoken on thousands of mornings in a nation with a black chief of state. These young people are inspired by the apparently endless possibility of modern life, and as a result they find it difficult to grasp the bantustans of America where black life is not supposed to matter at all. Not so my grandparents, who migrated up to Baltimore, to the edges of the Sandtown neighborhood, in the 1930s, from one of Virginia’s southernmost tobacco counties. Many in their clans, eight out of ten for my grandmother and three out of six for my grandfather, relocated to West Baltimore. My grandmother, the eldest in her unit, said the farmwork was hard; her sister Daisy hated it so much that she said little about her own parents in kindness. Even my farm-owning great-grandparents, the first generation born into freedom since Africa, moved to Baltimore before they died.
Since entire extended families crowded into single houses before there was a cure for tuberculosis, a menace to blacks along Druid Hill Avenue, it makes sense to me that my family moved again as soon as they could. My great-uncle, a combat veteran of two years in World War II and two more in Korea, went from McCulloh Street to the tree-lined boulevard of Bentalou Street. He was the only one of his brothers to take his G.I. Bill–funded education past high school — to fast-typing record holder Cortez Peters’s Business School at 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nobody ever told me why they wanted to leave McCulloh Street or Druid Hill Avenue after the start of blockbusting — domino-theory real-estate tactics to frighten less-educated whites into underselling their homes, which were then flipped to blacks at above market value. Besides, the houses my relatives were able to get as whites fled the neighborhood en masse were so much better than the kitchenette apartments knifed into the row houses of Sandtown, where they still go, religiously, to church.
My entire family seemed agreed on this point after World War II. Their grandparents had been enslaved, and their parents had been wiped out by agricultural pests, tractors, and the Depression; they would move to the cities and prosper by beating the odds and owning homes with luxuries like indoor plumbing and gas stoves. My great-aunts and their husbands and brothers, all veterans, crept westward, buying houses on Bentalou, and Ruxton Avenue and Lanvale Street in Edmondson Village, at Hilton and Piedmont, off Bloomingdale in Rosemont, all, with the exception of one traitor to East Baltimore, part of the steady westward expansion of black plumbers, nurses, Social Security Administration employees, circuit-court typists, dry cleaners, cab and bus drivers, and domestic servants. They loved the amenities of the city, the opportunity for high school, the streetcars, the array of foods and shops and churches, the choice marketplace on Pennsylvania Avenue and the even bigger market downtown on Lexington Street. In the country they had cured ham and drunk dandelion wine, but here in Baltimore there was the delicatessen, soft-shell crabs, steam heating, and the craft world of European immigrants from Greece, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Germany.
I suppose my mother’s parents were real strivers, who took the pay from their service jobs and finagled a house on a block with a few Jewish families and one other black family. But their Scotch-Irish neighbors were recent hillbilly war workers, migrants from West Virginia and Kentucky, not even passably educated. They drank freely. The current publisher of the Afro, the only leading black newspaper left in the United States, remembered my mom’s block in the era after World War II. Robert Street at Linden Avenue was “something to see Friday and Saturday night,” with “blood in the street.” He was talking about drunk, brawling white men. Still, when the neighborhood to the north became black, the Downes Brothers Pharmacy near North and Linden took out the soda fountain (“a hindrance”) and stocked their coolers with beer and liquor. The neighborhood had changed.
And thus the prime version of black advance under segregation: your strong effort for homeownership, fueled by jobs that leave you ineligible for Social Security benefits, is in a crease beyond a real-estate boundary, next door to illiterate drunkards. Eminent domain turned my grandparents’ integrated block into a public park. My grandmother moved happily in 1965 north of Druid Hill Park, to Park Heights, then still a Jewish neighborhood. But by the early 1970s, the whites were gone and the houses in need of updating for a generation that was city-born. When I moved to her house in 1997, near the open-air drug market on the corner of Wylie Avenue, I befriended a fifth grader named Marvin Coston. I would try to get him to talk about his life, to stop smoking cigarettes on his way out the door. “Mr. Larry,” he used to say, “I just be worried about some damn maniac coming down the street.” I was a young professor at Howard, writing editorials about the murder on my doorstep, and I thought that was eerie clairvoyance for an eleven-year-old. I lost touch with Marvin when I moved from the neighborhood. He made it through the difficult teenage years, though not through the wave of forty-five homicides that engulfed Baltimore last July.
