May 2, 2015 by Julia
Right and wrong blurred for me this week as I watched Baltimore burning on TV. It feels different than Ferguson to me, because I used to live in Baltimore, and I still go to Baltimore, and I have friends in Baltimore. I am mentally exhausted from reading and watching and writing in circles, trying to wrap my head around what the meaning is – what I, as a white mother to two kids living in a nearby suburb, should learn from these events, and what I should do.
I don’t want to make this about myself, though. I am only inwardly exhausted. I am safe and well-fed and unafraid in my home and not arrested or brutalized. I have not suffered impoverishment or battled systemic racism against my family or feared for my life when I see a police car’s lights flashing in my rear view mirror. By the same token, I am not a police officer working dangerous streets or dodging the bricks thrown at me. I am not the owner of a looted, destroyed CVS in a downtrodden neighborhood. As many thoughtful writers have said this week in articles across the internet, it is not my place to tell any of the people directly involved in this conflict how they should feel or act. And it is definitely not my place to imply that I would make “better” choices in their situations.
I hope that if I were part of the police department, my conscience and strength of character would prevent me from succumbing to a culture of disrespect, systemic racism, and statistic-based promotions that look good on paper but undermine the community rather than serve it. I hope that I would be incapable of shooting an unarmed man in the back, or giving someone a “rough ride.” I also hope that if I were a young black man who had suffered a corrupt police force, as well as a culture that has historically robbed me and my ancestors of dignity, money, respect, fairness, opportunity, and countless other human rights, that I would not then set a building on fire and possibly endanger innocent lives.
But this is the America we live in. In our world, peaceful protests do not snap everyone to attention – violence, flames and confrontation do. The peacekeepers and volunteers would not sound so profound to us if they were not speaking against a background of smoking remains of buildings. News reporters would not flock to them with microphones in the streets if the devastation of that block had not just occurred the night before. Strong, inspired people have been talking this whole time, but now we applaud and listen because they are not throwing rocks or looting. They are heroes, now – upstanding representatives of their community in contrast to their violent counterparts – but what were they, before? People with ideas about how to change the world for the better that we didn’t listen to. People asking for help, stating truths about an oppressed community that we didn’t listen to.
Can we find a way to listen before the young rebels set things on fire, martyring themselves up to the city jails? I know they did wrong from a superficial standpoint, but they created a platform for things that America needed to hear. They did wrong, knowing where they might end up. They did wrong, but this is the America we live in, where people do wrong every day in order to win.
In our America, police officers are rewarded for numbers of arrests, no matter how that number is aquired. They are given fatal weapons and then have to deal with enormous amounts of stress, fear and provocation. They are encouraged to “teach lessons” to whomever creates a nuisance, no matter how slight, and to de-humanize the people they police. I can’t imagine that you can break an unarmed man’s spine while thinking about his identity as a human being. Especially when he has committed no crime of the evil variety. We are not talking about a righteous anger, here, or a sympathetic act of vengeance. We are talking about a disregard for a human being, a view of that person as something less worthy. But Freddie Gray had life, he had a story.
We must find a way to make the right actions win, to conquer oppression and evil. We must make our America a place where peaceful but inconvenient, impassioned protests are heard on a national level and taken seriously. We must find a way to reward good police work and punish brutality and repair the relationship between our officers and communities. We must relearn how to do the right things. To have faith that the right thing might prevail in America.
So what else have I learned from this week’s events? I’ve learned that I must challenge my own cynicism and fear when it comes to Baltimore, and to remember that the city is people, lots and lots of people, all with stories, all to some degree holding both shadow and light, like people of any other place in the world. There is no one true thing about every member of Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods, or every police officer working the city’s streets, or the people in its government. There is no one true thing to be said about groups of people with similar skin colors, stereotypes and racial jokes be damned.
I want to know individuals based on what they tell me and show me about themselves. I want to listen with an open mind, and with a surplus of compassion, remember the screwed-up context that we find ourselves in, in this America. In context, we are all guilty and innocent by different degrees.
Don’t get me wrong – I am angry on behalf of Freddie Gray. In fact yesterday, I thought I was done writing this post, but decided to first check the latest news. When I saw that of the 6(!?!) officers who were to varying degrees responsible for Gray’s death, one was charged with “Depraved Heart Murder” –something I assume that most of Americans, like me, have never heard of – I was relieved that justice appears to be on its way so far. But more than that, I was so angry I could no longer stomach what I had just written about compassion. I was afraid that it might sound as though I were making excuses for the police officers, whom have already had too many excuses made. I had to tear myself away from everything, with tears and frustration and confusion.
This morning the emotions have settled. I plan to keep reading the eloquent, powerful articles that are sweeping the internet. Here are some the best I’ve seen so far:
Nonviolence as Compliance by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic
10 Things All White Folks Need to Know About the #Baltimore Uprising by Jamie Utt for Everyday Feminism
David Simon Talks About Where the Baltimore Police Went Wrong by Bill Keller at Vice. (Illuminating interview with former Baltimore reporter and creator of “The Wire,” an acclaimed HBO series about criminal justice in Baltimore.)
American Mythology by one of my favorite online writers on social justice, Austin Channing
And I get chills (the good kind) when Ms. Mosby, the prosecutor for Freddie Gray’s case, speaks the truth with such strength of purpose:
I realize that the reading and writing and talking about it with close friends or family isn’t enough. I am still figuring out where I fit into the fight for change. I have never marched in protest or served the city as a volunteer, feeling too tired, too overwhelmed by my life, too much of a mother to young kids to get involved, especially if it’s a potentially dangerous situation. I know there are plenty of safe ways to help in Baltimore, though, and I plan to find them. There are people around me who are finding ways to help despite life, despite supposed threats, and I want to be more like them.
In the meantime I will continue to work on my own heart, dismantling my own prejudices and admitting when I have been wrong in my beliefs, stretching my empathy and imagination to new lengths. The critical analysis of one’s own belief system is intense and often humbling work, but from an entirely selfish standpoint, not even considering how it might better our country, it feels worth it for all the ways it will better my own life. I implore you to join me in the work of weeding and stretching your own heart. It’s a good place to start.