On December 13, I broke off a little before the end of the powerful anti-police march in Baltimore to warm up with tea and chili at Lost City Diner. I passed a guy asking for money for a hamburger, and apparently the people right behind me gave some because he came into the diner and sat down next to me at the bar. I learned A LOT about Baltimore by talking to Billie.
He grew up in a neighborhood destroyed by the construction of the MLK highway. He told me about how easy it was to get produce on the Westside back in the day when the Arabbers were commonplace, before the City destroyed the produce wholesale market and the waterfront to build the touristy Inner Harbor. He told me about all the jazz and blues joints on Pennsylvania Ave, and how when the Palace (I think it was) closed, that was the beginning of the end.
My food came out before they even offered him water. I ordered us waters and he downed two and a half big glasses, clearly dehydrated. We shared the chili and a couple bananas, and still his food hadn’t come out. When he went to the bathroom, I asked the waitron about the status of my new friend’s burger. He made something up about having to start it over because the cheese had been messed up, then rushed back to the kitchen to put in the order.
While we waited for his food to come out, Billie, some of the other folks at the bar, and I talked about police brutality and the march as we watched cop cars with sirens blaring whiz by on Charles St. We talked about Tamir Rice– the 12 year old gunned down by Cleveland Police while playing in a park– and Anthony Anderson–beaten by BPD officers Boyd, Vodarick, and Strohman (all still on the force) until eight of his ribs broke and a lacerated spleen ended his life. Some of the people sitting at the bar had been stuck in traffic when we had blocked MLK, the highway whose construction had made Billie a refugee in his own city decades before.
When I told them about why we had blocked, they were supportive. Let’s not pretend that all or even most people whose lives are minorly inconvenienced by direct action are upset by it. If you were more upset by sitting a few extra minutes in traffic by people bringing attention to important issues than you were about the traffic caused by the mindless Army-Navy out of towners, no one should care about convincing you of anything.
His burger came out and we parted ways. I’m grateful for moments like these. We can heal this world, and this City, but only by listening and acting on what we hear.
Owen is an activist and ESOL teacher. He lives in and loves Baltimore.