My parents went farther away from the traditional neighborhood in Sandtown, up to Liberty Heights. In the year that I was born, they bought a house on a street that was the dividing line between two neighborhoods, Arlington and Ashburton, maybe ten good blocks from Mondawmin Mall, a shopping center catering to the needs of some of the poorest Americans while also offering an absurdly glitzy high end, silk suits and alligator-skin shoes. Beyond Druid Hill Park, the wide, tree-lined boulevards filled with two-story single-family homes must have seemed an almost different city from the places they knew best. Their college friends Nina and Pete Rawlings, the parents of the current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, lived a block west on a broad road shrouded by giant maples. But there was no power on earth that would have granted my parents a mortgage to purchase a home in, say, lily-white Dumbarton, between Homeland and Towson, where the same row house is easily worth two and a half times as much today as my mother’s row house in East Arlington. (I have marveled at the Dumbarton houses, the irony, when they are featured on House Hunters.)
My grandfather’s brothers, who died before I was born, and my neighbors Mr. Grant, Mr. Taylor, Mr. Washington, and Mr. Holman worked for a time at Sparrows Point, Bethlehem Steel’s plant. In many stories the crisis of rust-belt deindustrialization pivots on the sad closing of the key employer. But this mill was crucifier if it was ever savior, and the cross was certainly sunk in the ground by the early 1960s, when it employed about 30,000 men, 7,300 of them black. The history there was one of intense segregation: colored signs over the toilets, and black men working with one another on unskilled, dangerous tasks, scraping to keep even that piece of a job. The Department of Labor roused itself by 1974 to disrupt the discriminatory system of promotion at the plant, but the handwriting of globalization was in neon on the wall. Nixon and the Chicago Boys of economic theory were getting going in Chile and Argentina, and Baltimore wasn’t in line for the rewards for supporting Nixon that went to the Sunbelt.
The gem of Baltimore’s urban redevelopment, the aquarium and the two food and specialty-shop pavilions that make up Harborplace, was first dreamed to life in the 1950s with a bond issue and a development plan by a guy named Jim Rouse, who had worked for the Federal Housing Administration. At the time the redesign was conceived, the city of one million was 75 percent white. As waterfront development, financial services, and the Johns Hopkins University hospital complex became the bedrock of the white middle class, black economics rested squarely on the post offices, local government, and the school system. Teachers and sanitation workers struck for a raise in 1974, and Baltimore caved to a fate like that of New York, which submitted to the banks in a debt crisis that resulted in huge service reductions, layoffs, and the reintroduction of tuition at public colleges. In Chocolate City we were lashed more tightly to two beasts, a shrinking municipal government and education system and a private market of unskilled-service employment that ebbed and flowed. But this was during an era of extreme inflation, when high youth unemployment, urban density, and a shifting mission for school programs ran headlong into heroin-addicted Vietnam veterans, and then crack cocaine. (We always thought cocaine was a sophisticated and unaddictive stimulant, hence its street name: “girl.”) Public education fell under the wheels of the shrinking tax base caused by white flight — an exodus federally paved with the highway system and the relocation of the industrial and finance sectors — and let’s just pile on “special” education classes for boys. Empowerment Zones and spectacle sports complexes were inadequate balms. Someone once calculated that the net return on Camden Yards, the baseball stadium beloved by conservatives, where some $200 million in state funds were invested, was slightly better than 1 percent. Kurt Schmoke, one of the most talented leaders to come along in a generation, hoped his legacy as the city’s first African-American mayor would be education. When he took the job in 1988, he tried to rename Baltimore “the city that reads,” though the motto curdled into “the city that bleeds.”
But the bleeding began before that. Who doesn’t know by now that as American cities became blacker in the Fifties and Sixties, police departments felt fewer qualms about “cleaning them up” with deadly force? Like Officer Porter on litter patrol in the Gilmor Projects, police force was nearly always rationalized for its hygienic powers, the same way it is explained today. In Baltimore, a broom wasn’t strong enough; sometimes the state needed a hose. When things seemed to be getting out of hand, such as when two officers were shot in 1964, the police department initiated a practice they called “turn-up”; they mobilized specially armed squads to conduct hundreds of violent, warrantless searches. In 1966 the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit put an end to the practice, with an interesting rationale:
Baltimore City has escaped thus far the agony and brutality of the riots experienced in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other urban centers. Courts cannot shut their eyes to events that have been widely publicized throughout the nation and the world. Lack of respect for the police is conceded to be one of the factors generating violent outbursts in Negro communities. The invasions so graphically depicted in this case “could” happen in prosperous suburban neighborhoods, but the innocent victims know only that wholesale raids do not happen elsewhere and did happen to them. Understandably they feel that such illegal treatment is reserved for those elements who the police believe cannot or will not challenge them. It is of the highest importance to community morale that the courts shall give firm and effective reassurance, especially to those who feel that they have been harassed by reason of their color or their poverty.
