I’m not a native son of Baltimore, but the city welcomed me and became a second home during the seven years I lived there part-time filming “The Wire.” I know the neighborhood where Freddie Gray’s tragic death took place. I recognize the residents, who may be materially poor but are spiritually rich. And I feel the parallels between Baltimore and my hometown of New Orleans: majority-black cities struggling to emerge from years of economic decline and high unemployment.
Both have police forces that have been repeatedly accused of abuse, overstepping their boundaries as civil servants and responding to the people they’re sworn to protect as if they had no civil or human rights. In the case of both cities, citizens have had to watch as outside interests invest in and develop parts of their cities without the involvement or interest of lifelong residents. It seems, sometimes, that gentrifiers think they’ve discovered and rescued some treasure that no one else recognized or valued. And when they see rioting, of the kind that we saw this week in Baltimore, it only reinforces their perceptions. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The working-class people of Baltimore love their neighborhoods, know how great they once were and how great they could again be. But the reaction to Freddie Gray’s death — mostly peaceful, sometimes violent — takes the form of outrage when their voices aren’t heard and their stories go untold. And I’m outraged that in a moment when young people in Baltimore have reacted to this tragedy, and everything that’s come before it, with their own outrage, that they don’t have better avenues to respond — and that the society around them seemingly can’t, or won’t, understand why they’ve responded as they have, even though we surely know why.
Ask economist Nouriel Roubini, who explains that in response to this crisis, the solution “can’t just be to send more police in the streets or the National Guard,” but instead, “We have to deal with this issue of poverty, of unemployment and economic opportunities.” Or you can ask West Baltimore’s Aisha Snead, whose assessment is: “They want to act like the CVS is the Taj Mahal. They have dilapidated buildings everywhere. They have never invested in the people. In fact, it’s divested. They take every red cent they can from poor black people and put it into the Inner Harbor.”
She’s right. Somehow we collectively arrive at moments, like the one now in Baltimore, having laid the blame for overlooked and underemployed Americans’ situation at their own feet. We don’t hold the interests who helped get us into the economic mess we’re in accountable, yet we waste valuable, and costly, civic resources needlessly criminalizing young men in the communities that have the least.
So what do we do? I believe that I, and other artists, have a role to play to help change the conversation around policy and its impact on the poor and people of color across the nation. I also believe that art, itself, can inspire young people to find more productive ways to express and respond to their frustration. I believe that artists can bring a different lens — literally and figuratively — to the challenges we face as a nation trying to move forward, even as we’re pulled backward by those who’ve benefited most from the current economic climate, who exploit every tax loophole they can possibly get while resisting even the notion of actually supporting increased investment in public works, schools, infrastructure or anything that might assist working-class citizens.
Almost a decade ago, we held a mirror up to Baltimore and with our art, helped show the humanity of a community now responding to injustice with protest and frustration. We answered those questioning “Why?” with complex examinations of the pathologies destroying our communities — pathologies that include the failure of the system to serve the people who are its constituents. At this point, it is willful apathy for anyone to pretend they don’t know the source of this rage and the spark that lit the explosion. We all know “why”— now solutions must be brought to the table.
First, we must stop the killing. No more bodies. Especially when we entrust police with the power of our law. Unarmed black men with a broken neck, shot in the back, choked to death before our very eyes — brutality like this should never go unpunished. We can never become desensitized to that. We should never lose the ability to be offended by watching the killing of another human being. And even though it shouldn’t have to be said, I’ll say it: I’m just as outraged when young black men kill each other as we are when our cops kill them.
I pray for Baltimore as I do for my beloved New Orleans, Ferguson, Cleveland and cities here and around the world. But I’m not just praying: I’m seeking solutions.
For their part, where there’s a breach of trust between the people and their appointed leaders, new Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Justice Department should move swiftly to implement consent decrees that memorialize real, immediate reforms that outline the parameters for police and citizen interaction in Baltimore or anywhere else where we see a pattern of misconduct or abuse.
For my part, as an artist, I call on fellow artists to continue telling the stories about the communities we’re from, but to also make our art matter in the communities we’re from, and to redouble our efforts to build up our local economies and give our neighbors a chance.
It’s why I feel fortunate to have been associated with projects like “The Wire” and “Treme” that don’t just entertain, but also tell stories that have previously gone untold and try to reflect, for our audiences, the very real struggles that many of their fellow Americans face every day. It’s why I also feel fortunate that art has propelled my involvement in projects like New Orleans’ Sterling Fresh Foods, a business investing in the neighborhood where it lives by selling quality food to and recruiting employees from, the local community.
I want to change the way poor and black Americans are seen by — and the way poor and black Americans see — their country. I know how cathartic it was for New Orleans when we staged a production of “Waiting for Godot” in two of our neighborhoods most damaged by Hurricane Katrina. My creative journey is fueled by deep love and respect for the people of my city and my country, rich and poor. I know we can do better. I hope, and believe, that doing so will honor Freddie Gray in the best way possible.