What Can a Person Do While Their Hometown Burns?

“This is one of our darkest days,” Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said this afternoon, perhaps understating things a bit as the city burned — and continues to burn. The thing that’s happening in Baltimore is so impossibly difficult for me to process. The question, for me, is not, “Why did this happen?” It’s the result of an obvious and intricate web of factors. The question isn’t really even a question. It’s a feeling, a nagging feeling like somebody trying to pull my heart and my stomach out of my body, and me being powerless to do anything about it.

First, I should note that I do not believe that the effect of today’s events on my life are noteworthy at all. Baltimore is dealing with extreme violence, the explosion of generations upon generations of resentment and pain resulting from inequality and racism and violence perpetrated by those in power. It’s very real, and terrifying, and heart-wrenching, and I can’t imagine what people living through this event are actually going through. But this is my stupid blog on my own damn domain, and this is where I need to work these thoughts out.

The thing is, this is my city, but I abandoned it almost exactly eight years ago, and today I feel distinctly shitty for that. What could I do if I were still there? Not a damn thing. But I abandoned Baltimore. I abandoned my hometown. And today, the city’s raw, festering wound has exploded, and its need for love and commitment are very real. Did I give it love and commitment? Nope.

I take pride in how much I’ve moved around. It’s part of who I am. I fell in love with New Orleans and adopted many parts of its culture, including (but certainly not limited to) coming to obsess over their football team when I previously had never even liked the sport. I’ve also brought bits and pieces of North Carolina and New York with me to California. But Baltimore is where I grew up, and though in many ways I’ve run from it for eight years, it’s who I am. Baltimore is my blood.

Today my city became a hashtag, a flash point for thoughtful people discussing legacies of inequality and the results of militarized municipal police, and for less thoughtful people to be lazily racist. (“You know who’s doing this?” I heard someone say today. “It’s those Baltimore thugs. They’re animals.”) The best people I know are concerned and — for lack of a better word — prayerful. The smartest people I read on the internet are pointing out the many complicated things that need to be understood about this situation.

Meanwhile, I’ve cried multiple times today and I still don’t really know why.

Being a white person from just outside the city*, who has left, there’s a weird sort of pride you take when someone asks, “Oh, you’re from Baltimore? Is it really like The Wire?” “Yeah,” you say. “Obviously I didn’t grow up with that, but that’s really what parts of the city are like.” You know who’s the most like Jimmy McNulty of anyone I’ve ever met? My ex-wife’s dad**.

It’s pretty obvious who does not take pride in The Wire references: those who actually live it. The city’s poor black folk, and its middle- and upper-middle-class black folk, and its cops, and its drug users and drug dealers and all those other “characters” that populate cities with Baltimore’s sort of tangled web of socio-political fuck-ups.

The theorist in me is always driven to be normative. I don’t want to be a sociologist or a journalist, simply describing the world around me. Those descriptions are being made, by dozens of thoughtful and incredible and dedicated journalists, politicians, preachers, and thinkers. The people on the ground are the ones living this, and I’m just a Baltimorean living in California writing on his blog at 11 p.m. (Follow them on Twitter, I’ll put links in a comment on this in the morning.) But I can’t be normative. I can’t talk about what should be or what needs to be or what we should strive for or what anybody should have done differently. All I can do is wear my Orioles cap and my Baltimore Bohemians jersey and obsessively check Twitter and, probably, cry again. And feel big and terrible feelings and not know what to do about them.

I guess the one normative thing I can suggest is for people on the outside of this, like me, to keep a sense of perspective and scale and nuance. Remember that you can be appalled by the violence but you can’t remove its context***. Remember that your experience is not the only American experience, and that resentment boiling over can create the nastiest burns. And remember that while the police are now in a position there they need to restore order, none of this would have happened if police officers — supposed stewards of law and order — would simply not kill people who are either unarmed or already in their custody.

But above all, remember to love. Love Baltimore, love your fellow human beings, and hope this ends soon.

* Yeah, I said it. I’m from the County. But I’m from Baltimore, and screw the narrow-mindedness that would argue otherwise.     

** I guess, technically, not really. But yeah.

*** Necessary disclaimer, here, I guess, for anyone getting worked up that I’m somehow excusing the violence. Tonight I’m sitting on Twitter watching news updates, and it’s just burning pawn shop after burning Rite-Aid after burning liquor store. Violence for violence’s sake — which defines much of today’s events — is needless and awful. But some of this is not that. Some of it is very much a reaction to violence, and that needs to be remembered.  Perhaps my biggest worry is that the former sort of violence is overshadowing the rest of this (both violent and non-violent) and is going to kill any chance for real justice to rise above the mess.

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