The court’s thinking ran counter to the minds of law-and-order political men like Spiro Agnew, the Baltimore County executive, and his more openly bigoted rival, George Mahoney. During the 1968 riots, which began in Baltimore two days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Agnew — by then Maryland’s governor — convened an audience that included Verda F. Welcome, a Maryland state senator; Parren J. Mitchell, the head of Baltimore’s Community Action Agency; state delegate Troy Brailey; and black members of the city council. (Walter P. Carter of the Congress of Racial Equality, the black Baltimorean most commonly linked to desegregating housing in the city, was always already off Agnew’s list.)
“I did not request your presence to bid for peace with the public dollar,” Agnew told them. Then he hectored the office-holders to stop bellyaching when fellow blacks called them “Uncle Tom” or “Mr. Charlie’s boy.” These city leaders recognized the difference between what the court hoped to preserve and the spiteful might that Agnew represented. Parren Mitchell, on his way to Congress in 1970, walked out of the meeting in disgust. The misalliance was called out in the Afro: “Agnew insults leaders.” Agnew publicly blamed Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown for inciting the arson and looting that would leave six dead, 700 injured, 5,000 arrested, and hundreds of businesses destroyed. If he could have put them both behind bars, he would have. Though he could not do that, he was quite successful in directing national mores toward hard punishment and prison for public disorders carried out by citizens pursuing racial justice.
Today’s interracial Baltimore police force stands accused of having a general “turn-up” policy, not just for houses but for people. Fred Moten, a professor at UC Riverside, has said that if urban-success models are linked to Giuliani’s New York and Broken Windows police tactics, then “we” — meaning black people — “are the broken windows.” The horrors suffered by Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima don’t have to be recalled to verify the error of criminalizing black citizens. But the strategy prevails in Baltimore, a city of about 620,000 where the Central Booking and Intake Center processes 73,000 people a year and commits 35,000 of them to the City Detention Center.
At a rally in May 2015, the spiritual brother of lost dope boy Freddie Gray (Save a Dope Boy was a local NGO) described the simplicity of being arrested in Sandtown. If the police ask you your name and you refuse to give it, you get locked up. (The Department of Justice found that in Ferguson, Missouri, a black man had been arrested for giving a version of his first name that differed from the one on his driver’s license. The crime? Making false statements to a police officer.) Though the police are violating the law, they’re not wrong; the young men they encounter on the Baltimore streets who look like they’re selling drugs are selling drugs. The only way the city police can bring “peace” to Sandtown is by selectively discarding the Bill of Rights and practicing war without end. Because the police department protects the historically white, heavily financed waterfront areas of the city against the others, the war must often be practiced with preemptive strikes. This is really the colonial model, where rule is simply the exercise of power without any law to gussy it. The power here is, fundamentally, to determine who lives and who dies.
Sandtown, North and P
Park Heights, R and G
Whitelock, Cherry Hill
North and Long and Dolfield.
Murphy Homes, EA
Poplar Grove and EV
Flag House, LT,
Alameda, Mount Street
Edmondson and Pulaski
North and Dukeland
—Big Ria, “Hey You Knuckleheads”
As children, we learned to survive bullies and predators, but the other lethality started for me at the end of junior year in high school, puttering around with my neighborhood friends in my dad’s Toyota. I had only a slight and vague sense of street-level law enforcement. Once, on the way to the Morgan University radio station for a Kwanzaa program, my cousin, a legendary teacher and activist known in West Baltimore as “Brother Charlie,” had described some of our relatives as “playing dip-and-dodge with the police.” Maybe I thought that was kind of hip, exciting, and strange. Defying and evading the police was distant from my life of algebra and Latin, “Din Daa Daa,” Sunday school, and wrestling practice. But my encounter with 5-0 in the summer months of 1985 was not an exciting game. When plainclothes officers threatened me with loaded guns at a stoplight and accused me of grand theft auto they seemed absolutely deadly to me. I was surprised to learn that policemen went undercover; I had assumed that the gunmen who took over the car were armed robbers on a spree. I otherwise learned from the encounter that you evacuate your bladder and bowels when you believe that you are going to die.
