Why the Baltimore Riots Were Not About Freddie Gray

by Guest blogger David Cashel

While you were asleep…

A mini riot broke out in Baltimore. Sure, it paled in comparison to South Central LA, but the message was the same. Were you listening carefully? Because I wasn’t. Yesterday however, I had a brutal wake up call.

You see, much like Rodney King, this political uprising had nothing to do with Freddie Gray. They were simply the proverbial straw. What happened in Baltimore was an eruption that has been brewing for over fifty years. A city simply does not forget 11,000 military personnel being deployed into their neighborhoods, or the corruption of Spiro Agnew. Even if they didn’t live through it directly, they know the story. They also can’t help but be reminded every time they walk down the street, what de-industrialization, outsourcing, urban blight and neglect look like first hand. This brings me to the phrase of the day: “No hope.”

When you’re basically unemployed forever, you can’t get out of where you are. You have no car to travel, no money for first and last, no ability to buy clean clothes for that job interview, etc. etc. etc. … Once you’re in the ghetto, you are probably there for good and so are your kids, and their kids. Your life may begin to spiral down into deep depression, and you may turn to things to help you self-medicate. Your kids see a life where giving up is a viable option because trying hard will get you nowhere. A new economy takes control, income based on vices. Drugs and prostitution become the only way to keep the lights on, until the very city, who’s poor development planning got you into this mess, turns off your water for non-payment.

Otherwise promising children lose an opportunity for higher education because of criminal records that they may or may not have earned, for charges that any reasonable people see as crap. False charges, planted evidence, crimes of desperation … etc. etc.

If you have never been to Baltimore, let me sum it up for you. Working class jobs once included the auto and steel industry, now it includes strip clubs and waiting tables. Good union jobs and textile jobs have been replaced with low paying janitorial and retail work … and you’re lucky if you can find one of these jobs because the unemployment rate is still near 9% while the rest of the state is at 5%. If you were to travel out to West Baltimore, your eyes would tell you an even more depressing story. Dilapidated housing, abandoned factories, empty store fronts, overgrown public parks … Words cannot begin to describe the conditions. We should be embarrassed as a nation that this even exists, and horrified that these same conditions can be found in many places in this country. There is no hope of making their homes better, no hope that someone is coming in to help, no hope for jobs, and no hope that they can ever escape.

I have a friend that I have been talking to about the civil unrest of Baltimore. I thought I had a good grip on the situation. I thought my outlook was fair when I looked at it from a distance. Sadly, it was not. I was so far off the mark I know feel like an ass. My original thought was that while I hoped the officers faced charges, I did not feel too terrible for Freddie Gray. After multiple arrests for narcotics over the last eight years, this man chose to continue down a dangerous path that would eventually lead to his death. However, since he died in police custody, and it is their job to keep people alive while in their custody, they had direct culpability in his death.

Then I talked to my friend, and one sentence she uttered may change my perspective forever. You see, she and her husband have won the game of life. They are both law school grads from a prestigious university (you can pahk your cah there). They have had in the past and currently have influential jobs. Their child, by any metric, is superior to almost every other child of his age. They have traveled the world, and she has checked off so many bucket list items, I think she just makes up new ones now … but they had grown up in a world completely different than mine. Because as African Americans, they had to be exceptional while their white counterparts could simply be a legacy to get to the same place.

This is where I was asleep. I often forget these very things. I forget that you can never stop thinking about race. I forget that there is still a huge divide, and we need to fight to bridge that divide. I forget that just because I don’t care what someone looks like doesn’t mean that others share my values and outlook. I forget that it is my responsibility as a white person who was brought up in a better time and place, to fight the battle of social injustice, ignorance and systemic racism that my forefathers created. As a benefactor of the system that was created to keep poor people poor and rich people rich, it is my job to help change the tide. My apathy and complacency makes me just a culpable as those who would be overtly racist.

I said to her simply that I hope the prosecutor succeeds, to which she replied, “I have no hope.”

That is when I woke from my slumber.

Affluent and educated, she is a woman that has a smile on her face that could bring joy to the most hardened. She drinks in life everyday. A great husband and an even greater legacy through her child … and yet, she has no hope that we will resolve an issue hundreds of years old that continues to stunt our growth as a nation.

Had Freddie Gray grown up white and ten miles further west, he would still be alive, criminal record or not. Had he the opportunity of a white suburban kid, he would probably have a college degree and be just starting out on his career path. Instead, we have yet another child of poverty, a young black man, dead at the hands of the very system that was created to keep success just out of reach.

For a woman who has sucked the marrow out of life, who has done whatever she has wanted to do through sheer force of her will, to still have “no hope” … she has made me realize that I have yet to become the person I should be. My parents raised me to be better than their generation by teaching me that race should never be a thing. They taught me to judge a person on their merits and morals. Unfortunately, because of this, I have become a part of the very system they fought, through my neglect. Why should I expect those who did not create the problem to be the sole solution to it?

Do I still have hope? Yes, but I know now that change can only be achieved by my own actions and words. Only when I take on the racist at the gym, the convenience store, at my own dinner table … only then can the wounds of the past and present begin to heal. Am I my brothers keeper?

Yes, I am.

David Cashel is a small business owner, and a Democrat State Delegate in Massachusetts.

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