It was only a matter of time before Baltimore exploded.
In the more than three decades I have called this city home, Baltimore has been a combustible mix of poverty, crime, and hopelessness, uncomfortably juxtaposed against rich history, friendly people, venerable institutions and pockets of old-money affluence.
The two Baltimores have mostly gone unreconciled. The violence that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral Monday, with roaming gangs looting stores and igniting fires, demands that something be done.
But what to do?
Baltimore is not Ferguson and its primary problems are not racial. The mayor, city council president, police chief, top prosecutor, and many other city leaders are black, as is half of Baltimore’s 3,000-person police force. The city has many prominent black churches and a line of black civic leadership extending back to Frederick Douglass.
Yet, the gaping disparities separating the haves and the have nots in Baltimore are as large as they are anywhere. And, as the boys on the street will tell you, black cops can be hell on them, too.
Freddie Gray’s life and death say much about the difficult problems that roil Baltimore. As a child, he was found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood from peeling lead paint in his home, leading to a raft of medical and educational problems, his family charged in a lawsuit. His friends remember him as a smiling, friendly guy who liked nice clothes and deplored violence. His criminal record says he operated on the periphery of the drug game. He did a short stint in prison, and according to news reports, his mother used heroin.
None of that is unusual in the West Baltimore community where he grew up — nor are they unusual in many of Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods. The federal government has said that Baltimore has the highest concentration of heroin addicts in the nation. Gray's neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, once home to Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway, has more recently distinguished itself as the place that has sent the highest number of people to prison in the state of Maryland.
It does not stop there, despite ambitious city efforts to build new housing and focus social services in Sandtown. More than half of the neighborhood’s households earned less than $25,000 a year, according to a 2011 Baltimore Health Department report, and more than one in five adults were out of work — double the citywide average. One in five middle school students in the neighborhood missed more than 20 days of school, as did 45 percent of the neighborhood’s high schoolers.
Domestic violence was 50 percent higher in Sandtown than the city average. And the neighborhood experienced murder at twice the citywide rate — which is no mean feat in Baltimore.
So far this year, the city counts 68 murders, according to a Web site maintained by the Baltimore Sun. That is after 663 murders were recorded over the three previous years. That is a lot of killing, but not nearly what it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when the body count routinely surpassed 300 a year.
Most of these problems are confined to the pockmarked neighborhoods of narrow rowhomes and public housing projects on the city’s east and west sides. They exist in the lives of the other Baltimore of renovated waterfront homes, tree-lined streets, sparkling waterfront views, rollicking bars and ethnic restaurants mainly through news reports. The two worlds bump up against one another only on occasion. Maybe when a line of daredevils on dirt bikes — the storied 12 O’clock Boys — startle motorists by doing near-vertical, high-speed wheelies in city traffic, or when groups of kids brawl in the tourist zone surrounding the Inner Harbor.
Still, this leads to a lot of police interaction. When I moved to Baltimore after growing up in New York City, I was surprised at how often I would be forced to squeeze my car over to the side of the road as a police car, lights flashing and siren blaring, roared by. During my 13 years as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, I heard many people complain that when the police got where they were going, they sometimes exacted their own brand of justice.
Baltimore police have faced a series of corruption allegations through the years. They have been accused of planting evidence on suspects, being too quick to resort to deadly force and, long before Gray’s suspicious death, of beating suspects. Like police everywhere, they have been accused of routinely pulling up black youth. When he was a teenager, my own son was pulled over while driving his old Honda Civic on several occasions. It has gone on for decades.
Not long after I moved to Baltimore, my wife’s car was stolen in front of our house, which then was just four or five blocks from North and Pennsylvania avenues, the epicenter of Monday’s disturbance. The police came and asked the usual questions before my wife piped up, “What do you guys do to find stolen cars?”
One of the cops responded that the cars usually turn up a few days later when the joyriders run out of gas. Then, without irony or, seemingly, malicious intent, he looked at us — a young black couple — and said: “If we see a group of young black guys in a car, we pull them over.” We were speechless. Several days later, we were chagrined when my wife’s car turned up out of gas less than a mile from our home.
Now all of the pent up anger and bitterness has boiled over into the kind of rioting Baltimore has not seen since the 1968 uprising that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On the day that the nation’s first female African American attorney general took office, school kids led the charge as looters stripped and burned a defenseless CVS. Later, roving bands of people smashed store windows downtown and near the Johns Hopkins medical campus. A senior citizen’s housing project under construction in a particular desolate corner of East Baltimore was burned to the ground.
Hundreds of people — including luminaries such as Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — packed the soaring sanctuary of New Shiloh Baptist Church for Gray’s homegoing service. Many others turned out not because they knew Gray, whose death in police custody earlier this month remains unexplained pending outcomes of multiple investigations. Instead, they are concerned about what is happening to young black men in Baltimore and elsewhere. The pity is that more of us did not reach Gray sooner.
As Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) said: “Did anybody recognize Freddie when he was alive? Did you see him?”