I didn’t know enough then about the nuances of the past to link the police to the slave patrol, but after that incident, shared with lifelong friends who lived in the row houses next to mine, and after being detained over and over in Baltimore, then in New Jersey, in Connecticut, and in California, in a car, on foot, everywhere, I understood. The slave part makes a difference, because slave legacy is a kind of nation, and all of us facing the law’s deadly force have this sense about who belongs to that nation and how we need them and what we need them for. The day of the Baltimore riots last April, Sandtown teenagers noted the slavery kinship alive again, the air of amity, respect, concern, and sharing. The tribal roots and metropolitan shoots of this legacy resounded forcefully in Big Ria’s B-More anthem, “Hey You Knuckleheads.” In the native idiom, the young girl heralded the sovereign land of the street corners and neighborhoods that dominate the black world and that the right-minded among us have been mostly successful in suppressing. The celebration of the open-air drug market, the bloody street corner, and the public-housing project is a reclamation of an ignored black reality, akin to the hidden world that was revealed by slave narratives, such as those written by Frederick Douglass.
The flairful badmen and sad martyrs haunting the landscape of Big Ria’s song always remind me of Booker Jones of Stricker Street, who murdered two white children and was shot by police who said he wouldn’t be taken alive. The boy killed at Harlem Park Middle for his Starter jacket. Craig Cromwell, my junior-high classmate who went to a rival Catholic high school. The assassin Dontay “Man” Carter, who targeted white men on his killing and kidnapping spree and briefly escaped trial by jumping out the judge’s bathroom window. The boy on West Lombard Street who drove over a police car and crushed the officer inside to death, and then got off. My running partner, Donald Bentley. The first guy gunned down at a telephone booth on my street the year I finished college. The dope fiend on Pimlico whom I overheard being leaned on before he was gunned down. The bloody brothers Tariq Malik and Ismael Malik Wilson. Champ and Darius (who rode his Honda Elite scooter in Fila slippers), the hustlers who protected me when I was a teenager. Brian Wolst, dead in police custody. Little Chris, killed by the police in the street. And when I was at home after the recent riot, a guy from my set, Byron Showell, a bishop’s son, also gunned down in the street. Of course we can’t stop death, but who wouldn’t want to know, as we say at home, how to carry that thing? The poet Sterling Brown wrote, “Lemme be wid such like men / When death takes hol’ on me.” Our lineages of ghosts and phantoms and spirits help us to manage the chaos.
It’s hard not to want our white fellow citizens to share at least this one dimension of our lives more fully. One Baltimore case I think about took place at a new café on Cathedral Street, in Mount Vernon. I was getting breakfast and I could tell that the people running the place were a family from Highlandtown or maybe Hampden, close-knit white enclaves set off by a peculiar accent, the one from the John Waters movies that people use to make believe they know Baltimore. The order was wrong and I sent the food back to the manager in an understated manner, but he was gruff with me in a way that went outside the rules for interracial peace in the city. He then proceeded to outdo his rudeness to me by being curt with the two muscular busboys, who looked to all the world like recent parolees. (We’d say they “just came home.”) We weren’t in the county, and I was amazed.
One thing that the writer Chester Himes observed during the Sixties and that I have noticed to be true for most of my life is that very many black people are willing to die before they will adopt the submissive attitude that they, rightly or wrongly, associate with what was necessary to endure under slavery. (Plenty of people refused to endure it then.) I had simply never heard a white man use an insulting tone that freely with black men who had just come home. On the news a few weeks later I heard that the manager’s body was found. Shortly after that the busboys confessed to executing him; their pictures were at the ATM. Dignity is another kind of national sovereignty we live in and protect.
The black neighborhoods of Baltimore — like Sandtown, which kind of runs between Druid Hill Avenue and Payson Street — are like that, too, like countries, defended lands. Sandtown has a historic coherence partly because it runs between Monroe and Pennsylvania, the famous boulevard for black life during a significant portion of the twentieth century, home to the Royal Theater, to musical genius Eubie Blake, to the bandleaders Cab Calloway and Chick Webb, and to Baltimore’s siren, Billie Holiday. It has also been for a long time a vibrant crossroads for adult city life, music, culture, religion, food markets, and narcotics. My favorite landmark is Everyone’s Place on North Avenue, a thirty-year-old bookstore run by Baba Nati that easily outdistances its early competitors like Liberation Books in Harlem or Pyramid Books in D.C. It is like a black-nationalist-bent mini–Strand Bookstore in a row house at Penn North. Everyone’s Place put an intellectual hub in the center of an all-black neighborhood. That is a revolutionary act when you live in neighborhoods where houses are the same price as Detroit’s automobiles.
On the other side of Gwynns Falls Parkway from Mondawmin is Frederick Douglass High School, among the first black secondary schools south of the Mason–Dixon Line and the alma mater of the black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. Neither Marshall nor Frazier attended this “new” Douglass, relocated in the 1950s as a kind of last gasp of the segregation era, but the school has catered to the needs of the western side of the city and enrolled students from many different neighborhoods, especially those in easy walking distance from Sandtown and Reisterstown Road. Traditionally, Douglass meant to us Westsiders what Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the home of so many basketball legends, has meant to black Eastsiders. The east–west divide of the black city was weaponized in the 1980s by a guy who came from out of town to popularize a radio show, but it took hold with the same intensity and imagined community conveyed by the names of the Los Angeles street gangs, which warped and fragmented young people in the 1990s. Today there is a deadly gang problem, with roots about as deep as a tweet.
But one of the real boundaries is concrete and steel. At the southernmost edge of Sandtown stands the Highway to Nowhere, a metaphor of the deliberate failure and bad faith of 1960s urban renewal. It is a mile and a half of sunken highway, pitched initially as a part of slum clearance, that stops and crescendos into nothing, a powerful symbol of political inertia because it is meaningless except as a mark of “vertical sovereignty,” a bulky three-dimensional underpass reminding the observant of the state’s ability not simply to remove and change the past but to control and categorize space, a monument to the imminent splintering that is such a dominant factor in black life.
Of course what is not really possible to understand about Sandtown is that it is, from street to street, an unending series of open-air drug markets and shooting galleries, of cat-calls for “boy” or “girl.” That means that when the police cruisers move out of sight, highly organized and commercially profitable narcotics exchanges take place. Disputes here are settled violently and fatally. It’s embarrassing to admit it, and easier to ignore the confluence of forces that creates something that is more or less unthinkable — that a quadrant of a major city operates precisely like Ciudad Juárez, and has consumed generation after generation, banging a gun for coke or dope, decade after decade. The narco trafficking has outlasted any known employment industry, empowering the ambitious entrepreneurs and chemically numbing the idealists. Prison, death, and impairment are the fate of both groups, as the young dealers become the users.
What was unbelievable about the April Uprising, what made it a genuine uprising, is that eighteen-year-old corner hustlers, dope boys, hoppers, curb servers, parolees, people who’ve never held a job and don’t anticipate holding one, typically don’t have enough invested in the state to riot against it — but for some reason now they do. When I visited a high school on McCulloh Street, at the edge of Sandtown, a school that embraced the students dismissed from everywhere else, and asked the teenagers whether they were ready to return to throwing bricks at police cars if there were an acquittal in the trial, two students swiftly piped up: “We is!”
The Porter trial reflected the same extreme views that now fully dominate American life and have failed to halt the cycle of entropy, malaise, and outright disaster. One brother I talked to at the trial was convinced that Officer Porter would receive a guilty verdict for police misconduct, since he repeatedly stated that he had violated circulated guidelines by not buckling Freddie Gray into a seat. Even on television, the police are known to punish people who run away, so on the street everybody believes that Freddie Gray wound up dying from a retaliatory “rough ride” in a police van. But after a day’s deliberation, the jury told the judge they were deadlocked. When another two days brought no movement, the judge declared a mistrial. One juror believed that Porter had committed no crimes whatsoever; conversely, another held fast to the idea that Porter was a killer, guilty of manslaughter. The state voiced its determination to retry Porter, and in the meantime went to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, delaying the trials against the other officers.
The six suspended officers might have been useful on the street during 2015, when 344 people were killed in Baltimore City — a per capita record — sixty-six of them in the Western District where Porter had once been on patrol, the deadliest place in the city. Only one in three of those murders has been cleared from police books.
There seems, really, no way out for Freddie and William and Marvin and Larry, if the economy grows or contracts, if we move beyond the inner city or not. Walking west from the Cold Spring subway stop after the trial, I talked with a Gray family friend, a guy who was now a politico with ties to evangelical ministries but had once run with the late Little Melvin, the drug lord reputed to have called the end to rioting in 1968. As he talked to me about other horrifying cases of wrongful police force, we passed the car wash, and boys raced fat-tired A.T.V.’s by us as night came on. We were not far from where crosses had been burned in the late Sixties to keep potential black homebuyers away, the teachers, postal workers, and steelworkers. Now I wondered about my mother’s block, with its aging homeowners born before World War II, with a house that is already boarded up. Who belongs to the generation prepared to revitalize the modest city neighborhoods that desegregation left behind?
So, in protest against the unjust killing of not just one Freddie Gray but generations of black women and men, and understanding that the remedy here is in the hinterland if it ever appears, a riot makes a lot of fucking sense.